Welcome back to The Aerogram Book Club, where Book Club editor Neelanjana Banerjee brings together writers and thinkers to discuss new South Asian books of significance every other month. Join in with your thoughts in the comments after reading the discussion between Banerjee, Saba Razvi and Tanzila Ahmed.
Ali Eteraz’s short story collection — Falsipedies and Fibsiennes (Guernica Editions) — explores outlaws, monsters, and mythologies. But these stories often have a specific focus: the world of Islam, the stories of men and women living, surviving, and being enslaved as laborers in the Persian Gulf, and immigrants from Pakistan to the US. Though these subjects are clearly Eteraz’s inspiration, his range doesn’t stop there and he also explores ancient times and Greek mythology — and supernatural beings — usually with an eye towards the intricacies and dangers of the erotic, and a firm interest in the voices of those who have been othered. Eteraz is author of the award-winning memoir Children of Dust (HarperOne, 2011).
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Neelanjana Banerjee: I found this book immensely readable because of Eteraz’s control of language and lightness. He brought the dusty and sanitized world of the Persian Gulf into exquisite focus with the same breath that he could describe a warring faction in Ancient Arabia, or a Polish diner on Coney Island. But what kept me on the edge of my seat was his weaving together of his different inspirations to create a collection that is unlike anything that’s out there.
Sure, Eteraz is tipping his hat to Salman Rushdie’s humorous explorations of Islam, Eteraz is tipping his hat to Salman Rushdie’s humorous explorations of Islam…but his range goes beyond Rushdie’s bombastic style and reminds me of Karen Russell’s short stories, bringing together fantastical elements with the everyday urges and relationships of men and women. (Also, the Pakistani American stories brought to mind one of my favorite post-9.11 South Asian novels, Home Boy by H.M. Naqvi).
I thought the collection experimented well through different genres, with dips into historical fiction (the long story “The Battle for Mecca”), crime fiction (focusing on the brilliant, dying fixer/private detective of the Gulf, Auntie, in “A Beautiful Woman”), mythology (embodying the Minotaur in “The Monster”), and even supernatural/erotica in “Volkodlok.”
My favorite parts of the book were the stories that focused on labor, love, and wealth in Bahrain and other Gulf countries — where Eteraz My favorite parts of the book were the stories that focused on labor, love, and wealth in Bahrain and other Gulf countries…uses his language to bring to life the setting, and also tries to expose certain truths about gender and labor. The opening story “The Woman in the Scorpion Abaya” is my favorite story of the collection, and worth buying the whole collection — both for its description of expat life in Bahrain, the eroticism of an illicit affair, and especially how everything is flipped at the end so that the story becomes a statement on the treatment of South Asian workers in this region.
Saba, I know that you use mythology as inspiration for your own poetry, and I’d love to hear what you think about Eteraz’s use of mythology in this collection. Also, Eteraz seems to really take up for the mantle of women in this collection — exploring their agency and sexuality in interesting ways, and I’d love to hear both your and Taz’s take on that. Also, as Muslim American women: Is this a book you would recommend to your wider community?
Saba Razvi: Falsipedies and Fibsiennes intrigued me and kept my interest There is a lot of dynamism and energy in the stories of this collection.consistently. The collection wasn’t one that I felt compelled to race through, just to get to the end, but one I wanted to savor and think about. There is a lot of dynamism and energy in the stories of this collection. Upon a second read, each yields an awareness of the complexity of their construction. I appreciated this ability of the stories to function on more levels than just that of their interesting narratives and unusual characters.
Some of the stories put me in mind of Borges, who also uses characters who can stand in for gestures of social thought or convention. The use of wide structures and ideas as items that play out in the dynamic of the character’s lives and interactions is what most drew me in to the collection. As a poet who plays with cultural mythologies, it’s unsurprising that I was drawn in by Eteraz’s conceptual gestures.
Some parallels might also be made between Eteraz’s work and that of Scottish-Asian writer Suhayl Saadi whose collection The Burning Mirror, like Eteraz’s, splices together Islamic or South and West Asian Islamic worlds within those of the Western paradigms that contain them; both seem to confront the residual echoes of imperialism and post-colonial awareness.
