Friday, January 21, 2011

Short-a-Day: Hisham Matar's "Naima"

Originally published in The New Yorker, Jan. 24, 2011. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 85.

The narrator of this story, Nuri, is writing mainly from an eight-year-old's perspective, talking about his Mother and Father, but the titled protagonist is actually the maid, Naima. Matar's moxie comes from the ways in which he hints at Naima's true role in the family: she was hired at the age of thirteen because Mother "wanted someone young, to get used to our ways, to be like a daughter," and as Father's old Parisian friend Taleb implies, she is actually Nuri's birth-mother: "Naima was innocent, of course. Ultimately, everyone is innocent, including your father." These facts, gleaned toward the end of the story but never implicitly stated (even Naima's morning sickness is given an alternative: sea sickness), give new meaning to much of the earlier parts of the story, from Naima's devotion to Nuri, the family's devotion to her, and the Mother's slow, silent illness (never given a name, it must be depression): 

"Don't transfer the weight of the past onto your son," [Mother] once told him.
"You can't live outside history," he argued. "We have nothing to be ashamed of. On the contrary."
After a long pause, she responded, "Who said anything about shame? It's longing that I want to spare him. Longing and the burden of your hopes."

All these hidden meanings, already stuck within the difficulty of making a cultural transition (to immigrant Arabs living in Egypt; the politics behind the coup that led to their flight are over my head), would make for a difficult story, but Matar focuses on the emotions between the family, and focuses the narrative around the central event of the Mother's death and funeral. The story is also filled with rich and interesting descriptions, the sort of "in a new light" sort of writing that editors should be looking for: "hands stained black-red, a rough globe dyed into the front of her jumper" [holding berries], "fog gathered thickly, abstracting the licks and sighs of the northern lights," "above us clotheslines sagged under the weight of laundry and veiled most of the sky," the pages of a book turning would become the sound of "a lazy breeze rustling a tree, or a broom brushing the earth. I hold the memory of her collarbone. I used to reach for it the way a rock climber would a sturdy ledge." 

The story is saturated in the way memories tie us together or bring us down: "I did not know why Mother looked better in photographs taken before I was born. I do not mean simply younger but altogether brighter, as if she had just stepped off a carrousel [sic]: her hair settling, her eyes anticipating more joy. And in those photographs you could almost hear a kind of joyful music in the background." As it turns out, some memories, even those that are obliquely hinted at, have a sort of universal resonance for readers, and that overcomes some of the harder to grasp complexities of a foreign life (especially theirs, thrice displaced). It's a rich and -- at arm's length -- sorrowful bit of fiction.

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