The Cheapest Nights: A Collection of Short Stories by Yusuf Idris, Translated by Wadida Wassef
Publisher: Penguin Classics Genre: Short stories, satire Pages: 181 Format: Paperback Buy Local (Preorder) My Rating: 4/5 stars
Published in Egypt in 1954, this collection of short stories captures glimpses of the lives of the Egyptian lower class, most of them based in Cairo. This compilation, which is to be published on June 9, includes a few stories from Idris’s other collections as well. Here, I’ve shared my thoughts on the three stories I found the most remarkable.
The Dregs of the City —It all begins when Judge Abdallah loses his wristwatch. Being a textbook introvert and a man of routine, this minor inconvenience sends him into an introspective spiral where he contemplates his social awkwardness and general lack of success with women. But, he must find a wife before he is thirty-five (few aspects of his life are left unscheduled), so he doesn’t give up.
The narrative describes Abdallah’s misadventures with women in a jesting, almost O Henry-esque tone until it takes a sudden turn and we meet the dark side of the man that polite society knows as Judge Abdallah—a morally bankrupt person with no shortage of enthusiasm in judging others for faults in character, especially women. The story depicts in unapologetic detail the carnal urge to abuse one’s power that lurks in the best of us, and the pain of living with oneself after it’s been done.
Did You Have to Turn on the Light, Li-Li? —A priest forgets to end the morning prayer and leaves rows of men bowed in prostration for a long time. This is eventually written off as a joke and added to the annals of the neighborhood. But the narrative reveals the real reason behind the Imam’s lapse.
It goes back to when a young Sheikh Abdel Al is appointed as the Imam of the mosque in Al Batiniyya, where the people are generally intoxicated on opium and hashish throughout the day and go to bed at dawn, when he calls for prayer. But his real test appears in the form of temptation: a woman. When we covet something that we have no right to, we tend to blame ourselves less than we blame the thing itself. The story stealthily underlines that.
Having remained chaste and above impulses all his life, he sees her as the devil incarnate, even as he is drawn to her. Suddenly, he is very aware of his mortal flesh with all its weaknesses. He prays for divine intervention so that he may remain worthy of his position. His deliverance comes in a wave of poetic irony.
The Errand —In his youth, El Shabrawi traversed the length and breadth of Cairo as a city cop. But in recent years, he has been stationed out of town and he would give his life—his words—to go back to the city, if only for an hour. As luck would have it, a woman of unstable mental disposition is brought into the police station one day by her relatives and the need arises for a chaperone to take her to the asylum in Cairo. Predictably, El Shabrawi volunteers and, as no one else does, is given the responsibility of Zebeida.
But, it turns out that it is a little difficult to enjoy all the city has to offer with a woman in tow who is screaming and struggling to get away at every step. El Shabrawi is pushed to his limits as his patience is tested and as he dashes from one government building to another, caught in a web of bureaucracy. His release comes in an unexpected way. When it does, he is taken aback by his own feelings and subsequent actions. It is a story of human compassion written at a time when the subject of mental illness was treated with little sensitivity.
A writer who lived in a time and society of strict moral codes, Idris’s writing is bold yet eloquent. He doesn’t hold back in his dressing-down of the entitled, privileged man, or the underprivileged man, for that matter, and shines a clear light on the oppression of the women they lord over. His stories signify that he acknowledged and despised the hypocrisy of a society that held different standards, always, for men and women, for the powerful and the subjugated.
Thank you to Changing Hands Bookstore for providing an ARC in exchange for this honest and unbiased review.
Meet Jenny Irish, an Assistant Professor of English at Arizona State University and the author of the new short story collection, I Am Faithful, published by Black Lawrence Press. Staff writer Edward Dolehanty had a chance to talk to her about her new book, names characters, dogs, and more!
1. How would you describe I Am Faithful to a potential reader?
First, thank you so much for these wicked smart questions. I love what you all are doing with The Spellbinding Shelf!
Second, that’s a big first question! Okay! Buckle up!
I Am Faithful is a collection of stories about the experiences of the working, lower class. As a writer, I want to challenge stereotypical representations of Americans living at the edge of poverty and engage the complexities of human experience and the effects of multigenerational poverty. These are stories posing questions about privilege, power dynamics, and the consequences of the choices and compromises people make when attempting to improve their conditions. And I also try to ensure that every story avoids simplifying things that are knotty and entangled.
