Maids Are Family—Or Are They?

By Alexandra M. Landeros

Barefoot Dogs tells the story of the Arteaga family and their flight from Mexico to the United States and Spain.
Barefoot Dogs tells the story of the Arteaga family and their flight from Mexico to the United States and Spain. You can buy it at your local bookstore, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon.

Even though the stories in Barefoot Dogs, by Antonio Ruiz-Camacho, revolve around the members of a wealthy family that has to flee Mexico City after the grandfather is kidnapped, I was constantly drawn to the vital roles that the maids played. It’s no coincidence that the family tree at the end of the book includes the maids. The grandfather—the head of the family—along with each of his five sons and daughters had maids.

Maids were a central part of my life growing up in an upper-middle class extended family on my mother’s side in Mexico. Even though they weren’t as wealthy as the Arteaga family in Barefoot Dogs, there was a history of wealth. My mother’s maternal grandparents, Aurelia Diaz and Tirso Gurrola, were hacienda owners in Durango. Even though they were forced to flee to Texas during the Cristero War of the 1920s, when they returned to Mexico to live in Aguascalientes, they had enough money to purchase a large colonial era house in the center of the capital city.

By the time my grandmother took ownership of the house in the 1960s, she was married to my grandfather and had four children, including my mother. My grandmother ran a profitable flower shop, converting one of the street-facing bedrooms to the storefront, and by the time I was born in 1977, they already had a maid who was part of the family.

Blanca was the part-time flower shop assistant and housekeeper, eventually being promoted to the lead floral designer and part-time nanny. During the thirteen childhood summers I spent at my grandparents’ house in Aguascalientes, Blanca was the one who bathed me, cooked for me, and walked me to my folklorico dance lessons. She’d French braid my hair and put up with my whimsical requests.

I’d go with her to get fresh tortillas from the tortillería, to the corner grocery store, or to the paletería for Mexican popsicles. I spent countless hours with her in the flower shop studio, watching her make arrangement after arrangement, bombarding her with questions about everything under the sun, and listening to the Radio Uva station on the little black radio.

Blanca didn’t live in the house with us, as maids usually did with other upper-middle class families. My grandparents held her in such high esteem that they let her and her entire family live in a second house they owned within walking distance. Although she took on many of the responsibilities of a typical maid, she was never referred to as a “sirvienta.” At one point, they hired an actual maid to assist her with household tasks as Blanca became busier with the flower shop and looking after my brother and me during the summers.

We stopped spending summers in Mexico after I turned thirteen. I never kept in touch with Blanca. At one point, I learned that she had met someone and gotten married, which caused a major conflict with my grandmother. They had a falling out. She quit her job at the flower shop, and Florería Mayali shut down not too long after that.

By then, I was a teenager absorbed in the details of my own life. As an adult, I’ve often thought about what happened to her, hoping she is still happily married, maybe with children of her own. I don’t even know what happened to her parents and siblings, whether they were able to keep living in the house after the falling out with my grandparents.

My parents never had a maid—they moved to Los Angeles in 1976, shortly before I was born. When I was ten, my Mom befriended one of her coworkers, a fellow interpreter at the East Los Angeles Courthouse. She came from an upper middle-class family in Mexico City, and they had a maid named Julia. I remember hearing a story about how they smuggled her illegally across the border in the 1970s, crouched in the back seat of the car.

Now I wonder how she didn’t get caught—maybe they looked upper middle-class enough for border patrol not to search them, or maybe I remember the details incorrectly; after all, I heard the story nearly 30 years ago. By the time I met Julia, she was already a U.S. citizen, with her own bedroom, complete with matching white furniture and a frilly pink bedspread and curtains, and a massive doll collection.

Between the ages of 10 and 12, I spent a lot of time with Julia—she was my new Blanca. My parents had an active social life at the time, often going out with my mom’s coworker and her husband to parties. So my brother and I would spend the nights at their house with Julia.

We’d watch television and eat dinner with her. I asked her a lot of questions, especially about her real family that she left behind. Living in Southern California, it was also a period of time I was terrified of earthquakes. I have a vague memory of Julia comforting me during my moments of fear. But the only detail I remember vividly were Julia’s eyeglasses—they had her name etched in a gold, cursive font into one of the legs.

