To find balance in a changing world: Insomnia by Aamer Hussein

My introduction to Pakistani-British writer Aamer Hussein was oddly serendipitous. It came through an unsolicited essay submitted to me for possible publication at 3:AM Magazine. I had no sooner read the piece through before I ordered a copy of one of the short story collections mentioned. Then I wrote a letter of acceptance.

Born in Karachi, Hussein moved to London in 1970 when he was just fifteen years old. An accomplished writer, critic, and translator, influential in both his native country and his adopted home, his work is curiously underappreciated in North America. Yet his stories which so deftly capture the amorphous, shifting atmosphere of living a life that crosses borders and cultures in a way that feels both timeless and timely, draw on a wide and diverse range of influences:

I love classical Persian and Urdu poetry from Attar to Iqbal, from Jami to Ghalib and Mir, from Rumi to Faiz. In the Western canon, I started off being influenced by the plays of Ibsen and Chekhov; and the fiction of Pushkin, Kleist, Flaubert, Karen Blixen, Tennessee Williams, Cesare Pavese, Marguerite Duras – oh, so many. (2011 interview)

Although Hussein has more recently explored the longer novella form and has even begun to write in his mother tongue, Urdu, his short fiction is especially impressive and seemed like a good placed to begin my acquaintance.

Published in 2007, his fourth collection, Insomnia, is comprised of seven stories that feature a variety of Pakistani-born narrators or protagonists negotiating new or changing environments—travelling in Europe as Islamophobia is on the rise, adapting to life in London as a teenager, balancing political idealism fed abroad with a longing to return home, or slowly building a writing career against the backdrop of the Second World War, Indian Independence and Partition. A sense of displacement is common, as is a quiet, aching nostalgia for something that is missed but cannot quite be clearly defined.

The longest story in the book, “The Crane Girl,” is set in London of the 1970s. Murad has, like the author, arrived from Karachi at the age of fifteen to complete his schooling. He becomes infatuated with Tsuru, a mercurial Japanese girl several years his senior. With her he learns to smoke and listens to the music of the day—James Taylor, Carole King, Cat Stevens. But then, without warning, she disappears. Murad is at a loss, awkwardly trying to socialize with Tsuru’s former flatmates, a Canadian boy and an Australian girl, until he meets another Japanese youth, Shigeo. Seemingly self-assured, his new friend turns out to be a moody, manipulative boy with a penchant for Spanish guitar and an uncertain attraction to Murad.

This is a story in which, like adolescence itself, meanings and desires are murky, motives and truths are unclear. A newcomer among other newcomers, Murad allows himself to drift for some time before he begins to be able to set limits and pull away when his friend’s behaviour bothers him:

Murad didn’t like asserting his views and tastes the way Shigeo did. (Recently, when the trouble had begun between the east and west wings of Pakistan, Shigeo had asked him about the situation as if he wanted to pick a fight, and Murad had uncharacteristically retaliated by bringing up Japan’s treatment of Korea. But that was a long time ago, Shigeo said, Japan had learned its lesson.) What, after all, did they really have in common, apart from their loneliness? Being foreign boys in London? Their dark hair and eyes? It wasn’t as if Murad was planning to drop Shigeo: he’d just avoid him for a while. Their friendship had become too much like a habit.

And then, of course, Tsuru returns, as suddenly as she had disappeared, and the situation becomes more complicated. Again, just like adolescence.

The political and the personal overlap in the haunting “Hibiscus Days” in which the narrator,  dedicated to translating the final poems and fables of his friend, Armaan, finds himself lost to memories, mysteries and regrets. The story retraces the relationship between four friends, two couples, all from Pakistan, who meet when they are studying in England. When Armaan and Aliza decide to return to Karachi and get married, they appear to be opting for more conventional middle class lives while the narrator and his girlfriend who stay in London become more committed to a political idealism. The complexities of exercising one’s politics at home and abroad are ultimately thrown into harsh relief, in this sad and beautiful tale.

Finally, another outstanding story, perhaps my favourite, is “The Angelic Disposition.” Set primarily in Delhi, this is a female writer and artist’s account of  her life and career, directed to her friend and mentor, Rafi Durrani, an established writer with whom she had a writerly relationship primarily conducted through letters.

