The Sheer Weight of History is Found in Anis Shivani’s Anatolia and Other Stories, by Marian Haddad
Being the daughter of Syrian immigrants who made their way to Texas in the mid 1950’s, and being the only child of theirs born in these United States, reading Shivani’s stories calls up my immigrant parents’ ways and their desire to acclimate to this new land while staying rooted in their cultural traditions. Shivani’s stories juxtapose the deep and spiritual connections to ancestral traditions—with the very American reality of the daily life immigrants experience here.
Anatolia and Other Stories has allowed me to revisit the rich geography of existing in-between countries and cultural traditions, reminding me—it is possible to belong to more than one cultural tradition. It then becomes either a gift or an obligation or both to be able to ask, “What is a country?” and “How many countries can I belong to?” and “What comes from speaking or knowing more than one language?”
In addition to being a part of varied countries and cultural traditions, Shivani reminds his readers, via an important line in his story, “Tehran”, about the responsibility and import of opening our eyes and not “turning a blind eye to whatever outrageous violence has occurred the night before.”
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Shivani’s story, “Manzanar”— which revisits the sad reality of the Japanese internment camp in California during World War II—is a testament to Shivani’s not turning that blind eye, and though it was more than half a century ago that this atrocity took place, Shivani’s story shook me at the core and to the very root. When his characters in this piece shared their stories of having left all they had behind, some dying at Manzanar, never returning to the homes from which they were ousted, I was freshly stunned. These Japanese immigrants or Japanese Americans were, for all said purposes, “owned”—bereft of the freedom to remain living their “normal” lives; some of those who were marched off to Manzanar were not Japanese immigrants, but merely ancestrally connected to Japan. One such character is Jim Hosokawa, a character in “Manzanar” whose story shook me.
In “Manzanar” we hear, “How was it we thought we could become fully American, unassailably patriotic American, and get away with the illusion for so long?” Then Hosokawa gives us a specific numerical answer, “Forty-two years in my case.”
Jim Hosokawa, renowned Issei intellectual and community
leader, founder of at least five literary journals for exile-
minded Japanese over his lifetime, restrainer of hotheaded
Kibei too enamored of the emperor’s charms, one-time
manager of the most dignified hotel on the Seattle water-
front, importer of teas and herbs, exporter of machinery,
shipper, wholesaler, middleman, broker, insurance maven,
and icon of extreme moderation in all things worldly and
Olympian; lover of . . . middle-of-the-road politicians,
Mr. Roosevelt’s New Deal before it became old, improbable
dances, and peace in the world; and the single most
important moderating influence on the Japanese American
Citizens League . . .”
Another Hosokawa line that resonates powerfully is, “Some profile. Forty-two years of forgetting and not wanting to remember, then suddenly, I’m forced toremember. Old Japan, mist-shrouded Kyoto temples, houses frail as matchboxes, narrow streets that one traversed with the head down . . . and always a profound silence, which prevented coming to terms with history.”
I, myself, wondered—after having been freshly reminded of Manzanar, if the atrocities of 9/11 had occurred mere decades earlier, would my brothers and sisters, whoare now active participants in the American economy and long-time American citizens themselves have been called to their own Manzanar, their own internment camp? Would I, having been born in Texas, been interred?
And though post 9/11 brought horrific inaccurate imprisonments, and though many professors’ and physicians’ doors were knocked on by “authorities” merely because they were of Arabic or Muslim descent, and though great strides must still be made to achieve equality until all peoples are devoid of harassment caused by racial profiling, I was, somehow, more-than-slightly relieved—after reading “Manzanar”—inasmuch as we, thankfully, had somehow avoided an internment camp of our own, innocent Americans with connection to Arab ancestry, held for years.
It became startling to me, that it wasn’t so far-fetched to imagine that the knock at our own doors could have easily translated into all of us being led to a “small camp” for “holding”, leaving everything behind—mostly, our freedom.
Shivani’s story is all I could talk about for days, it did what good fiction should; it triggered response, engagement, and, in this case, active conversations “again” about how American citizens and resident aliens could be, and still are, arrested with no wrongdoing to call their own. “Manzanar” boggles the mind—that such camps could have existed under our U.S. Bill of Rights.
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Though Shivani is writing in fiction format, his stories are more than real; I dare say each reader will likely forget these pieces are written as “fiction”; this body of work comes across, almost throughout, as a collection of personal essays or a memoir, and no matter how old the realities are that are housed at the center of these works, they resonate with incredible power and relevance.
What these stories offer that textbook accounts do not—is the human component, the reality of personal suffering under the guise of a country’s “safety”—the reality of persecution. The personal component is not overlooked in Shivani’s work, but showcased, highlighted, made hauntingly real.
* * *
In “Dubai”, the first story in Shivani’s collection and which has been awarded special mention for The Pushcart Prize, we find Ram, an undocumented Indian worker in Dubai who has been able to continue work despite his lack of documentation, but “Something tells him he must leave Dubai before he’s made to.” We, through Ram’s eyes, are allowed to see Dubai through visceral descriptions as his story unfolds, “Not even Friday makes Dubai really slow down,” and “Already, well before noon, the most devout among the Emirati worshippers are making their way to the Grand Mosque, their flowing white dishdashas starched and sparkling, their headscarves tightly tied by the black aghal.”