My mom has grown apart from her coworker friend. The last time I saw Julia was during a Thanksgiving we spent at their house nearly 20 years ago. She always seemed old to me. I don’t even know if she’s still alive.

If I managed to get in touch with Blanca or Julia somehow, would they be happy to hear from me? Was I as much a part of their lives as they were mine?

 

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Born in East Los Angeles, Alexandra M. Landeros moved to Aguascalientes, Mexico with her family when she was three years old. Shortly before starting the first grade, they moved back to the United States to the city of South El Monte, California. Alexandra continued to spend summers in Mexico and school years in the U.S. (with the exception of the fifth grade, which she spent in San Luis Potosí). After graduating from Carnegie Mellon University, she moved to Austin, Texas and received her MFA in Creative Writing from Texas State University. She has published articles in Latino Magazine and various Austin-based magazines and newspapers, and she recently published a short story in the Spring 2016 issue of Southwestern American Literature. In addition to writing, she has worked in marketing, public relations, and community outreach for various nonprofit organizations in the Austin community.
Alexandra lived in Austin for nearly two decades before moving to Arlington, Texas in the summer of 2016, where she now resides with her husband Daniel Reyes and rat terrier/dachshund Flaca.  She will continue to pursue publication of her short stories, and she is currently working on a novel in progress, as well as various film project collaborations with Daniel.

The Privilege of Going Home

By Alejandro Puyana

Barefoot Dogs tells the story of the Arteaga family and their flight from Mexico to the United States and Spain.
Barefoot Dogs tells the story of the Arteaga family and their flight from Mexico to the United States and Spain. You can buy it at your local bookstore, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon.

Home. Belonging. Being from a place. These things matter a great deal to us. Our homes wrap tightly around our identity, they help define us, they give us shape. Sometimes that shape is given gently, like a child licking an ice cream cone, and other times carved violently like lashes to the back. But a home exists for every single one of us, seven billion people on the planet, seven billion answers to the ever-pervasive question: Where are you from?

Antonio Ruiz-Camacho is from Mexico City, and you can feel the longing for his home in every beautifully crafted sentence of his story collection Barefoot Dogs.

The eight stories are all connected to one event, the kidnapping of José Victoriano Arteaga—the paterfamilias of a rich Mexican family who we never get to meet except as a ghost hiding between Ruiz-Camacho’s sentences. Each story is told in the first person, from the point of view of someone connected to José Victoriano (some directly, some a degree removed). The violence toward José Victoriano is so shocking that a family-sized diaspora occurs, hurling the Arteagas (and their servants) away from home to Palo Alto, Austin, New York, Madrid and beyond. This is a forced exile, and most characters in this collection are dealing with the desire (and the impossibility) of returning to Mexico City. It allows Ruiz-Camacho to explore some exciting themes: belonging, migration, fear, violence and escape. But the book shines especially bright in Ruiz-Camacho’s exploration of privilege, which—as most everything else in Barefoot Dogs—is not presented in the way one expects.

Most characters in Barefoot Dogs wear their privilege on their sleeve, and Ruiz-Camacho makes no attempt for them to confront that privilege in any real way. Take this passage, for example, from “Origami Prunes,” the second story in the collection where the narrator is about to engage in a passionate love affair with one of José Victoriano’s daughters, now living in Austin:

“I wondered if hers was one of those families that brought their longtime maids with them from home and then, once abroad, called them au pairs. I wondered how many servants she had on payroll before, how many remained, and if she cried at night for her loss.”

It’s an important decision for Ruiz-Camacho to have his characters be so unapologetic about their privilege, and one that gives the weight of reality to the issue. The fact of the matter is that the great majority of privilege goes unchecked, and the people who benefit from it have no desire to contend with it. The reader, however, is compelled to confront it with every turn of the page.

But underneath the obvious class and racial privilege that comes alive in the pages of the collection—mostly in the relationship between the Arteagas and the host of maids that play both protagonic and secondary roles in the stories—there’s also an undercurrent of a different type of privilege all together, and one that has not entered our current national discussion: The privilege of living in a country (like the United States) where the type of violence that befalls the Arteagas is mostly unheard of. It is something that everyone living in America, regardless of race or creed, should think about and be thankful for.

