Wicked City: Stories of Old New York by Clifford Browder

Wicked City: Stories of Old New York by Clifford Browder

Oooo! What a slick collection of grimy, gruesome peeks under the golden veneer of the Gilded Age! The prose and tales in Wicked City are as smooth as the criminal characters in its pages, which is to say, if you, Reader, are a fan of urban grit and historical fiction, then this is the collection of stories for you. Wicked City reads like a literary revision of The Gangs of New York, but instead of Daniel Day Lewis, the lead is a very chic Edith Wharton — if Edith had a side hustle as a brothel Madam and if the brothel was run out of the Waldorf Hotel.

Make of that what you will. (I love Edith Wharton’s refined snark and the grubbiness of Gangs of New York.)

The stories in Wicked City are historical, but some things have been updated since the actual Gilded Age. Many of the tales are infused with modern sensibilities, that is, there are more enlightened notions around race, racism, class, and gender in these pages than perhaps there were in history. For example, Browder includes tales from Chinatown and addresses interracial marriage. Jingoism and nativism abound and are present, but Browder does justice to history by highlighting the non-White version of events in his fictions.

Many of the stories interweave, though some of the connections are subtle; there is a sense of dispersed, urban community woven throughout the collection. True to Browder’s work, this is an homage to New York and its history.

The World’s Greatest Sea Mysteries (Non Fiction) by Mollie and Michael Hardwick

The World’s Greatest Sea Mysteries (Non Fiction) by Mollie and Michael Hardwick

This title lit up the 8-year old in me when I saw it. I remember loving those DK trivia books and collections of mysterious events. I am still a sucker for a book on sasquatches or sea monsters. The Hardwick’s collection did not disappoint. Each chapter recounts the tale and history of a vessel lost at sea, a spate of sea monster attacks, ghostly ships, and the like. The chapters are short, succinct, and leave the reader wanting to know more — and isn’t that the purpose of a mystery?

The prose is a bit dated — the Hardwicks wrote the original back in the 1967 — but there is nothing wrong with this. Indeed, that kind of syntax adds a little historicity to the collection. There is something familiar about it and nostalgic in a way. But maybe that’s just me remembering my childhood and the long, lovely hours I spent reading books like these that let my imagination fly wild.

The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and Other Stories by Jamil Jan Kochai

The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and Other Stories
by Jamil Jan Kochai

Living in the United States, the word “Afghanistan” crackles in the air when uttered. There is no escaping the politics of the word and, more often than not, insulting Orientalist and racist language in the larger context of that conversation (malicious or unintentional).

For that reason alone, Kochai’s collection of stories set in contemporary Afghanistan is powerful and worth any reader’s time and attention. The narratives and characters in this collection humanize a subject that has too long been objectified and rendered inferior. The tales bring Afghans to life, force the reader — in the best of ways — to see and think of them as living, feeling, bleeding individuals, as tangible and as intimate with ourselves as our sisters, brothers, uncles, aunts, parents, friends, lovers, husbands, wives, children. In these character’s voices we can hear our own. Our own desires and fears are mirrors of theirs.

The stories are embedded in Central Asian Islamic and Colonial culture and history, but they also revolve around universal principles: love, marriage, ambition, identity, belonging. Afghans in these stories are college students sharing the same interests and experiences of growing up and out like all college students — not merely tokenized international students who live on the periphery of campus life, transient and alien. In some of these stories there are young women seeking to understand their roles in society, in their families. They, like all of us, are torn by expectations imposed on us from within and without. The women in these stories are not foils to men or cutouts of the flattened, Orientalist idea of Islam; they are also not mindlessly rebellious, mimics of Western feminism. These women are accurate reflections of women everywhere and yet also unique in their Afghani-ness: contradictory, full of internal and external conflict, desirous and aware of obligation, selfish and selfless. The characters in Kochai’s fiction — women and men alike — do not need to trade their Afghani selves for a Western one or a vice versa, even if there is tension between these identities. It is a tension that enhances, rather than subverts the narratives here. Tradition and modernity are not at odds in the real, lived world anywhere; that false binary is the fiction here! Kochai’s nuanced depictions of women, youth, men, childhood, marriage, love, sex, and life-at-large made this a very satisfying read.