Rafi was of medium height and medium colouring, and he seemed surprisingly weightless. In his world darkness seemed not to exist. And yet I could recognise compassion in him, too: his wasn’t the wit of callousness or disdain. He wasn’t a Marxist; neither was I.

But to sing so blithely about love in a time before siege? Those were strange days. We—the scholarly, the teachers and doctors and lawyers—were trying to find a place in a world that we were increasingly aware was no longer our own; and we felt obliged to write about change, to write to change it all.

Rafi encourages her to write for children, sometimes adding illustrations to her work. Theirs becomes a friendship born of mutual respect. It’s not romantic, they each are married to others, but his willingness to listen to her and share stories about his own life is critical to the support of her career, which is, at the time, quite unconventional for a woman.

In any exchange of letters there’s a writer and a reader: this is invariable. It’s hard to explain. I have something to say, to impart, to confess. You listen. And sometimes you, too, start singing, your triumphs, your failures and your little tribulations. But you could be saying all this to anyone. You’re writing to make me write, that’s all.

After his early death, fighting for Britain in the Second World War, she continues to address Rafi, as an angelic presence and inspiration. He may be her hero, but her gift and passion for art and literature are her own and will see her through the difficult years of the twentieth century. The true strength of this beautifully crafted tale, lies in the quietly dignified and powerful narrator whose presence lingers long after the story comes to a close.

This is an extremely satisfying collection and I am certain that my first experience of the work of Aamer Hussein will not be my last. And, in case you’re interested, the essay that sparked my interest, “Silence as Resistance in Aamer Hussein’s Stories” by Ali Raz, can be found here.

Insomnia by Aamer Hussein is published by Telegram.

Musing about maintaining wellness on World Mental Health Day

World Mental Health Day. In the handful of years that I’ve been maintaining this blog, I have yet to stop for a moment to acknowledge this annual effort to raise awareness of mental health issues around the world.  In fact, I rarely address the subject even though mental illness, and the stigma it carries, has profoundly impacted my life. With significant costs.

And yet, compared to many of the people I have known, worked with, and cared about, I am lucky. I am capable of functioning well with medication and therapy. Mind you, I was well into my fifties with a ruined career behind me before adequate support for my bipolar condition was finally in place. It shouldn’t be so hard to access care, but it is, and continues to be so no matter where one lives.This morning, with another fresh snowfall on the ground, only a week after we were treated to an entirely unseasonal 40 centimetres of the stuff, I made my way downtown to volunteer with our annual readers’ festival. As I walked through the cold and fog, my mood was bleak. The importance of a strong social network is regularly stressed for the maintenance of mental health and well-being. However, in this city where I’ve lived for most of my life, I have no strong social connections. I have family, but we are not close. I have children—a daughter who is making plans to move to the US to marry her boyfriend and an adult son I live with who has his own long standing mental health concerns, but they really need to be living their own lives. Close friendships, meaningful relationships, continue to elude me. My closest friends, even my last partner, have been at a great distance.

A sense of loneliness, growing deeper and more pervasive in recent years, has become my most constant companion.

*

The city’s damp, misty streets seemed to feed negative ruminations as I walked. Much of a mood disorder is, to be certain, beyond one’s immediate control—my darkest, near suicidal depressions have come at times when things in my life were positive—but I am fully capable of falling into dark spaces when I allow myself to dwell on what I don’t have. My losses. My failures.

Fortunately, although the weather remained dismal, my day brightened. I made three runs to the airport to pick up visiting authors and, as a result, I was able to enjoy in depth conversations about life, literature, and writing with journalist and author Rachel Giese, and novelists Rawi Hage and Patrick de Witt. I was kept busy, engaged, and interacting with writers.  A good day—good for my writerly self and really good for my mental health.

So on this World Mental Health Day, I suppose I want to say that access to appropriate mental health care is vital. And for each person that can look  very different.  But the reality of living well with a serious mental illness, even with medical support, is a daily effort. For myself, being able to engage with others who are passionate about reading and writing is a vital part of maintaining wellness. It’s one of the factors that keeps me engaged with an online literary community, but it is always nice when I can enjoy a good conversation in person.