I grew up in Venezuela in a family not terribly unlike the Arteagas, with some of the same pronounced privilege. And Caracas is also not unlike Mexico City: in both places violence has become part of every day life. My own family’s history with violence would be considered unbearable to many: we’ve lost count of the times a close relative or friend has been robbed at gunpoint or beaten, and my youngest brother was kidnapped when he was sixteen and then held hostage again in his mid-twenties. Both times he could have easily been killed. The biggest difference with the Arteagas is that most of my family decided to stay in their home; I left ten years ago to attend graduate school in the States, another privilege shared with very few. But the truth of the matter is that my family’s trials pale in comparison with the vast majority of Venezuelans, the people who live with violence as a neighbor instead of being able to hide behind electrified fences and hired security. They pay their toll to violence every day. It is in this dichotomy that Barefoot Dogs does such a good job of shining a light on the Mexican situation—through every new story you read about the Arteagas you can’t help but wonder how the other side is doing, how those that have no recourse or means of easy escape deal with the brutality.

Violence is everywhere, of course, and the United States is no exception—and, as in most places, it is minorities and women who bear the brunt of it. But the United States is mostly spared from the brutal violence that is the daily bread of so-called “under-developed” nations. It is one reason why rich and poor people alike flock to the United States. It is why families risk life, limb and dignity to cross the border, work low-wage jobs and live in constant fear of deportation—even when they would like nothing more to return to the place they know and love.

You catch a glimpse of that side of the immigrant equation in my favorite story of the collection, “Deers,” narrated by one of the maids that travelled to the United States with the Arteaga diaspora. Susy was fired by Laura Arteaga and is now an undocumented immigrant working at a McDonalds in Austin. A bear has gone inside the restaurant the night before, and a crowd, including Susy and her friend Conchita, gather outside the building hoping to catch a glimpse of the beast. Somebody speculates the bear might have been kept as a pet in one of the nearby mansions, and Ruiz-Camacho deftly turns Susy’s thoughts into a reflection on belonging and home:

“I imagined the bear alone, forced to live in a strange place surrounded only by humans; I wondered if this was a young or an old bear, if he missed the company of other bears or if bears didn’t have those feeling; if they were lucky in that way.”

For these characters a happy ending seems to be impossible outside of Mexico. In the closing story of the collection (also titled “Barefoot Dogs”) Martín, José Victoriano’s youngest, is dealing with an unwanted life in Madrid, with a dying dog and a newborn son he can’t relate to. His doorman has just told him his own immigration story, and Martín reflects on it:

“I want to ask him if there’s a cheerful ending to the story…I want him to say that every immigrant story about people who have been forced to abandon the place they thought they’d always belong ends that way, on a merry note, but nothing comes out of my mouth.”

It is true that home is not something fixed or unchangeable. People can build a home, or find one—it happens all the time. But for a lot of us, no matter how hard we try, home is home forever. And leaving home with no real prospect of coming back makes a hole. It’s a deep one, and impossible to fill.

 

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Alejandro Puyana‘s home is Caracas, Venezuela, but he’s lived in Austin for the past decade. His work has been featured in Tin House, Huizache, The Huffington Post and other publications. He’s working on a novel about Venezuela titled Freedom Is a Feast. He lurks (and sometimes posts) on Twitter as @puyana.

An Interview with Antonio Ruiz-Camacho

By Nora Comstock

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Antonio Ruiz-Camacho

Antonio Ruiz-Camacho was born and raised in Toluca, Mexico. A former Knight Journalism fellow at Stanford University, a Dobie Paisano fellow in fiction by the University of Texas at Austin and the Texas Institute of Letters, and a Walter E. Dakin fellow in fiction at Sewanee Writers’ Conference, he earned his MFA from The New Writers Project at UT Austin. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Salon, Texas Monthly, The Millions, and elsewhere. His debut story collection Barefoot Dogs won the Jesse H. Jones Award for Best Book of Fiction and was named a Best Book of 2015 by Kirkus Reviews, San Francisco Chronicle, Texas Observer and PRI’s The World. It was published in Spanish translation by the author, and is forthcoming in Dutch. Antonio lives in Austin, Texas, with his family, where he’s currently at work on a novel.

Nora Comstock

How did the idea of this, your first book, come about? Was it something you planned or did it surface out of your journalism as a stories or experiences that begged to be told?