Across the stories in I Am Faithful, there’s also a focus on the experiences of girls and women. It’s common for girls and women find themselves preyed upon because they’re physically desired, because of the body they inhabit—but that same physical desirability, in a certain context, also gives them a degree of power. What happens, then, when a woman who is dependent on being desired—who commodifies her sexuality out of necessity or choice—becomes a mother, her body altered and her freedom encroached? What happens to the children of these women, especially their daughters, who may become viewed as competition?
2. One of the things that I most enjoyed while reading I Am Faithful is the way that a lot of character’s emotional ranges are shown through their relationship to dogs. How did you come up with the idea to so creatively incorporate dogs into your work?
*whispers* I wanted to be a Rottweiler when I was little.
I think for many writers there are things that appear in their work consistently. Whether these elements make it into the “final” version of a piece or not, the majority of my writing will have dogs, snow, and PBS in it. Some of it is because of familiarity, some of it is because of curiosity, and some of it is because it’s what feels right in the particular piece.
I love dogs. With the exception of a sad, short stretch in graduate school, when it wasn’t financially possible, I’ve always had dogs. My first favorite book was the AKC Complete Dog Book, with all the pictures of breeds, and diagrams, and descriptions of temperaments. And dogs are amazing because they direct back the energy that they feel from a person. In that they’re a kind of magic mirror that can show what’s inside someone.
I also think it’s incredibly telling how people treat things that are dependent on them: children, seniors, strangers they could help, animals in their care. So, I try to address this in my work. I also think that it’s important to recognize that there are different motivations for similar actions. The story “I Am Faithful” is very much about this.
3. So many of the stories in I Am Faithful feel delightfully uprooted from time through the use of flashbacks to inform the present moment. Does this relationship to time come naturally to you in your writing or is it something that you think about a lot in the drafting process?
This is just the way that I tend to write, without thinking about the work or having a plan. Most of the stories don’t follow a straight path, chronologically. Instead, they’re moving associatively. I think there’s a relationship between how elliptical stories can be “uprooted” from chronological time and the operation of memory. Associations carry us from one place another, and that movement isn’t necessarily be linear.
4. Something that stuck out to me about I Am Faithful is how most of the narrative characters go without a name. For me, as a reader, this allowed who the characters are to shine as opposed to highlighting what they are called. Could you discuss your relationship with naming characters in your writing?
There is something entirely mortifying to me about naming characters. In I Am Faithful, I think there’s only two characters with names, girls who have the same name, and much of the story is dependent on their shared name because of the comparison it invites between the two.
For me, characters are representative of real people, experiencing things that happen in the world, but they could be anyone. These things, or things like this, they happen to a lot of people.
5. One of the themes that resonated most with me in your collection is the sacrifices so many of the characters make in the name of independence. How they are willing to put themselves into compromising situations physically, socially, and morally, for the satisfaction of having something to call their own—no matter how small. In the story, “Worry,” the opposite is true of the narrative character, who is willing to make these sacrifices in the name of dependence. Did you find that the process of writing this story differed greatly from the others in I Am Faithful?
Thank you for telling me you appreciated this story. I’m proud it, but it hasn’t been particularly well received.
In “Worry,” a young girl disappears, and her mother is largely unconcerned. The mother’s smitten boyfriend—who is the narrative lens—was witness to the hostile relationship between his girlfriend and her daughter. He desperately wants to believe the woman he worships wouldn’t have harmed her child, but struggles with what he’s seen. This is a story, for me, about how complicated sexual commodification is and how powerful a motivator loneliness is. It’s also one of the longest stories, because it needed to be.
Love is complex and love isn’t always healthy. I think, when we talk about sacrifice, we often link it to punishment, but sacrifice can be a true act of love. In the collection, there are mothers who experience the sacrifices that parenthood demands—whether they choose to make those sacrifices or not—as a punishment and their relationships with their children reflect that feeling. I hope that there are other examples who see love in the sacrifices they make, and in that have the potential to be affirmed by their choices, even as they’re struggling.
I’ve already said a version of this, but I think it’s worth repeating: I hope to always avoid good/evil binaries, which I think are dangerously simplistic and generally false. Though there is one unquestionably “bad mother” in the collection—the mother in “Worry”—I think there are more people who are trying to be better than their circumstances, but making uncomfortable compromises along the way.
6. Each one of these stories strikes me as authentic and true even though they are fiction. I think that this in large part to the way in which the characters are presented as they are and, unless intentional, without the prejudice for impoverished people that is quite prevalent in society. Is this something that you were conscious of while writing this collection?