Though the romantic notions are beautifully wrought, there is a line in “Dubai” that most haunted me after my own recent visit there—where it seemed apparent that there were a toppling number of Europeans, Latin Americans, and Asians making Dubai their residence, and nationals seemed somehow the minority. This haunting moment to which I am referring in this story begins with reference to the ancient Deira district, “Notices to tear down the ramshackle twenties building which Krishan’s shop fronts have been issued since the time the tallest building in Dubai was a few stories high, not even easily visible from the wharves.” This points to the old being done away with, at whatever cost—as new and shining streets, lined with skyscrapers, such as the famous Birj Dubai and Birj Al Arab, take their place.
On my plane ride back from Dubai, I was immersed in The Khaleej Times, reading through some numbers that seemed to underscore this socio-economic divide, substantiated right there on the front page of the business section, July 17, 2008, reporting in big bold letters the hopes that “Dubai residential prices could ease in 2010 on demand-supply balance” and went on to delineate that Dubai’s average house rent per sq. ft. in June 2007 was Dh1,291 and that the price per square foot rose to Dh1,818 in June 2008, a considerable leap over the span of one year.
This visitor, Marian, left Dubai with a sense there was, somehow, at the core, a quiet exit of many nationals. And this undocumented character in ‘Dubai’ made it clear that workers were needed to build ‘the new’—the desire to continually elevate the status quo, making room for the incoming wealthy, mostly Westerners, to take up residence in this fantastical land.
I recalled, vividly, this sense of desperation I had while observing Dubai itself, as Shivani’s character speaks, “But so much has passed away, so rapidly. In another generation—poof!—no one will have any memory of the ways of our forefathers.” The character goes on to say, “But this is all to the good. Sheikh Mo says we must be number one—in everything. There’s nothing difficult about progress. Only cowards are afraid.”
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So many stories in this compelling collection are worth recounting. This book almost makes it impossible to cover the plethora of compelling subjects it houses. One story, again, that called up the reality of my own childhood, though to a slightly lesser degree, was Gypsy and its very real reminders of the familiar immigrant cultures where fathers seek to marry off their daughters to men within their circle. In this story, the Rom (gypsy) father advises the young daughter, “They’ll visit to formally seek your hand.”
“I was thirteen,” the daughter reminds.
In my own story, I was fifteen or sixteen, perhaps, when “callers” came to pursue the daughter of a reputable Syrian-American man. By the time I was eighteen, I would say that a marriage to one of the “callers” would have been as welcome, if not more welcome, than an education, and my father was a lover of intellect and learnedness; but if a doctor from a good family called, this might be something I should “consider”.
Unlike me, the daughter in “Gypsy” does end up marrying; later in life, she finds herself alone, almost relishing that independence she initially craved, but had not been allowed.
In another shaft of light, Gypsy calls up the immigrant Rom men, from Hungary, in compelling dialogue. Uncle Vlad “talked about scoping out business opportunities in the big cities of the Midwest” . . . while the father of the thirteen-year-old narrator replies to a comment Uncle Vlad makes about Truman, “But his people helped us get over here. God knows what they are doing to our brothers in Hungary . . . if they’re alive or dead.”
What follows is a line that spotlights the immigrant spirit of resilience and tenacity in their quest to make a life in any land of opportunity, any ‘safer’ land. Uncle Vlad (who not unlike my father and my uncles who immigrated to the U.S. from Syria) reminds, “The Rom will go on until the end of time. We’ll figure out new ways to survive.”
*book review appeared in another form in The Texas Observer
Marian Haddad, MFA is a Pushcart-nominated poet, writer, manuscript and publishing consultant, private writing mentor, visiting writer, lecturer and creative workshop instructor. Her collection of poems, Wildflower. Stone., (Pecan Grove Press, 2011), is the press’s first hardback. Yusef Komunyakaa states that this collection, “…celebrates the observable mysteries of daily existence … these poems have dropped all disguises, and each rides the pure joy of music. There are superb leaps and silences that deftly highlight the monumental in simple things.”
Haddad’s chapbook, Saturn Falling Down, was published in (2003). Her full-length collection, Somewhere between Mexico and a River Called Home (Pecan Grove Press, 2004) approaches its fifth printing. Her poems, essays, reviews, and articles have been published in various literary journals and anthologies within the United States and Belgium and have been invited for publication in the Middle East.
Haddad has taught creative writing at Our Lady of the Lake and Northwest Vista College, and International Literature and American Literature at St. Mary’s University. Her works in progress include a collection of essays about growing up Arab American in a Mexican American border town. She writes a blog for the San Antonio Express News.
ANIS SHIVANI is a fiction writer, poet, and critic in Houston, Texas. His stories appear in Other Voices, Crazyhorse, Stand, Confrontation, River City, South Dakota Review, and elsewhere. A poetry manuscript, My Tranquil War and Other Poems, was selected by David Shapiro as the runner-up for the 2007 Marsh Hawk Press Prize; poems appear in The Threepenny Review, Denver Quarterly, Iowa Review, TLS, Subtropics, Meanjin, Verse, and other journals. A book of criticism, American Fiction in Decline: Publishing in an Age of Plenty, is in progress; essays assessing the current state of American fiction and poetry appear in American Book Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Colorado Review, Cambridge Quarterly, Northwest Review, Pleiades, The Antioch Review, Boulevard, and elsewhere.