Antonio Ruiz-Camacho

It was unplanned and unexpected. I wrote most of the stories in the book while at my MFA at UT. Around that time —between 2010 and 2012 – the wave of violence in Mexico reached its peak. Hundreds of thousands of Mexican citizens were displaced as a result of the drug war, and many of them, across all social and economic backgrounds, sought refuge on this side of the border, leaving everything they had behind overnight. I grew haunted by the wave of disappearances, kidnappings and extortion ravaging the country where I was born and raised and where I lived until I was 28, but I was experiencing all of it from afar, while already living in Austin. I guess my way to process my sense of helplessness and indignation about it was to channel it in my fiction.

Nora Comstock

As the idea evolved, was there ever a time you thought of it as a novel instead of related short stories?

Antonio Ruiz-Camacho

No, never. I liked the idea of this being a series of linked stories, and that the threads that weave them together are sometimes evident, while other times barely noticeable. I never considered the possibility of turning this narrative into a novel. I don’t share the vision that turning a story collection into a novel is in any way an improvement or an upgrade, or that you are a better writer for writing a novel instead of short stories–that you may “graduate” from the short form once you get to write something longer. Both forms are incredibly wonderful and hard to write, but this every writer knows–the shorter the piece, the higher the stakes.

Nora Comstock

In what ways does your personal experience inform the stories?

Antonio Ruiz-Camacho

In the same way that any other fiction writer may write about the themes that obsess them. Over time I’ve realized I mostly write about things I’ve lost. There’s a lot of loss and nostalgia in my fiction, which is ironic because I’m one of those people who think, foolishly perhaps, that the best of everything is yet to come.

Nora Comstock

Did the stories change much from the initial writing? In what way?

Antonio Ruiz-Camacho

Some of them did, like “Origami Prunes” or “I Clench My Hands…”, but others didn’t. The final version of “Better Latitude” is incredibly close to the first draft I wrote.

Nora Comstock

What is the significance of the title?

Antonio Ruiz-Camacho

It’s right there in the last story of the book, for every reader to make sense of it.

Nora Comstock

Did you have to do research to fill in any of the stories?

Antonio Ruiz-Camacho

Barefoot Dogs tells the story of the Arteaga family and their flight from Mexico to the United States and Spain.
Barefoot Dogs tells the story of the Arteaga family and their flight from Mexico to the United States and Spain. You can buy it from your local bookstore, Barnes & Noble, or Amazon.

Most of my research usually has to do with geography, especially when I’m writing about places I no longer inhabit, like Mexico City, Madrid, or Palo Alto. I guess it’s a professional deformation coming from a journalistic background. I need to get the places where my stories take place right, even if later on in the process I will completely deform them or do weird things to them. For all the nefarious things the internet has brought about, Google Maps is a thing of beauty.

Nora Comstock

How long did it take you to write this book? Which was the most difficult story to write? Why?

Antonio Ruiz-Camacho

I wrote the first draft of the first story I wrote from the book around September, 2010. I completed the final version of the last story I wrote around March, 2014. The hardest one to write was “Origami Prunes,” or “the laundromat story,” as some readers call it. A lot of weird things happen in that story in terms of time, setting, character, voice. I struggled a lot finding the right ending to the story.

Nora Comstock

Do you have a favorite story or one that has stayed with you longer than others?

Antonio Ruiz-Camacho

“Origami Prunes,” for the same reason. I’m very proud of that story because it is outrageous and corny and devastating and unnerving and funny, all at the same time, and when I meet a reader who tells me it’s her favorite story from the book, it always makes me go all high-fives.

Nora Comstock

The characters in each story sketch the landscape of shock, fear, confusion, desperation, isolation, and loneliness of various family members, youth and adult, and maids who have to try to make sense of the a future that is nothing like the past. And the mistress must come to terms with explaining to her child, the story of his father. Did the characters come from your journalistic experience in covering stories in Mexico and other countries or did you create them to serve a specific purpose?

Antonio Ruiz-Camacho

The characters come to me in the form of visitations and stick around in my mind, haunting me, until I finally give in and sit down and start writing their stories. They come as they are, I’m not responsible for their personality or background or behavior. They don’t serve a specific purpose other than, hopefully, being memorable, or at least stubborn enough to harass me until I write about them. I’ve met people exactly like them in real life in many different contexts, both professional and personal ones, both in Mexico and elsewhere.

