‘Banthology: Stories from Unwanted Nations’, Sarah Cleave (ed.) (Review)

Comma Press are well-known for their commitment to broadening literary horizons, notably in the form of their excellent city series of short story collections, and they’re not afraid to get involved in social and political debates either.  With an interest in Arabic-language fiction in recent years (including Hassan Blasim’s IFFP-Winning collection The Iraqi Christ), it’s unsurprising that certain events over in the US prompted them to action.  However, the form of their response is excellent, a riposte showing that sometimes dialogue (and prose) is a far better way forward than bans and censorship…

Banthology: Stories from Unwanted Nations is, of course, a direct response to a rather controversial American decision.  As editor Sarah Cleave explains:

In January 2017, President Trump signed Executive Order 13769, banning people from seven Muslim-majority countries – Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan and Libya – from entering the United States for 90 days.  It also halted refugee resettlement for 120 days and banned Syrian refugees indefinitely.
p.vii (Comma Press, 2018)

While Trump hasn’t been able to keep his pet policy in place, the resentment at what many people see as a Muslim ban (and one only affecting countries the US doesn’t sell weapons to…) has been widespread both domestically and overseas.  Banthology, then, is an attempt to look behind the demonisation of the seven countries, in the form of a short story from each.

The opening piece, Sudanese writer Rania Mamoun’s ‘Bird of Paradise’ (translated by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp), teases the reader with a portrait of a woman stranded at an airport.  Running out of money, she despairs her inability to simply step onto an aeroplane and fly off into the sky like a bird.  However, as we are allowed access to her memories, we see that her problems have less to do with any Trumpian imperative than her own internalised compliance.  Simply put, she can’t bring herself to take that final step to freedom.

By contrast, the protagonist of Ubah Cristina Ali Farah’s story ‘Jujube’ (tr. Hope Campbell Gustafson), having made it from Somalia to Italy, is desperate to set off on the next step of her journey, hoping to rejoin her mother and sister in the US.  In a piece switching between past, present and official documents, a story gradually emerges casting doubt on the woman’s version of events, making it unlikely that she’ll ever be able to move on.

A more light-hearted take on a migrant stuck half-way through his journey is provided by Zaheer Omareen’s ‘The Beginner’s Guide to Smuggling’ (tr. Perween Richards & Basma Ghalayini).  The Syrian writer introduces us to a young man who has managed to end up in Paris (via the Mediterranean, Greece and a French prison), despite his struggles with fake Hungarian documents:

‘A nevem Kaszuba Szabolcs, Koszonom.  Dolgozom orvos, felesegem nagykovet, akarok utazni a hazamba.”
God damn this language.  The only thing I could memorise was my new name, Kaszuba Szabolcs.  I have no idea what a ‘Kaszuba’ would even look like.
‘The Beginner’s Guide to Smuggling’, p.11

Still, where there’s a will, there’s a way, and as it turns out, a little linguistic ingenuity might be all you need to make it to the promised land.

As you can imagine, though, humour isn’t always as easy to come by in Banthology, with several of the stories showing the difficulties of life in the writers’ home countries.  In Feresteh Molavi’s ‘Phantom Limb’, a group of Iranian refugees in Toronto eke out a living through exploitative jobs, while Anoud’s ‘Storyteller’ has a woman in a London café looking back at traumatic times in Iraq:

But when the first night of bombing began, I was petrified, crying hysterically and shaking so violently I had to clench my fists to regain some control of my fingers.  I could hear the sound of bombs outside slicing through the air with a piercing ‘voom’.  It felt like I was about to fall off a cliff.
‘Storyteller’, p.48

Sadly, in both stories, the move to the West has failed to bring the comfortable, peaceful life the immigrants had hoped for.

Not all the contributions take this sombre, realistic approach, though.  Libyan writer Najwa Binshatwan’s ‘Return Ticket’ (tr. Sawad Hussein) focuses on a very special village that can fly all over the world.  While able to visit a number of countries, the villagers are thwarted in their efforts to pay a visit to the US – you see, there’s this wall… 😉

The final story is from Yemen, Wajdi al-Ahdal’s ‘The Slow Man’ (tr. William M. Hutchins).  Taking us back to Babylonian times, this one is an allegory-laden tale looking at a travel ban from thousands of years ago, in which a caravan attempts to slip across the border with a very special boy in tow.  Once the issue is settled, we see the consequences of the events in a rather chilling coda (I’m not sure whether this one actually protests against or supports the ban in question…).

While Banthology is a little short, its seven stories are all excellent contributions, allowing the reader a glimpse behind the Trumpian propaganda of countries looking to destroy the west.  It’s well worth a look, and if you like this one, I’d definitely recommend some of the other Comma Press selections, such as Blasim’s two collections, and anthologies such as The Book of Khartoum or Iraq +100.  There are several pieces among these collections that will linger in the memory – hopefully far longer than a certain president will remain in power…

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