It’s in your genes: The Law of Inheritance by Yasser Abdellatif

Cairo can be an inspiring city, especially in winter. So I think to myself as I come home one evening. The microbus stops where the overpass descends to the street, rain pouring, Road 10 running beneath, the taste of a damp cigarette. Winter is, even so, like religion: both fit spaces for expressing emotion, sadness above all. A whistle lengthening then broken off: a soundtrack to the scene; a perfect summons to tender feeling for a tableau that has been generated thousands of times before and embedded in memory and which, when tickled by the tune, comes back to life.

The Law of Inheritance, by Egyptian poet and writer, Yasser Abdellatif, originally published in Arabic in 2002, and now available in Robin Moger’s crystalline translation, is a delicate, filmic ode to emerging adulthood set against the tumultuous political environment of Egypt in the 1990s. Drawing on his own memories and on mythically-toned stories from his Nubian family history, Abdellatif manages to spin, in a mere 94 spare pages, a richly textured tale.

The opening section, “Introductions,” sets the stage, sketching in fragmentary, third person passages, images of a young man, at various ages from childhood through adolescence, from grade school to high school, from cigarettes to hashish, to the University of Cairo where both creative and Leftist political energies will be sparked. His father is absent, forced abroad to find work, his mother fragile, and the weight of being the older brother rests uneasily on his small shoulders. This brief, cinematic prelude paints a minimalist portrait of the narrator who will soon step out of the shadows to carry forth his own account, framed within a multi-stranded evocation of contemporary Egyptian identity distilled to its most elegiac essentials.

The narrative is moody and melancholic, evocative of time and place, infused with memory and family lore. Architecture and addresses serve as conduits to a personal past—the Lycée the narrator attended as a child, the University of Cairo where he studied Philosophy and finds himself swept up in the fervor of political protests  in the early 1990s, the roads and byways where he and his friends lingered, listening to rock and roll and experimenting with pharmaceuticals. One has the sense of a slow, directionless drifting toward adulthood, which echoes and reverberates with stories drawn from his ancestral past and woven into the tapestry of this lyrical novella. As the narrator unspools his tale, he traces his family’s intersection with the city, with its streets and neighbourhoods. Relatives, pushed into exile from their native Nubia, arrive as social outcasts in the early decades of the twentieth century. Some find the promise of a better future; others find it more difficult to adjust. Yet for all of them, even the narrator and his father who are born there, Cairo seems to be a somewhat uneasy fit.

His grandfather does well. By virtue of his education, he chances to rise from a barman to an office worker, a transition that affords his family a move up in both social standing and neighbourhood.  However, it also loosens the restraints he’d previously maintained against his own religious inclinations, an enthusiasm accompanied by periodic bouts of depression. By contrast, Fathi, a nephew to whom he is very close, has quite a different experience. Given to the pursuit of carnal pleasures, he embarks on an affair with an Italian girl in the mid-1930s. This enrages her budding Fascist countrymen who chase him through the streets and eventually force him into retreat in Rhodes. Another distant relation will fall into religious fanaticism and madness, and will ultimately retreat back to the Nubian countryside.

The Law of Inheritance is a novel of exile—from a homeland, a city, a neighbourhood—that succeeds through its lyrical precision and its measured humility. The narrator warns against vanity early on, and he is, in his own transition to adulthood, neither hero or victim. Likewise, the men in his family whose stories are told without glory or pity. The result is a powerful, moving exploration of what it means to belong in a world that is ever shifting and changing shape.

The Law of Inheritance by Yasser Abdellatif is translated by Robin Moger and published by Seagull Books.

Neither here nor there: Esther Kinsky’s River and a link to my review at Music & Literature

Since I finished Esther Kinsky’s magnificent novel River, it has been difficult for me to contain my enthusiasm for this work, and yet, with a major review on the way, I wanted to refrain from talking at length about my reading of this languid, mesmerizing meditation on the relationships we have with place—those we live in, pass through, or linger in uncertainly during points of transition.  That review is now live, and yet Kinsky’s book is still working its way through my system.