Nora Comstock

Did you have other stories that did not make it into the book or were these stories specifically crafted to illuminate an aspect of the situation?

Antonio Ruiz-Camacho

These were all the characters that came forward to share their stories with me. There’s a family tree at the end of the book that features other family members—domestic workers included—who do not appear in any of the stories. I sometimes wonder about them–how did the disappearance of the patriarch affected them or shaped their lives moving forward? It’d be nice to know.

Nora Comstock

How did you decide the order of the stories? Which was written first, last?

Antonio Ruiz-Camacho

I wanted to give the collection a tenuous sense of narrative arc, and I wanted to use the patriarch as a leitmotiv for the whole book. I realized readers would wonder about him–what happened to him in the end, who he was, how he came to shape his family and the people who worked for them. That was the driving force before the order of the stories in the book.

The first one I wrote was “Deers.” The last one, “Her Odor First.”

Nora Comstock

You were born in Mexico, when did you learn to read/write English? When did you feel comfortable expressing yourself in English?

Antonio Ruiz-Camacho

As any other Mexican middle-class kid, I attended bilingual private schools since I was in kindergarten, but only when I moved to the US in 2004 did I realize I was not nearly as fluent in English as I thought I was. I still don’t feel comfortable writing in English–I never will. What happened was that I fell in love with the language, its flexibility, its generosity, its playfulness. Each language is a particular way to see the world and engage with it, and I fell in love with the way I engage in English with the world that haunts me. Also, I love challenging myself, and the challenge of writing in a language that I’m constantly thinking will end up defeating me is intoxicating. I’ve embraced that challenge and that sense of discomfort.

Nora Comstock

Why did you choose to write this book in English instead of translating it from Spanish?

Antonio Ruiz-Camacho

It was not an option. I began to write in English out of necessity.  Back in 2008, I got a Knight Fellowship for journalists at Stanford. By then, I had been working on a novel–in Spanish–intermittently for almost nine years. When I finished it–or I thought it was finished–I began to submit it to contests, editors and agents in both Mexico and Spain, but nothing ever happened–I wouldn’t even get rejection letters. I realized I had to improve my writing, and decided to take creative writing classes at Stanford. The problem was, there were no classes in Spanish–the only options available were in English. I decided I’d take these classes anyway, hoping that they would help me improve my writing somehow, but I never once considered at the time I would end up writing in English beyond Stanford–let alone publishing a book. To my surprise, the feedback I received from the very beginning was very encouraging. By the time I left Stanford I’d decided to keep pursuing writing opportunities in English as long as these would make themselves available to me. Back in Austin I applied to MFA programs in Central Texas–regular MFA programs, all of them in English–and was admitted to UT’s The New Writers Project (UT Austin, and the English Department in particular, has been so supportive of my work–they believe in me more than sometimes I do myself). The rest, as the cliché goes, is history.

Nora Comstock

Today when you write, do you think in Spanish or English? The story named “Deers” brings learning a new language into focus as the Mexican maid who was fired found work in the fast food industry. She is trying to comprehend usages in English.

Antonio Ruiz-Camacho

I think in English most of the time, but my Spanish is always working in the background. Whenever I can’t find the right word in English, I take to Spanish, find the right word and then translate it back into English. From then on I try to find the word that best conveys the meaning and musicality I’m aiming for–in English.

Nora Comstock

I understand you will be in charge of translation of the book into Spanish. Will you be doing it yourself? One of my colleagues whose first language is Spanish says she will not translate her own English work because she always ends up trying to re-writing the story to make it better. Your thoughts?

Antonio Ruiz-Camacho

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The Spanish language edition of Barefoot Dogs can be purchased here.

The Spanish translation was published by Literatura Random House in Mexico in October, 2015, and by Vintage Español in the US in April, 2016. I was in charge of the translation. Before I started, I made a conscious decision that I would just try to convey the stories in Spanish as they were, without changes. The English edition is the original and definitive version of the book.

Nora Comstock

Do you have favorite writers whose works influence your own writing?

