By Anar Ali. Viking Canada, 246 pp, $32, hardcover.
There’s an unusual brand of magic realism at work in this debut story collection by UBC creative-writing grad Anar Ali. Okay, strictly speaking, there’s no magic realism at all, but let’s relax the literary borders a moment and allow some free movement. A little blending never hurt anyone.
The magic half is apparent in the stories set in East Africa. (Ali was born in Tanzania.) In “The Weight of Pearls”, Shamshu is not like his loud, rude brother. Fatima sees this and tries to reassure him: “?”˜They’re not like us,’ she whispered, and then led him away.” Difference plays a pivotal role in Ali’s stories; some characters yearn for it, but most fear and fight it. Shamshu, buoyed by Fatima’s limpid love, finds the courage to shun her—he will be like them!—through his newfound ability to live for periods underwater. He has become a human on shore and a fish at sea. Baby Khaki in the title story similarly straddles two worlds: although human, she can nonetheless fly. Her nurse, Aisha, discovers her “pushing her way out of her baby-hammock, wings unfurled, flapping vigorously, and her mouth sucking the air as if it was a flaccid breast, desperately trying to fill her belly”. Aisha is sure Khaki’s parents will blame her, and she steels herself to return Baby Khaki to normalcy by any means: punishment, home surgery, kidnapping, or witchcraft.
The realism half is apparent in the stories set in Canada. (Ali grew up in Alberta.) Her intrepid refugees, displaced from East Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East, settle in Western Canada, surely an exotic locale by their experience. There, they apply themselves to the most magic trick of all: patriation. The climaxes that mark these stories speak to a quiet heroism, even as the narrators tend to come off as embarrassments or eccentrics or malcontents. The widow Zera’s hardscrabble daily ritual making food for the affluent Ismailis of Calgary is unforgettable; proud, indomitable, and faintly ridiculous, she is a fully realized and remarkable testament to our stubborn need to survive, every bit as admirable and fallible as Ruby, the real-estate agent who won’t take no for an answer in “Open House”, or the long-suffering gas-station owner Mansoor in “A Christmas Baby”. These are characters who straddle worlds. Ali’s confident renderings of them are magic indeed.
Anar Ali appears at the Vancouver International Writers Festival on October 19 at 1 p.m. and 8 p.m. at Performance Works.