Creating a World
July 17, 2010
Recently I finished The Inheritance of Exile, a book of closely linked short stories I had the good fortune to buy from the author herself, Susan Muaddi Darraj, at a local book fair. Published by the University of Notre Dame Press in 2007, it was a finalist in the AWP award series and picked up some good reviews, but it deserves more attention.
Set in South Philadelphia, the stories center on four young Palestinian American women, friends whose lives intertwine. Each character is given a section of the book, three or four stories, and in each section one of the tales focuses on the young woman’s mother. Shifting the point of view back to the parents’ generation is a great technique; it helps the reader put the young people’s struggles in perspective.
No violent dramas occur in this book. In fact, the conflicts are somewhat predictable—the traditions from the old country versus the demands of modern American culture, the identity problems of those caught between. The young women are also pretty damn nice, for South Phillyites. None of them gets into drugs. None of them goes so far as to slap her nagging mother. None even gets a tattoo. So the action is tame, you could say.
Yet the stories add up to far more than the sum of their plots. A world slowly emerges as the young people’s lives grow from and envelop those of their mothers, and it feels genuine.
I also admire the author’s quiet style. There’s so much showmanship in contemporary fiction that I find myself drawn to writers who can create a strong scene without overloading it with too-clever metaphors. Here’s the beginning of the story “An Afternoon in Jerusalem”:
“I wondered if I should do the melodramatic thing and burn Kareem’s picture. That’s what would happen in an Arabic soap opera, with an actress, her eyes lined Cleopatra-style (à la Liz Taylor) with kohl, sniffling as she set a match to the photo of her heartless lover, the flame reflecting dramatically against her hennaed hair. An American soap actress would do the same, tossing it into the fireplace and watching the flames lick and blacken his fair skin and blond hair. But my apartment didn’t have a fireplace, and besides, I needed to do something unscripted, hard, real, something that maybe hurt, like bursting a blister before the white liquid inside made it explode. It was still pain, but at least you held the pin.”
That bursting metaphor at the end is uncharacteristic of Darraj, but she earns it, building up through a series of vivid pictures. And though I might object that ignored blisters rarely “explode,” the image of lancing your own wound makes perfect dramatic sense here, leading into a story in which the narrator figures out how to puncture her inflamed memories of deceitful Kareem.
These are fine stories, combining to make an even better book, and reminding us that the best way to create a fictional world is often through the commonplace, the daily, the unadorned.