Gender seems to play a significant part in the narratives of these stories. Whether that gender dynamic addresses an Islamic heritage, a Diasporic heritage, or just the idea of gender within a globally connected world, we see that women and men can be clustered together in interesting ways in the collection.
Power battles between and within gender are prominently featured. Power battles between and within gender are prominently featured.Men seem to have privilege, but not always power; women seem to have power that comes from a lack of privilege, even when privilege of race or culture is presented in a story. Surprisingly, the men frustrate their own agency with ego. Women have power, but it’s a subversive power and it’s seldom used for “good”, though the intentions of most of Eteraz’s characters exist in morally ambiguous terrain where ideas like “good” and “evil” are intensely subjective.
This dynamic forces us to consider what values lie at the heart of any power structure in the Middle East, in South Asia, in a world interfacing with a mutable, non-unified sense of global Islamic identity — in any world containing people, perhaps. Scorpion Maryam enslaves Aesch; Auntie betrays Bhavan as her flatmates betray her as Shlipa betrays everyone; the Honey mother endangers her son in a nearly Munchausen zeal for the superstitious and saintly justification of the sanctity of her personal faith; Chashmebaddur agrees to play house with Hamid, loaning him her body and then takes it away from him when he has grown addicted to it; Bint defiantly covers her face as if she has no choice, when her father reminds her that she does, and performs her ablutions in alcohol just to thumb her nose at convention.
In the stories, it seems as if the women only get their power by innovative means, by means concealed or coy rather than by means that are overt or transparent; the women who follow the system entirely seem to be trapped by the system: those who chastise Bint in “The Hunter of Virgins”, those who chastise Auntie in “A Beautiful Woman”, those who ingratiate themselves to Aesch in “The Woman in the Scorpion Abaya”, those who seek the way of the saints without letting go like the saints in “Honey”. The men, on the other hand serve as a backdrop for the women who stand at the forefront of the stories, creating an opportunity through the male-dominated matrix of social interaction and agency for the stories of those women to emerge.
As an American Muslim woman, I would definitely recommend this collection of stories to others in the Muslim American community. It speaks to a sameness of experience and also invites discourse on the differences between the various cultures within those groups that are tied together by a heritage in the Islamic world.
The conversation about Muslim Americans often centers on veils and beardsThe everyday experience of most Muslim Americans living in diasporic communities is not one of such stark polarity…, on sectarian allegiances, on the differences that make getting along seem so difficult. The trouble is that the everyday experience of most Muslim Americans living in diasporic communities in the global community is not one of such stark polarity, but one filled with change and growth, with a spectrum of experiences and attitudes.
It is this spectrum that Eteraz really engages through these stories as he reminds us of the conflicts that stand in the way of unity by way of historical narrative in “The Invasion of Mecca”, or the battle between assimilation and tradition that brings into question how precariously reputation is measured in “A Lawyer in Islamistan”, or even the question of the nature of man as rooted in the characters of “The Monster”.
This collection exists alongside other provocative texts about the very real issues within the Muslim world like Saadi’s collection, and also like the characters in Michael Muhammad Knight’s fiction, or in Anita Amirrezvani’s fiction. It engages the kind of vivid uncertainty and inquiry that one might find in Craig Thompson’s graphic novel Habibi or Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis.
I believe that Eteraz’s book goes beyond the interest in cultural representation or provocation and seeks to raise not just the ideas that are contrary and inflammatory, but also those that What connects us to others in love and power and longing is often greater than the labels we use to understand the differences between us.are praiseworthy and noble in the world of his characters. It seems to me that by using these broad structures in his narratives, by giving us clear lessons to take away, and by alluding to a world that is populated by intensely contemporary and multi-faceted characters within the Islamic world, Eteraz is seeking, in his fiction, to move beyond just exploiting the problems of the cultures and is seeking to make connections that speak to global humanistic concerns that remind us to consider that what connects us to others in love and power and longing is often greater than the labels we use to understand the differences between us.
Tanzila Ahmed: After immersing myself in the world of Falsipedies and Fibsiennes, my immediate thoughts as I closed the book after reading the last story were: I need to go do wudu now, and Eteraz is a disturbed but brilliant writer.
Eteraz is known to not shy away from controversy with his written words — in his previous life as a blogger — and it is no surprise he has been attacked with fatwas for his so-called heretics in his past written forays. In this collection, he doesn’t shy away, once again. And it’s not a gimmick because the stories are very well crafted, albeit some of them are quite disturbing.