Antonio Ruiz-Camacho

The writers I first fell in love with, those I just naïvely wanted to emulate because I admired them so much, are, if you will, my biggest influences, even if such influence might not be clear or evident on my work. These are Javier Marías, Mario Vargas Llosa, Jorge Ibargüengoitia and José Emilio Pacheco. And Joan Didion. In The Year of Magical Thinking, she wrote: “I never actually learned the rules of grammar, relying instead only on what sounded right.” If I’m able to write a coherent sentence in English, it is because of her.

Nora Comstock

What do you want people to take away from reading this book?

Antonio Ruiz-Camacho

I want them to have a good time reading it. My hope is that these stories make them feel something – what, I don’t know, I don’t care, as long as the book moves them in any way. My dream is to tell a story that makes the reader turn to the person next to her after she finishes and say, “You need to read this,” because that’s one of the biggest joys I experience as a reader myself. That’s my only agenda.

Nora Comstock

How was the book received in Mexico?

Antonio Ruiz-Camacho

The comments have been overall very positive. Most of them have to do with the family and class relationships depicted in the book. Those who have read the book in Mexico have told me that they relate to the characters, or that the book feels distinctively Chilango (the demonym for Mexico City residents), which is great.

Nora Comstock

Given the violence in Mexico today, there is talk about citizens arming themselves for protection or creating their own protection systems. They do not trust the current system to protect them. Is this a continuation of the situation and even an increase of the drug violence?

Antonio Ruiz-Camacho

The Mexican reality has always been much more complicated than what it looks like on the surface, or from afar. At any rate, I’m not an expert on the ongoing situation in Mexico – after all, I left the country in 2001. I’m happy if the book creates an opportunity to discuss our Southern neighbor in all its complexity and sophistication, especially given the agenda that the current US administration is pursuing. But I like to remind myself and my readers that this is a work of fiction, and that the kind of exploration about human nature that fiction can provide goes beyond its own geographical limitations.

Nora Comstock

What are you working on now?

Antonio Ruiz-Camacho

On a novel set in different parts of Mexico in the late nineties. The protagonists are a reporter, his late wife, who was a photojournalist herself, and the rise of a new violent, nihilist group inspired by religion–but not the religion you might be thinking about.

 

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Dr. Nora Comstock is the Founder of Las Comadres Para Las Americas, Las
Comadres and Friends National Latino Book Club/Teleconference Series
and Count on Me: Tales of Sisterhoods and Fierce Friendships, the Las Comadres Para Las Americas compiled anthology. The National
Book Foundation awarded the book club the Innovations in Reading in
2014. Comstock was a partner in creating the Comadres/Compadres Writers Conference, which takes place in New York City at The New School. The first conference was held in 2012. In 2015 it introduced its first Writing Master Class. Comstock was recently been elected to a six-year term (unpaid) of the Austin Community College Board of Trustees.

Scarce Narratives: Muslim Stories More Complex Than Trump Can Imagine

By Syed Ali Haider

Buy it from your local bookstore, Barnes & Noble, or Amazon.
Buy Rajia Hassib’s In the Language of Miracles from your local bookstore, Barnes & Noble, or Amazon.

One of my favorite assessments of art is the Bechdel Test—a series of criteria that determine how successfully a work of fiction portrays its women characters. It has to have 1) at least two named women in it, who 2) talk to each other, about 3) something other than a man. If a work of fiction passes or not, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is good or bad. At least not in the sense that we normally talk about art. The importance of the test lies in what it says about the work of fiction’s perspective on the world—how it sees the world. The troubling thing about a story that fails the Bechdel Test is that, in its world, women are not prominent enough to exist in a world separate from men. If a woman does exist, her presence is only by virtue of her connection to a man.

I like the Bechdel Test. I think it is important. And I think art needs another, similar test. A Bechdel Test for non-white characters. To pass, a work of fiction must have 1) two named non-white characters, who 2) talk to each other, about 3) something besides a white character.

The United States is divided along cultural and racial lines. The loudest, most bellicose voice we’ve heard in modern politics now commands the most powerful country in the world, and he’s telling you that Muslims are dangerous. We’ve reached a point in our national narrative where the President of the United States is calling for a registry of and a ban on Muslims. Narrative matters, and Muslim stories are more important than ever. Vastly unrepresented in American fiction, the stories about Muslims we often hear come from the news. Stories featuring Muslims are more likely to be about terrorism than anything else. In a post-9/11, post-Trump America, Muslim narratives are scarce.

