Monday, January 21, 2013

The 2012 Pen / O.Henry Prize Stories

Edited by Laura Furman, 'The 2012 Pen / O.Henry Prize Stories' see a panel of different jurors from last year- Mary Gaitskill, Daniyal Mueenuddin and Ron Rash. This selection holds stories that move all over the globe, choosing rather different settings and protagonists from the 2011 selections. (Read reviews here, here and here.)

Not liking all the stories. Some are, yes, the concepts behind them are strong, and many endings fade into obscurity, often letting the reader decide how the developments finally pan out. Favorite stories for 2012 have been voted and they are 'Kindness' by Yiyun Li and 'Corrie' by Alice Munro. I agree. The latter is a story I had read earlier. Way earlier, and couldn't place the book or journal. Li Yiyun's 'Kindness' struck a sad little note in how the protagonist Moyan's life in Beijing has panned out. However, it isn't necessarily sad for her though. She made a choice to stay single, and also not to love anyone. The author stated that this story was inspired by William Trevor's novella 'Nights at the Alexandra'.

Sometimes I wonder if I would have become her friend had I not met Professor Shan. Perhaps I would have subjected myself to her will as I had Professor Shan's, and I would have become a happier person, falling in love with a suitable man, because that is what Lieutenant Wei would have considered happiness. But what is the point of talking about the past in this haphazard way? Kindness binds one to the past as obstinately as love does, and no matter what you think of Professor Shan or Lieutanant Wei, it is their kindness that makes me indebted to them. For that reason, I know Lieutenant Wei will continue coming to me in my dreams, as Professor Shan's voice still reads to me when I sit in my flat with one of her books in hand. 
...For a moment my heart mourns for the passing of time as it has never mourned the death of my parents, or Professor Shan, or Lieutenant Wei. If I close my eyes I can hear again Nan's beautiful voice, singing "The Last Rose of Summer" at the shooting range, a random act of kindness that will continue living on in the memory of someone who is a stranger to her now.

Another poignant personal favorite is Hisham Matar's 'Naima'. It hints at a huge family secret through the young eyes of Nuri who resided with his family first in Paris as a city of refuge, then in Cairo. It was enthralling, and painfully poignant because I struggled to understand all the feelings the young boy felt. Having not gone through any sort of political turmoil, the stories previously read, and whatever else imagined would never be quite the same as understanding these emotions, much less empathize.

I could not help but feel that Mother's coldness towards Father's old Parisian friends was somehow part of a general unease that marked my parents' relationship to Paris. They almost never talked about their time in that city. And on the rare occasion that Mother did speak about how I came to be born there she would always begin by telling me how Naima came to work for the family. I did not then understand how this detail mattered at all to the story. 
She told me how she and Father had gone to Cairo expressly to employ a maid. And how, on the two-day drive back back to our country, thirteen-year-old Naima had hardly stopped crying. But every time they had tried to turn back she objected. 
Perhaps mistaking my silence for disapproval at the maid's young age, Mother said, "I wanted someone young, to get used to our ways, to be like a daughter." Then she stopped and looked at her fingers, and only when she glanced up again did I realize that tears had been gathering in her eyes. 
Eighteen months after my parents employed Naima, our king was dragged to the courtyard of the palace and shot in the head. Father was a government minister by this stage and, instead of risking ill treatment, detention or even death, he decided to flee to France. Naima was the last to step onto the boat, right behind my parents, pulled on board by Abdu the driver. They all stood watching the coast drift away, the smoke rise.

No comments: