This is the second collection I’ve read recently which explores the theme of immigration although my reading experience for each of them was very different. I read a print edition of How to Pronounce Knife whereas Dima Alzayat’s Alligator and Other Stories was my first toe in the Netgalley water, although far from my first experience of reading fiction from a screen. I’ve resisted Netgalley for a long time but guessed I might have to get over that during the pandemic. Given that my problem with ebooks is that I find them less immersive, short stories seemed a good place to start and that immigration theme is always a lure for me.
Alzayat’s collection comprises nine stories the first of which, Ghusl, turned out to be one of my favourites. In it a refugee gently performs the ritual purification of her brother’s body after his violent death, remembering their story as she does so. Disappearance sees another sibling recalling the hot New York summer spent confined to the family apartment after the disappearance of a little boy and its grim consequences for his disabled brother. Only Those who Struggle Succeed is a quietly satisfying #MeToo story in which a woman remembers her young self as an intern preparing to cement her position at her company’s Christmas party and what came after while In the Land of Kan’an portrays the agony of suppressed sexuality as Farid remembers his first encounter with a man while his wife is away. In the heart-wrenching Once We Were Syrians a great-aunt tries to explain her rejection of a cry for help through her family’s story after reading her niece’s essay, pleading for understanding. Her aunt’s monologue is followed by Nadia’s essay, which makes you want to reread what went before, offering hope for future generations.
These are stories of family and dislocation, otherness and racism, often told through recollections in quietly understated, sometimes poetic language. Many are about women whose strength and resilience see them through the challenges that loss and standing outside the mainstream of society presents. Just one piece was problematic for me and, given the quality of the others, I’ve a feeling it’s the medium through which I read it. The titular Alligator is a lengthy jigsaw of a story made up of newspaper cuttings, interviews, emails and fragments of narrative which explores racism hung on the hook of the killings of an American-Syrian couple by a corrupt police force and its reverberation through the generations. I think I would have got on with this better had I read it in print form but read digitally it felt somewhat incoherent. This is an enjoyable collection, both hopeful and poignant. I may well have to get my hands on a hard copy to see how Alligator reads on the printed page
Picador: London 9781529029895 224 pages Paperback (Read via Netgalley)