However, we’re seeing more and more of these stories emerge. HBO’s The Night Of told the story of a young Pakistani-American Muslim caught not only in the New York justice system but also in a maelstrom of anti-Muslim paranoia. He’s on trial for a number of things, but for the detective assigned to the case, Nasir’s Islam determines his narrative. We saw a similar narrative play out in the massively popular first season of the podcast Serial. In story after story, Muslims suffer and are interrogated because of their faith. But the power of these Muslim-dominated narratives is that they have the capacity to reshape the wider view of Islam in the world. Just like the art that passes the Bechdel test often gives you deeper, more nuanced women characters, these stories give us more complicated Muslim narratives than what Trump’s America imagines.

Rajia Hassib’s novel In the Language of Miracles passes the Bechdel test for non-white characters. It succeeds, however, in another way. The story demands that we pay attention to a Muslim-American family in grief. Although the narrative is not altogether new, it is one that is often unexplored from a Muslim-American perspective. It’s not just that they’re supporting characters, or that their lives exist only in opposition of a white person, but each of their narratives is fully fleshed out. The novel’s point of view roves from Samir and Nagla, the parents, to their youngest son, Khaled. With each of their stories, Hassib crafts unique Muslim narratives in reaction to a traumatic event. Much like Muslims after a terror attack, they are confronted, and by familial association, implicated.

The Al-Menshawys exist in a loop of fear and guilt that has become all too familiar for Muslims. In the wake of terror attacks, Muslims are regularly called on to denounce and apologize for their faith as though Islam and its 1.6 billion worldwide practitioners are a monolith. The Al-Menshawys’ eldest son, Hossam, murdered a neighborhood girl, Natalie Bradstreet. The family, in many ways, is held accountable and punished by the community. They are mistrusted and become targets of hate and online harassment. Unfortunately, this same narrative plays out for Muslims across the world. Hate crimes are on the rise. After the November 2015 Paris attacks, hate crimes against British Muslims rose 300%. The beauty of Hassib’s novel is that you’re brought into this family’s pain. You come to the other side and you’re forced to see the whites of their eyes. In a novel, monoliths come crashing down, and rich, varied stories are given their due.

With a memorial service for Natalie looming, the Al-Menshawys are noticeably not included. Early in the novel, Natalie’s mother visits the Al-Menshawys to explain that she no longer blames the parents, Samir and Nagla. Before long, her real reason for visiting surfaces. The memorial has become a public event. There are fliers all over town. While she’s not apologizing for the memorial, she quickly adds, “I do want you to know that this was not meant for you.” Samir takes her visit as an invitation. His wife disagrees:

“She was just being nice.” Nagla paused, raised one trembling hand to her forehead. “Because that’s how she is.”

Samir sat on the sofa, crossed his legs. “Twenty years in the U.S. and you still don’t understand Americans.”

The central tension of the novel begins here. Samir insists, against the will of his entire family, that they make an appearance, address the community and ask for amends. His wife, son, and daughter prefer a less conspicuous existence. They suggest relocating. Samir is stubborn. He stamps his feet. The family will go to the memorial, and they will go together dammit.

In the end, Samir subverts the Muslim narrative and confronts the world around him. He attends the memorial service with his reluctant family. In a world that demands from Muslims shame and condemnation, Samir holds his head up high. He chooses not to let his son’s crime dictate his present or future. He wants his community to know that he and his family are suffering.

When they finally exit their car, “[they] walked toward the heads now turned their way, against the outburst of whispers that exploded from the silence. Samir plowed through, his step slightly faster than usual, the increased speed recognizable only to those who knew him.” Rather than spoil the ending, I’ll instead focus on Samir’s audacity to be loudly and shamelessly Muslim. He pushes against expectation and decorum in order to grieve. He asks that in the wake of this horror, he and his family be allowed to have a space to exist. That they not have to shrink away and disappear.

 

syed-ali-haider

Syed Ali Haider is the Program Director for Austin Bat Cave, a nonprofit that pairs teaching artists with underserved and marginalized student populations. His work has appeared in Glimmer Train, Juked, and Cimmaron Review. Roxane Gay selected his essay “Porkistan” for The Toast vertical, The Butter. He is working on a novel. You can follow him on Twitter at @SyedARHaider, but his Instagram is more fun.