The stories here share an attention to issues of insider and outsider, whether, in its horrific extremes, this dynamic leads to minorities on a death ship, awaiting forced repatriation or extermination, or whether, in a too-familiar milieu for a certain type of short story, this dynamic plays out in a writer’s conference, the ubiquitous chatter laced with references to therapy and the praise of low-residency MFA programs. In one story, prisoners of an internment camp produce an overly earnest “newspaper” thick with editorials absurdly insisting that “we must be ready to resume normal life when conditions permit it.” In another—the one about the writer’s conference, patterned off of Bread Loaf in Vermont, we hear that “Sadie wrote exclusively about Central American refugees. Dylan kept volubly hitting on Sadie, still praising Max the gender-smashing silent poet.”
The problem with this collection is how much a product of such strange locations it seems—the writer’s conference, not the internment camp. While tackling international locales and the issues and internal worlds of immigrant workers and assorted nomads, all the while poking questions at monolithic claims about “the American way of life,” Anatolia and Other Stories skirts just above the level of the didactic, speaking too often in a voice of a wilted intellectual, someone taking refuge in libraries as true horror explodes beyond the walls, captured beautifully in the use of the Indian euphemism for ethnic riots, lynching, and mass rape, “these communal prejudices, these needless hassles.”
The characters here, while not at home in the writer’s conference, nonetheless seem to speak as part of a diaspora long-wandering from some promised land of workshops and, in one case, protests. Indeed, the U.W. Madison professor who has just adopted a Vietnamese boy embodies an essential inertia of this book, a kind of surrender, draped in nostalgia. “Protest,” he claims, “had none of the life-and-death value it used to have during Vietnam. It was now entirely a vicarious operation. None of these nice kids was going to suffer or die because of our policies. It meant nothing.” While the trajectory of this story, “Profession,” crests toward some true education for this professor, the tone of meaninglessness still predominates, and more attention is given to the margins of the English department than to the realities lurking behind, for instance, the adopted boy’s declaration
that he wanted to forget his past, his homeland, his whole previous life, and start with a fresh slate. It had been an astounding statement. Where had he learned such a complex and mature thought? Had his master at the Hanoi orphanage, where Nam Loc had managed to thrive for two years after his parents died, trained him to say this to his new guardians? Lauren would know what to make of this near-Gothic eruption. Although nominally a professor in the English department, where in the affluent sixties she had held forth on the silences of the female-authored Victorian novel, Lauren was all over the place now: pulp fiction, Hollywood, sitcoms, billboards, and internet chat rooms. In the age of cultural studies and theory, it was what one did to maintain currency.
And so we travel to a lecture, witness discourse getting discoursed about, and the old professor falls asleep in the pillowy moment. Shivani doubtless has a razorblade of critique wedged inside that pillow, but it takes some sitting to find it. The following story, “Go Sell It On the Mountain,” about the writer’s conference, voices a critique clearly, but this critique itself is distanced, padded, delivered by a New York wunderkind, a Cameroonian novelist identified by the narrator as wearing, every day “a miraculously ballsy outfit, never with a bra.” This narrator, as obvious from that description, might not be much of a writer, but he simultaneously believes that “real artists…were naturally forged from the flux and flow of normal stressful life” and has paid “three thousand dollars, all told, for the right to be at the Conference.” So he can be there as participants faint from the strain of so many readings and workshops, as participants line up for autographs, and as that New Yorker from Cameroon stands to declare that each year’s event is the same as the last, an instantiation of absurd insulation, a gathering where
Everyone will think the short story is the art form par excellence. Experimentalism will be in vogue. There will be declamations of the unfortunate current tendency to introduce politics into art…. Agents will try to convince us that publication is not the important thing, perfecting our craft is. The merits of low-residency writing programs will be articulated by recent graduates. There’ll be humorous Homeland Security and Sexual Transgression readings…. Veteran faculty will hang out only with their kind, as will younger faculty. Fellows will try to exclude waiters from their parties, waiters will try to exclude scholars, and scholars will try to exclude paying contributors. Someone will be caught fucking in the laundry room after a week. Two minority girls will faint in the Frost Theater during the first days, only to be rescued by white male doctors in the audience. A middle-aged housewife will break down at a reading by a poet of color. The bookstore will run out of books to be signed by novelists. Most people will get drunk, but almost no one will really make a fool of themselves.
Like the protest in Madison that the professor bumps into, this voicing of truths leads to no change. The status quo—while diverse, shifting from Tehran to America, Dubai to that boat full of refugees—resists assaults and replicates itself. Each year the conference is the same, a continuation of tradition, a zealous commitment to the rituals of a specific minority group awash in the wider world. Shivani’s collection ties various examples of such communities, such experiences, together, but this book reads, too, like a string of voices testifying to their own trapped conditions, whether on a death ship, in a prison camp, a writer’s retreat, an academic career, or, as one library-bound exile writes, “Indianapolis…the reviled, bland Midwestern city that outré writers like Kurt Vonnegut have targeted for satire over these recurrently sad late twentieth-century decades.” This, ultimately, is the voice of Anatolia, a voice erudite just to the point of uselessness, not so much naïve in opinion as blinded by one opinionated state; a voice expressing desperation in a variety of its quieter tones.