River is a slow read; immersive, poetic, attentive to detail. It creates an atmosphere of intimacy with the spaces the unnamed narrator traverses during a time of restless displacement in a community on the edge of London; a time of gathering and preparation for leaving the city where she has lived for a number of years. Some of these spaces are immediate, defined by the course of the river Lea. Others exist in the distance, temporally and physically. And yet, although there are clear parallels between Kinsky’s own life history and the locations her narrator visits, River occupies an intentionally indistinct borderland between fiction and memoir, focusing on experience in the moment over biographical background and detail, resulting in a narrative that flows, organically, like the rivers than run through it.

My review of River can be found at the online site of the singular journal Music& Literature. The opening passages are reproduced below, you can read the rest of it here.

A mood, an atmosphere, rises up from the opening pages of Esther Kinsky’s River—a melancholy that unfolds so softly, so insistently that I repeatedly had to remind myself that I was reading words that originally existed in German. I found myself wondering: What would the German feel like in my hands? How would its texture taste, guttural tones against the back of my throat? These are questions that, in their asking, underscore how River is a text to linger in, to touch, to absorb, and recognize one’s self in. We follow the narrator as she temporarily suspends her life, settling for a time in a marginal community on the edge of London, so she can slowly disengage herself from a number of years spent in the city, and prepare, mentally and emotionally, to take her final leave. The process she details seems to be one we, too, undergo in reading River.

Under a pale sun and in the whitish, shadowless light peculiar to this place and these seasons, I took to following tracks which, time and again, led me back through the alder grove. This partly mutilated wetland wood with its childhood flowers and wild birds secretly appealing to my memory was my gateway to the lower reaches, to the path downstream that gradually taught me, during the final months of my stay, to find my own names for a city I had already spent many years labouring to decipher—names only walking and looking could force me to extract and reassemble from a web of trickling memories, a debris of stored images and sounds, a tissue of tangled words.

 

River by Esther Kinsky is translated from the German by Iain Galbraith and published by Fitzcarraldo Editions in the UK and Transit Books in North America.

To make the invisible visible: Brother in Ice by Alicia Kopf

Brother In Ice is an exercise in trust—a risky venture, not unlike the expeditions  into the  blank canvas of the polar regions that Alicia Kopf traces in the early chapters of her ambitious hybrid novel. There is a distinct sense that the Catalan artist and writer is thinking out loud, mapping her own haphazard journey across the page. She could have lost her way, slipped into a crevasse and disappeared beneath the weight of her own icebound mission. But no. What she has produced, in the end, through an eclectic and inventive blend of autobiographical fiction, arctic-inspired scientific detours, and historical diversions, is a thoughtful meditation about identity, family, and the challenges of trying to explore one’s self through art.

To dissect  Brother In Ice is to risk making it sound strange, possibly unreadable, but Kopf’s balance and restraint hold its often disparate pieces together. The opening section of the book, “Frozen Heroes”, reflects the narrator’s obsession with all things polar: shipwrecks, penguins, the anatomy of snowflakes, and, above all, the heroic, often reckless, rush to explore the furthermost regions of the globe and endure extreme conditions, all with the desire to lay claim to undefined spaces, explain mysteries and achieve impossible goals. To be the first. Grainy black and white archival photographs add to the accounts, but what allows such brief, nonfictional excursions to work is the author’s light hand and thoughtful voice. In these early pages we are also offered our first glimpse into the narrator’s family and personal life. In particular we are introduced to her autistic older brother:

My brother is a man trapped in ice. He looks at us through it; he is there and he is not there. Or more precisely, there is a fissure inside him that periodically freezes over. When he is present, his outline is more clearly defined; other times he’s submerged for a while.

He is interested in planes, trains, cars, cats, dogs and birds, inclined to watch them carefully and intently, but he is consistently unable to carry out ordinary tasks without  being cued or asking what he should do. His presence, in what is ultimately a broken family, is significant.