Whereas Children of Dust was one long narrative firmly This collection of short stories feels like Eteraz is playing with the global Muslim mainstream narrative and putting a mythological spin on it.rooted in an American Muslim memoir typecast with sprinkles of fantastical elements, this collection of short stories feels like Eteraz is playing with the global Muslim mainstream narrative and putting a mythological spin on it. He’s breaking out of the box. In this collection, he’s able to push back on some of the token American Muslim tropes placed on him with his previous memoir format.
When I was little and in South Asia, the only books I had access to were these Russian fairytales. The language was often simple, but the stories would take fantastical twists and turns. That’s a bit of what I felt when I was reading these stories — except, instead of a Russian setting, everything was placed in a cocktail of South Asia, the Gulf, Islamistan, desert, dogs, jinns and America. Each story had a distorted twist, not in plot per say, but in how the world in that tale is imagined.
The contemporary American Muslim narratives that Eteraz re-imagines the Global Brown immigrant story.have come out from the U.S. in recent years have been dichotomous: they either feed into the bootstrap immigrant model minority narrative, or they attempt to dismantle the narrative with an opposite story. There’s no room for play, for a sense of whimsy. Nor, I imagine, are there publishing houses that would be open to that kind of play for Muslim American narratives that don’t fall into that dichotomy. What I see in this book is just that: Eteraz plays with the Muslim myth. He re-imagines the Global Brown immigrant story. The moral compass is distorted. Islam becomes contemporary without being Western. He challenges wives tales. He imagines his own.
As someone who is also particularly obsessed with the myths (created or real) It takes a deep understanding of what is actually said by religious scholars and homeland myths to be able to turn it into a challenging narrative.around Jinns, my favorite story would have to be “The Art of Becoming a Jinn”. It had just the right element of almost myth to make you wonder where the boundary with fantastical was. That’s what I love about his writing as well as with G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen. In her book, she takes the reality of politics and Muslim mythos and intersects them in this really engaging way. Eteraz dances on that boundary as well. Writing like this fascinates me, because it takes a deep understanding of what is actually said by religious scholars and homeland myths to be able to turn it into a challenging narrative to make you re-think the roots of the “reality” paradigm.
You asked about gender Neela, and I really see gender roles as a glaring subtext throughout the book. Women are never the center, even when he writes in their voice. I like what Saba said, the men may have power, but the women have “subversive power” and it is “seldom used for good.” It’s like the women are the accessories, even in “The Hunter for Virgins” which is framed as a feminist-gone-bad story where there are no male characters.
I would definitely recommend this book, especially to people who love narratives at the intersection of fantastical and the lives of the Global Brown [peoples]. But I would not suggest it for people whose ideas of Muslim and/or religion are firmly situated in a place where imagined reality lacks. Also, if you were a fan of Children of Dust, and are looking for an American Muslim struggle with identity and belonging — this is not the book for you.
I think it’s about time, you know? To finally have American narratives that are like Wilson’s & Eteraz’s. These are stories that are needed to challenge what people expect to come out of American Muslims. And they are the kinds of stories that I wish I had, as a youth and now as a grown up — our own version of those Russian tales I used to read. But for people like me who look, think and have origins like me.
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Tanzila “Taz” Ahmed is an activist, storyteller, and politico based in Los Angeles. Tanzila “Taz” She was a long-time writer for Sepia Mutiny, was published in the anthology Love, InshAllah and currently writes a monthly column called Radical Love. Her personal projects include curating images for Mutinous Mind State, writing about Brown music at Mishthi Music where she co-produced Beats for Bangladesh and making #MuslimVDay Cards. You can find her ranting at @tazzystar and at tazzystar.blogspot.com.
Saba Razvi writes poetry and teaches English & Creative Writing at the University of Houston, Victoria. Her collection Of the Divining and the Dead is available through Finishing Line Press.
Neelanjana Banerjee’s arts journalism has appeared in Colorlines, Fiction Writers Review, HTML Giant, Hyphen, New America Media and more. She is the managing editor of Kaya Press, an editor-at-large for the Los Angeles Review of Books, and teaches writing through Writing Workshops Los Angeles.