Dima Alazayat’s Alligator & Other Stories is a collection that explores what it is to be a Syrian, what it means to be an Arab and what it means to be a woman in various locales about the globe. For the most part, the nine stories collected herein lie just the right side of excellent.
Any real discussion of this book has to centre – particularly in light of what is happening in America right now, this second (but also seemingly always happening too) – on the story at the heart of the book, ‘Alligator’, by far the longest piece here and also by some stretch the most audacious: what we have here is a 60-plus page collage of recollections and assorted media and newsprint primarily telling the story of a brutal racist sheriff and his attack on a shopkeeper and his wife. As you’d expect, the sheriff’s version differs from the versions presented by bystanders (and also the versions presented by fellow cellmates when the shopkeeper is removed from his cell later that evening and lynched). But even this is just the tip of the iceberg, with Alazayat travelling backwards into the previous century and tracing how racism has been endemic and also forwards a good few decades to see how the violence continues to have ramifications. Whilst it’s not quite a sustained piece of work, you can’t but admire its overreaching and anyway who wants fiction that just settles for the expected? Nobody. (Well, some people – but not us!)
As far as the ‘other stories’ are concerned, the book opens with two stories set in the North African city of Amman, ‘Ghusl’ and ‘Daughters of Manat’, both featuring a woman called Zaynab, in one as a sister and in the other as an aunt. In ‘Ghusl’, she is cleaning her brother’s dead body after he has been killed in what we presume is an act of violence. It’s short but full of humanity, suffering and grief, as you’d expect. ‘Daughters of Manat’ is somewhat more complex: Zaynab’s niece recounts tales of familial disregard and scandal, the one influencing the other, in a way that recalls My Sister, the Serial Killer:
“I don’t know how long young Zaynab had to endure her husband’s family. My grandmother would say two weeks, Zaynab claimed two months, but every day at sunset my aunt would escape her in-laws and return to her family. Each night she stayed later and later in her parent’s house, cursing both families and bemoaning her fate, crying hot tears and spitting at the floor, promising misfortune for them all. Each night she was dragged back to her new home, her hair wild and her voice hoarse.”
The third story, ‘Disappearances’, takes place in New York and concerns three children learning to play in an apartment block in the shadow of a disappeared child. It’s a doozy, with writing that is both funny and razor sharp. Here’s soe funny for you (the narrator is describing his mum):
“I hated her then in those moments, my larger-than-life warden, wide and rubbery like an inflatable raft sheathed in floral cloth.”
And here is some of the razor as the kids imagine the fate of the disappeared child:
“We imagined him stoned to death and buried alive. Burned in a fire as an offering to some cult god, his screams growing in pitch as the flames surged upward. We imagined him skinned and hanging in one of the meat shops in Chinatown, like a rabbit waiting to be friend or baked for dinner.”
‘Only Those Who Struggle Succeed’ is another story, like ‘Alligator’, that feels very now (or at least pre-coronavirus now), pitched half way between The Assistant and Bombshell, by which we mean to say it’s a #metoo story and quite possibly a Harvey Weinstein story. Alazayat gets into race in an interesting way, her narrator’s Arabic heritage seen as something to be effaced:
“Earlier internships… had indicated to her clearly and unmistakably that her passing was indeed essential to her success, and that without it, her climb, while not impossible, would become steep and perhaps without end.”
And yet there is wrath here, as there was in ‘Disappearances’, when the older narrator looks back with a desire to warn her younger self (by implication arming the reader with the sense of what she should have done):
“she longed to tell the younger woman to carry fire, soon and often, to tell the others, and to set alight everything she saw, to waste no time burning all her bridges down.”
Which isn’t to say that everything here is stellar – there are a couple of stories – ‘Summer of the Shark’ and ‘Once We Were Syrians’ – which aren’t quite as successful. The latter is the best of the two, featuring a conversation between an elder relative and a younger and offering a perspective on the recent upheaval the country and its residents have faced. No-one would dispute that what has had happened to Syria is terrible – but a story needs more than just a strong voice and a simple recounting of what we know. Some more of the humanity shown earlier in the book in ‘Ghusl’ would no go amiss here. Similarly, in 9/11 story, ‘Summer of the Shark’, the race issues handled so deftly in ‘Only Those Who Struggle Succeed’, feel less well integrated.
Thankfully the story that closes out the book, ‘A Girl in Three Acts’, is also one of the best: an adolescent girl navigating history and her own life as orphan in foster care, at school, travelling back and forth from foster care to uncle’s home. I could easily see ‘Girl in Three Acts’ adapted for a film.
Any Cop?: All told, it’s a bold and bravura debut, the arrival of a strong new voice. If you’re a fan of stories that take the entire world as their canvass, you could do a lot worse than Alligator.