The scientific diversions continue into the second section, “Library Atop an Iceberg” but gradually the autobiographically toned fiction moves to center stage. After a rather defiant adolescence, complicated by negotiating the rough terrain between her divorced parents, the narrator makes her way to university where she persists in studying art and literature, worrying about the practicality of pursuing endeavours that are likely to be less than self-sustaining. She supports herself, first in retail and then with odd teaching jobs, has her first serious romance, and ultimately, her first art show. She travels, struggles to get along with her mother, and worries about what will become of her brother and her responsibility for him as he ages. The chapters, if you can call them that, are short, vignettes and reflections, played out against glacial motifs.

Finally, in the third section, she visits Iceland.

Throughout this unusual novel, the narrator herself is on a quest. She is not even certain what it is that she is searching for. Like the polar explorers, in pursuit of a shifting point on the ice, in a vast white terrain, she is writing in an effort to render the invisible visible. This is the artist’s quest—one in which the question may be as elusive and ill-defined as the answer. Near the end of the first part, the narrator admits:

I often find myself getting stuck in this project. I see nothing before me, just white. Yet beneath there are many things. The shrieking of seals. Was it the poles I wanted to talk about? Or is it just the image of the snow that fascinates me? Instability, confusion, cold (it’s hot), determination. Sensations that were the constant companions of the polar explorers, as well as those of us who work with the blank white page. Because I’m not interested in the polar explorers in and of themselves, but rather in the idea of investigation, of seeking out something in an unstable space. I’d like to talk about all of that as a metaphor, because what interests me is the possibility of an epic, a new epic, without foes or enemies; an epic involving oneself and an idea. Like the epic that artists and writers undertake.

Hers is a journey that resonated deeply with me. Especially as a writer working in the uneasy territory of memoir, I loved the openness, the questioning, the self-doubt Kopf allows her narrator (and presumably herself) as this odd creation takes shape. As her own questions and explanations start to come into focus, the layers of inspiration that preceded her quest, finally start to make sense. The beauty of this book is not simply that it is an intriguing and original account of one woman’s coming to terms with some of the unresolved fractures in her own history, it is a challenge to other explorers who venture forth with pen or paintbrush in hand to forge their own paths as they seek to tell their stories.

Brother In Ice by Alicia Kopf is translated from Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem, and published by And Other Stories.

Civil war up close: Blood of the Dawn by Claudia Salazar Jiménez

“Everyone who knows anything of history also knows that great social revolutions are impossible without the feminine ferment.”
.                                                                  MARX

 So begins Blood of the Dawn, the devastating debut novel by Peruvian author Claudia Salazar Jiménez. This slender volume that captures, at gut level, the horror of the “Time of Fear”, the years when the Shining Path insurgency was at its most intense is tightly bound to the intimate feminine experience. It is an exercise with little narrative distance—one that takes three women from very different backgrounds, closes in on their unique perspectives, backgrounds, and motivations, and weaves back and forth between their stories. When their disparate trajectories intersect, their individual fates, at least in that time and place, become shockingly similar.

In 1980, a  fringe group of Maoist terrorists stole ballot boxes and burned them in the public square of the town of Chuschi, setting off a time of fear and violence that would, over the next twenty years, leave 70,000 dead. Set primarily during the first decade of this “People’s War,” Salazar Jiménez’s novel is a bold attempt to give voice to those not often heard. On both sides of the conflict.

There is Marcela, a disillusioned, yet idealistic teacher who is seduced by the message of the Shining Path and its charismatic leaders. Abandoning her husband and young daughter, she joins the battle. Her first person account is reported from prison, where she looks back at her childhood, early adulthood and her time with the guerilla group. In the face of regular interrogation she is still defiant, still holding on to a loyalty that cannot quite be dissolved despite the atrocities she has observed, participated in and experienced. Hers is a complicated narrative that takes the reader right into the conflicted reasoning, force of conviction, and group dynamics that shape a terrorist.

