In 11 short stories, Nahal Suzanne Jamir debuts as a fiction author of great strength. Jamir presents male and female, adult and child narrators with diverse voices. Her characters are immigrants and their children or unspecified Americans. When the narrator of the first story insists, “I listen to the world, I really do,” we do not doubt it, although there’s a touch of the surreal in each of Jamir’s stories. Her surreal, however, is closer to a near-real expression of the absurd or dislocating, and her deft handling of the fine line between the two marks this collection as original and rare. Imagine Persian folktales retold as prosaic bar jokes: a hundred birds walk into a bar. Or deadpan professors who believe they are Norse gods. Or a new species of monkey jumping up out of a newspaper to help a sleep-deprived father save his daughter. The effect is surprising and yet convincing — we are seeing the world through decidedly new, focused and multiple lenses in Jamir’s writing.
Each story contains terrific lines, the mark of Jamir’s poetic strength. A paragraph that starts, “Genetics of suicide, if laid out on a plate, are like a fancy meal at the steakhouse,” ends with, “Mountains and mutations. Separate but luminous,” giving depth and strangeness to a story of a young single mother using DNA testing to determine her son’s paternity. This same narrator, working the midnight shift at a gas station, has just discovered what we suspect will become her mantra when she vows to “start living for real” only to watch a TV show that tells her, “The light of the stars are dead.” Dozens of such crushing and oddly beautiful moments compose these stories.
Jamir’s prose has incredible rhythm, as well, building long lines to short as the intensity of her stories rises, peaks and diminishes. “In Perfect English” gives us a woman’s sudden last moments with language contracting to tight, short sentences as she lets go of life bit by bit. In a story about a professor, the tale is footnoted to humorous effect in perfect academic-ese. The title story, which ends the collection, reveals an immigrant perspective of story as mountain and listener in the center.
While each story in the collection stands on its own, there are common threads: both male and female narrators negotiate raising children alone, and adult children struggle with parents whose values arose in other worlds. Suicides and mental illness are a large part of these stories, but in how they influence survivors rather than in attempting a portrait of unfathomable mental states. Perhaps this is Jamir’s prime accomplishment, creating stories in which we equate terrible loss with a kind of creative liberation, the gift those who survive unpack in near-real moments that help them understand the edge their loved ones crossed.
Heid E. Erdrich is a poet and writer in Minneapolis.