I also deeply appreciated that many stories depicted Afghans outside of Afghanistan in an authentic diasporic perspective. So frequently are Afghans (and other Asians and people of color in general) fixed into some faraway, non-Western, exotic location. In several of the stories Afghans are cosmopolitan, worldly figures, part of the global community in material ways beyond being an image on the television news. They are American, British, European in as much as they are Afghan. As with many other OwnVoice fiction, these stories make the poignant point that the hyphenated identity is true but simultaneously too simplistic of a label; national boundaries are not only porous, in cultural context they are fiction. (Of course, borders do exist in a material, political sense; passports are not obsolete artifacts!)

At the same time, there is a thread of distinctly Afghan experience threading through these tales, one that is grounded in global politics, colonial histories, Islam in its present forms, migration. That is its cohesion and its strength. The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and Other Stories is a must-read collection, especially for those who seek to understand a misunderstood community and want to excavate their identities beyond its contemporary political history and presence.

Opium and Other Stories by Géza Csath

Opium and Other Stories by Géza Csath

Opium and Other Stories is a mirror of Csath’s deranged interior and exterior lives, as if they clashed together and the broken shards became the pieces of these stories and characters. Originally published in 1908, these tales of murder, death, desire, lust, and loss possess a darkness that is characteristic of this period of European history, a moment marked by Imperial ambitions and imperial defeats, war, chaos, and revolution. Nations seemed to be forged and dismantled in the course of an evening’s drunken revelries in these decades. Kings. princes, and the bourgeoisie fed their greed on the fruits of exploitation: child laborers, colonial taxes, the broken backs of men and women worked to death in factories. What was proposed in metaphor became someone’s reality; everything was possible — then World War ensued — and despair came like a wave over Europe.

World War I was an incalculable loss, in Europe and for the rest of the world. Millions of European soldiers perished on the battlefields, suffocated on mustard gas and wasted by gangrene before slow, agonizing deaths. Colonial armies were crushed. France sacrificed hundreds of thousands of Indochinese lives; millions of Asians served as laborers; brown and yellow men died for white men’s ambitions. Men like Csath did not escape; his PTSD is a biography of the death that came after those who survived.

There is no escaping the profound sense of fracture that seems to have broken Csath as a human being. Opium and Other Stories are the pieces of what was left of him. I do not mean that in a sad, negative way; no, indeed, Csath’s life is the stuff of his imagination. His life is a wreckage you can’t tear your eyes off of and his stories are the same.

On the whole, these stories are short, snippets of lives at their strangest, at their ends, at the moment things unravel. Many of them end just as the reader notices that something is really, really, really wrong. “Paul and Virginia” was one that caught me; Csath reveals and revels in a side of love and sex that is unsavory, but not so perverse as to disgust — it attracts, causes pause, intrigues. “The Surgeon” frightened. That tale made my skin goose a bit, as did “Matricide” and “The Black Silence.” “Toad” made me smile wistfully; there was something magical in the way the animal came to life and something ugly in the way it did too.

These stories are Franz Kafka and Anna Kavan and Chuck Palahniuk — but of course, before all of them existed. They are weird and creepy and I am a little too intrigued by their gore for my comfort. Perfect for Halloween.

The Newlywed’s Window: The Mukana Press Anthology of African Writing 2022, compiled by Mukana Press

The Newlywed’s Window: The 2022 Mukana Press Anthology of African Writing

A very lively, beautifully written collection of twelve short stories by new African writers. These were fresh ideas written with confidence. My favorites were “Gasping for Air”. by Ogechukwu Emmanuel Samuel, “The Newly Wed’s Window” by Husnah Mad-by, “Mareba’s Tavern” by Gladwell Palmba, “A Letter from Ireland” by Victor Ehikhamenor, and “Our Girl Bimpe” by Olakunle Ologunro.

What I loved about these stories was their bold announcement of Africanness and modernity, too often still separated in the non-African view. These were stories celebrating the conflation of both in one, the coexistence of Africanness and global identity in one. Some of these stories revolved unabashedly around modern African womanhood and sexuality, celebrating sexuality with pride.

I appreciated that these were not stories of postcolonial angst or stories posing tradition against modernity. Perhaps I read too much postcolonial literature; these were refreshing to me because of the absence of those existential themes. They addressed existential themes we are all familiar with (how to live in a technology-driven world, how to be a modern woman, how to be a modern parent, transition from childhood into adulthood, among others), but from an African perspective, an African experience.