The women advance, marching along the gray patio. The first of them holds a banner with the image of Comrade Leader. Honor and glory to the proletariat and the people of Peru. Hair trained under green caps. Red blouses. Aquamarine skirts to the knee. Marching in formation. Educated in the shining trenches of combat. Jail others call it; prison. All at the same pace. Give one’s life for the party and the revolution. Banners of red flags with a yellow star. Torches in hand. Rhythm. Rhythm. Rhythm. Drum one. Drum two. Drum three. The feminine ferment rising. We travel a shining path. We struggle without truce to the end.

The second character is Melanie, a young photojournalist in love with a female artist who has moved to Paris. She imagines that the conflict in the mountains holds the story she is meant to record. A city dweller, she is quite unprepared for the harsh realities she finds. Her story is told in a first person present that highlights both her passions and her naivete. She will discover that her camera is neither welcomed by the villagers she meets, nor does it provide a shield against the sights, sounds and smells that will come to permeate her very being.

The next hamlet is a cloud of smoke. It’s hard to make out anything clearly. My camera feels heavier than usual. That’s fine; its weight anchors me to reality in this spectral place. What’s left when everything is done? Nothing. Where should I go look now? What should my lens focus on?

Finally, the truly innocent victim in the situation is the Indigenous peasant woman Modesta, who will lose everything as insurgents and soldiers repeatedly cross through her village, leaving a trail of rape, torture and murder. Her account is reported in the second person—a startling powerful perspective—until, toward the end when she finds her own voice and picks up her own thread. By then we see her slowly finding a resilience and strength that is fragile and determined at once, caught in war that makes no sense to her.

Every day at exactly four in the afternoon, new words parade into your ears just like the terrorists parade every morning. That if the class, they say, that if the proletariat, they say; that if the revolution, they say, that if the people’s war, they say, are saying, say. You only nod in agreement, already tuning out. They speak of people you don’t know, a certain Marx, a certain Lenin, a certain Mao, and a certain President Leader who is boss of them all. We’re all going to be equal, they say.

The atmosphere is claustrophobic. Wound through the plaited threads of the women’s stories are episodes of unattributed stream of consciousness and short quotes from political and philosophical sources. Repetition is employed to reinforce the relentlessness of the savage violence, and the point at which the narratives of the three protagonists blur in identical experiences of excruciating violation. The anonymity of the moment is in sharp contrast to the differing paths that lead each woman to that point, and the diverging courses their lives follow afterward. In an interesting Translator’s Note, Elizabeth Bryer brings to light some of the challenges of reflecting, in English, the different voices through use of rhythm, ideological focus and cultural references as appropriate to each woman.

In the end, Blood of the Dawn comes very close to risking losing its impact with the bludgeoning effect of the brutal tableau that unfolds. Fortunately this a spare, tightly controlled work and, to its credit, one that raises more questions than it answers, even leaving its own characters uncertain. A brave debut, indeed.

Blood of the Dawn by Claudia Salazar Jiménez is translated by Elizabeth Bryer and published by Deep Vellum.

 

Suburban flaneuse set loose: El Cerrito by Noor Al Samarrai

Sometimes there is a remarkable serendipity in the way books come into our lives, perhaps at the right time, the right place or in the right company. I tucked Noor Al Samarrai’s El Cerrito into my bag as I headed to San Francisco last month. As a rambling poetic odyssey that slips in and out of the Bay Area, especially in its earlier—chapters? poems?—let’s say episodes, there was a certain geographic kismet in this selection. But even more surprising was the way this small, spare experimental volume paired so neatly with my other read throughout the same period—Esther Kinsky’s multi-layered, evocative novel, River.

On the surface, this might seem an unlikely confluence. Kinsky is only a few years older than I am whereas Al Samarrai is my daughter’s age (born in 1992). But I was swept away by both works which, at times, seemed to echo and reverberate against one another. Both women are poets and both gravitate toward a lyrical appreciation of the ordinary, everyday elements of their surroundings, at home and abroad. Both Al Samarrai and Kinsky, via her narrator, are restless wanderers, although the latter is a loner while the former typically travels with friends. They take regular excursions through familiar environments close to home—the suburban fringes of the San Francisco Bay Area and London respectively—and pilgrimages afar. Both take photographs. And both offer a thoughtful, often quirky, take on the world and what it means to be alive in it.