The very first rule of fiction, or, the very first rule of fiction workshop, is that we never ever conflate author and story. That said, like many writers of fiction, I do draw on my own experiences in writing.
When I was child, I always had an awareness of my class positioning. The reminders of it were constant. I always had an awareness that my mother was struggling to make ends meet. There was a perpetual anxiety about how to scrape things together in a way that would allow a precarious situation to keep going. I watched the people around me beg, borrow, and steal, and I understood that it was my job to conceal that. Hiding how bad things were was huge part of my childhood.
So yes, a goal of I Am Faithful is to be authentic and in that, capture the anxiety and varied forms of violence, desperation, and hope that come with living a life scraped together from scraps. Too often, I feel like these experiences are grossly simplified and fetishized. I’d rather they be honest and as ugly as they need to be.
7. A question we love to ask of our guests here at The Spellbinding Shelf is, what are you currently reading?
Ahhhh! I love books! I just finished We Will Tell You Otherwise by Beth Mayer, and re-read The White Book by Han Kang, and right now I’m reading By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart and Blood Box by Zefyr Lisowski.
Thank you so much for reading I Am Faithful and this conversation!
For more information about Jenny Irish, click here. Buy I Am Faithful locally here.
Thank you to Black Lawrence Press for providing an ARC and making this interview possible.
Publisher: Okay Donkey Press Genre: Flash Fiction Pages: 176 pages Format: Paperback My Rating: 3/5 Buy Local
In this flash fiction collection a myriad of victims come alive and show themselves beyond the circumstances they find themselves in. Each piece is set in motion by another murdered woman—including a girl, teacher, mermaid, and others—but there is more to each story than just the inciting tragedy. These stories are laden with grief, intrigue, occasional mystery, and ruminations of what might have been. These are stories of murdered women, but there is more here than meets the eye.
This collection was thought provoking through and through. It is not often that we see something that seems so familiar, in this case the victim, given new life and dimension. Yet that is exactly what Ulrich has done, she has given a compelling voice to characters who in the past would have been hard to cast as anything but flat. Each story, no matter its length, feels both diverse and dynamic and these pieces are in heavy conversation with one another.
While this collection was overall both interesting and innovate, there were times when it felt too repetitive. When reading one story after the next they start to bleed together and the murdered mermaid becomes hard to tell apart from the murdered babysitter and the murdered girlfriend. That is not to say that there is no joy to be had from reading this collection, but it is perhaps a read best done over an extended period of time.
I would like to thank TNBBC Publicity for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.
Even amongst bookish people, the topic of short stories can be a divisive one. Some readers see short stories as too tedious or time-consuming, while others readers might complain that they feel short stories lack the depth of a novel. Adding to this conundrum, some readers were never properly introduced to short stories and now feel too overwhelmed by the genre and don’t even know where to start. Whatever the case may be, we here at The Spellbinding Shelf celebrate short stories, inviting you to abandon all prior convictions with our comprehensive list of five collections that are bound to make you fall in love with short stories.
Her Body and Other Parties—Carmen Maria Machado. Machado is known for the macabre undertones in her writing and for creating female characters who are not always wholesomely motivated. The ease of her prose makes this collection incredibly alluring, but there is more to it than that—these stories are dark, empowering, nuanced, sinister, and above all else, great fun to read.
Civilwarland in Bad Decline—George Saunders. This is a powerfully imaginative collection that tests the elasticity of language. It doesn’t matter if Saunders is writing about subversive capitalistic greed or an amusement park that is reminiscent of West World, these tales are impeccably crafted. Each story presents a strange new world that will leave the reader intrigued and wanting more.
Stories of Your Life and Others—Ted Chiang. In this collection, Chiang challenges the notion of what short stories are capable of. He builds dense worlds rich with unique language and dynamic characters. He experiments with time to decrease the flow of information to a drip, and yet every page will leave you yearning to know the tales extraordinary conclusion. Ted Chiang is an author worth reading again and again.
Magic for Beginners—Kelly Link. While all of the authors on this list so far experiment with blending the lines between genre and literary fiction, none are so adept at it as Kelly Link. That is not to say that her stories are gimmicky or weighed down by superfluous magic systems and supernatural characters. On the contrary, Link’s stories are full of emotional truth and excavate the far reaches of the imagination. Simply put, these stories are magical, but their power does not come from casting spells, but rather, in their ability to entrance their reader.
