Anatolia and Other Stories
by Anis Shivani
Black Lawrence Press, 2009
266 pages 
Reviewed by Skip Renker

These fine stories, all published within the past three years in literary magazines, display an impressively rendered range of locales, from Dubai to Tehran to India’s Pondicherry, from Houston to Boston, from Anatolia in the 16th Century Ottoman Empire to Manzanar, the Japanese internment camp of WW2.  The collection, however, is far richer than a mere travelogue; these places, often exotic on the surface, are inhabited by believable, complex characters, sensitive men and women whose personal lives intersect with the vicissitudes of history—they must compromise with the secret police, adjust to the shifting fiats of Ayatollahs, suppress gypsy heritage in order to fit in with Indiana's mores, even spy for the authorities.  Principalities, powers, and the characters' troubled psyches create tensions between thought and genuine feeling; reality and the imagination; memory and the present moment; and perhaps especially, and explicitly in "Tehran," tensions between the "hidden" and the "apparent self."  A better world might help us find something like wholeness, a balance between these opposites, but Shivani's real world shows how history and human proclivities lead to imbalance and distortion in both the public and the personal spheres.  Shivani's characters, though, are neither mere props to support an ideological agenda, nor are they the kind of self-involved, ahistorical people who populate much of contemporary fiction.   

Take Amy Beederman, for instance, the 19-year-old live-in babysitter of "Texas," which is set in Houston (Shivani has resided there for many years).  Amy's journeyed for the first time out of her life in the northeast to work for a wealthy immigrant Malaysian couple living in an upscale section of Houston. Enron employs Dato Sri Razak (slyly, the story takes place a year or two before Enron's collapse), who treats Amy with indifference if not contempt, and is married to Adila, world-class shopper.  Amy tends to Nurhaliza, the baby who "either ate too much or threw up.  No in-between...."  Amy, very savvy but not unlike most 19-year-olds in her conflicted goals and desires, knows that girls her age "were supposed to go gaga over babies like this, want one of their own instantly, with a Hispanic guy, a black guy, a white guy if he were masochistic enough, with anyone!"

Amy has considerable self-knowledge, as when she realizes "she must give off the pliant guidance counselor vibes, a helpless energy in need of being vacuumed up," but she also sees more clearly, as the story unfolds, her societal role as servant, Enron's overreaching, even the likely future of the baby as "lodestar" and "investment banker." Amy, at least temporarily, is "jealous of an eight-month old baby," but she's not a racist (a lesser writer would have made her one).

"Texas," like so many stories in the collection, re-imagines multiculturalism.  Shivani shuns trendy views of the joys of diversity as well as stereotypes of the so-called developing world, which after all consists partially of cultures like those of India, China, and Iraq, all far predating western "development."  Yes, there's a terrorist in "Tehran," but he works alone (unlike organization-supported, semi-brainwashed suicide bombers) and has written, maybe, the great Iranian novel.  Shivani, in fact, avoids oversimplifying and cheap fictional tricks at every turn—in "Texas," the baby isn't kidnapped; in "Anatolia," the Jew does not marry the Muslim and live happily ever after; and in "Tehran" the violence is all the more effective for Shivani's description, not of the bombed coffeeshop, but of the bookstore next door, where "the power of the blast made the thin, dusty volumes of French novelists in Persian translation totter and fall off the shelves, although the thicker British and Russians stayed put."

Every story in this collection is worth reading, including the lesser ones like "Conservation," and "Go Sell It on the Mountain," vivid entrees into and satires on the world of art museums and writers' conferences.  These are less nuanced than "Anatolia," which evokes a historical period not unlike ours in its ethnic conflicts and accommodations, and "Independence," for my money the best in the collection for the way it shows flawed human behavior against the backdrop of 1950's India.

As I read these stories, I was struck again and again by Shivani's ability to locate his characters within a very specific place.  His Dubai, Tehran, Madison, Wisconsin, rural Indiana, his historical Manzanar, Anatolia, Pondicherry—all very convincing in such details as local slang, street names, and geographical features.  Intrigued by this skill, I contacted Shivani with some questions and received an ample, gracious reply, in which he said, "I have not directly experienced most of the places described in Anatolia."  To a question about the relationship between a writer's experience and his/her imagination, he replied, "More and more, in my projected writings, I'm interested in making leaps of imagination into places and times I don't have direct experience of...."  He went on to say that he's writing a novel about contemporary Pakistan, “but my direct experience of that place is decades removed … such an effort [of imagination] can probably better capture reality than strict realism and conformity to observation."

In other words, Shivani almost certainly builds his fictional worlds mainly from reading, research (including conversation), and imagination.  What counts for the fiction writer is the quality of imagination, the ability to make the leaps Shivani refers to. Anatolia is replete with fine stories which transport the reader into cities, countries, and minds that are both strange and completely familiar. Shivani’s complex but clearly rendered vision encompasses war, corruption, economic growth, social movements, globalization, but locates full-fledged individual characters within these larger forces.  In an era when the very air seems suffused with propaganda, lies, abstractions, statistics, I believe we need stories like these, which convey the deeper truth that rises from the informed imagination.  They help us intuit a larger world of people utterly different from ourselves, yet also very much like us.

[Editor's Note: Black Lawrence Press is an imprint of Dzanc Books, a Michigan-based independent press.]

© Skip Renker, 2009