El Cerrito, from the inexhaustibly original indie press Inside the Castle, is a pocket-sized volume, designed with a lot of open space. What began with a couple of shorter, more confined excursions through the town of El Cerrito, California in 2012 and 2013, was expanded, over time, to encompass a broader area, within California and abroad, reaching into Sweden, Lebanon, Bosnia, Turkey and beyond to finally wind to a close in North Berkely. The journey is not exactly chronological, nor is it heavily orchestrated or forced. There is a casual, curious, yet introspective feel to the entries which are themselves generously footnoted with historical, biographical, literary, and linguistic references. Combined with occasional black and white photographs, these poetic musings become geographically defined intertextual weavings with layers of meaning that can be wrapped and unwrapped along the way.

Al Samarrai is a contemporary suburban flaneuse, another commonality she shares with Kinsky’s narrator. Both are drawn to those liminal spaces where the suburban meets natural environments. A series of poems trace repeated visits over several years to an area christened TEPCO beach for the fragments from a long since destroyed porcelain factory littering a stretch of waterfront. Sometimes it appears elusive, impossible to relocate. On the poet’s last visit, in 2016, the romance is gone:

Love wasn’t there.
May as well have been alone.
This place in my language: a kanji symbol
to tell someone you’re special,
dear to me. Meaning instilled
by visits spanning a season.
A season drawn out
into years, coated
in alternate weathers.

Connecting to others turned me inward, ultimately
an appreciation of beauty’s just not enough.

For me, one of the most illuminating qualities of El Cerrito, comes from the insights afforded by Al Samarrai’s Muslim-American background. A US-born child of immigrants who grows up to discover The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in grade school, her assured comfort in the country of her birth is altered at an early age:

One of the first few days of fourth grade was September 11, 2001. Mama touched my elbow before I clambered from her car that morning. Don’t tell anyone you’re Iraqi, okay? I didn’t understand why anyone would ask where I was from. What am I supposed to say? Tell them you’re Lebanese. Nodded empty assent.

that day, green knit jacket,
tag “MADE IN IRAQ”
scratched at my neck.

Sprinkled throughout this book are references to Arabic expressions and traditional foods. Her visits to Bosnia and Turkey in particular are enriched with footnotes that add interesting historical and cultural background. She carries a singular fascination with cemeteries and burial practices on her wanderings at home and abroad, and yet there is a youthful spirit and sense of adventure that speaks to equal measures of innocence and irreverence. Early episodes bring in friends, social gatherings, and love affairs, all tinged with the aroma of late adolescence, spiked with a thoughtful undertone that, at least for me as an older reader, brings back memories of the slow, sobering transition toward adulthood that takes place as you venture further from home in your early twenties. You think you are grown up.

And then you grow up some more.

The night we left there was a pink moon on a dusky turquoise sky, verging into purple (could I carry these colors in a suitcase?). At a Syrian-owned restaurant near the bus station, they gave us free hummus, salad, baklava. We gave our bread to beggars, and were given more. Nalini said it was because I spoke Arabic, but they didn’t seem to recognize me as an Arab. Or maybe true recognition’s casual. I didn’t then recognize the extent of the refugee crisis,* really, though I would come to that little by little, and then in deep gasps.

On the bus we were shushed for speaking loudly, giggled and felt very American.

.                    —“Road to Ephesus”

There is something slightly haphazard to the way El Cerrito unfolds. A series of geographically or thematically linked entries will be set apart by episodes that seem to fit nowhere. Brief reflections, set in a country or location that is never mentioned again, appear like random notes or a postcard tucked in here and there. This creates the effect of a book that happens as you open it. You can read it end to end, but you don’t have to. The empty pages invite a little doodling or random thoughts along the way. Because the greatest gift of a book like this—and this can be said equally of a longer, more complex and yet not entirely dissimilar work like River—is that it invites you to take note of your own environment, the people you meet, and the places you visit, and how they change and change you, over time.

* This was September, 2015. By August, 2015, the number of asylum seeks crossing into Europe illegally through Greece and Turkey had more than quintupled since 2014 according to a study by the European Stability Initiative.