Since 1978, the Best American Short Stories series has been a literary staple with anthologies cultivated by great writers such as Joyce Carol Oates, John Updike, Margaret Atwood, Tobias Wolff, Annie Proulx, Lorrie Moore, Roxane Gay, and most recently Anthony Doerr. Each year, this anthology puts forward twenty short stories that represent the best published short fiction. Each collection offers new worlds of enchantment, heartbreak, and excitement. There is no better place to find scores of talented writers, and also a plethora of publications, to further explore short stories—which by now you’re bound to love.
Summer is a time for rest, relaxation, fun, and (of course) copious amounts of reading. This summer, I set a goal to read one novel or short story collection a week. So far, I’ve read wonderful books from authors ranging from Ocean Vuong to Zora Neale Hurston. And while I’ve enjoyed every work, these are some of my favorites.
Bloodchild – Octavia E. Butler. Though it was up against some stiff competition, I think this collection is the standout of my summer reading. Each story is a world in itself where the characters and the stakes come alive. Be warned, each of these tales are bound to make your skin crawl (but in the best way possible). One of the highlights of this collection is “The Evening and the Morning and the Night,” in which a woman is battling a genetic disorder that leads to self-harm and mutilation. Another highlight is “Amnesty,” which explores a plant-like alien race coming to Earth and becoming the dominant species.
Speak No Evil – Iweala Uzodinma. This story about Niru, the son of Nigerian immigrants, and his white best friend, Meredith, will leave you thinking long after you read the last page. After Niru comes out to Meredith, she urges him to embrace who he is. In turn, they both must suffer the consequences of Niru embracing his sexuality, and a great strain is placed upon their relationship. Speak No Evil takes an outside perspective of the American dream, weighs cultural notions of sexuality, and confronts the challenge of having brown skin in America.
Difficult Women – Roxane Gay. This is a dynamic collection of honest stories that explore the lives of women in modern America. Their stories range from sisters who suffered through the same trauma to a woman who is cursed with making the ceiling leak. These tales are imaginative, powerful, and at times frustrating. One of my favorite stories from the collection is the titular piece, “Difficult Women,” which explores the archetypes of loose women, frigid women, crazy women, and mothers. Another of my favorites is, “North Country,” in which a woman tries to escape the coldness of her relationship, but discovers a new type of cold in the upper peninsula of Michigan.
Brave New World – Aldous Huxley. I read this book in high school, and for reasons (that I can no longer relate to) I did not enjoy it. This summer, I decided to give it another try, and I am glad that I did. In this futuristic dystopian novel, freedom and knowledge are regulated. At the center of the novel is Bernard, who questions the highly regulated and “civilized” lifestyle of the times because he does not feel as if he fits in. This novel delves into the cost of both individuality and authenticity and puts them to test against the collective well-being of society.
Watchmen – Alan Moore and David Gibbons. I am new to graphic novels, with my introduction being Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home earlier this year. While researching the genre, Watchmen came up over and over again as a great read, and it proved itself to be just that. It follows a group of washed up superheros in an alternate world where Richard Nixon was never impeached and the world is on the brink of nuclear holocaust. The story concludes with a great moral question that will leave the reader contemplating long after you have put the book down.
Are you hoping to meet more bookworms in your area? Changing Hands has answered your wishes with its latest book club: Long and Short of It. This new bimonthly club explores one book and one story collection that share a common theme in each interactive meeting.
The upcoming discussion features Chanelle Benz’s The Gone Dead and The Man Who Shot My Eye Out is Dead. Be sure to stop by Changing Hands before the meeting to pick up copies of the books. Then, meet fellow local book lovers at Changing Hands’ First Draft Book Bar to talk about your reads.
The Gone Dead – Chanelle Benz. Thirty years after her father dies unexpectedly in their Mississippi shack, Billie returns to her childhood home where she meets the McGees, a family who’s history has overlapped with her own family’s history in the days of slavery. As she reunites with this old home, she hears a disturbing rumor that motivates her to track down forgotten memories.
The Man Who Shot Out My Eye Is Dead – Chanelle Benz. The characters in this short story collection are each wildly different, but they all share a hunger for adventure that lands them in tricky situations, causing them to rethink morality, confront identity, and experience love. Some of the stories feature an outlaw, a 16th century monk, and a young Philadelphia boy’s incarcerated father.