Anis Shivani. Anatolia and Other Stories.
What a pleasure to read such forceful engaging stories in a first collection! Shivani casts a wide net with locales from East to West, from Dubai to California, from Iran to Indiana. His stories cover as well a wide span of time , as disparate as modern Iran to the Ottoman Empire of centuries past. Throughout the global adventures, Shivani maintains a tight narrative focus, keeping on track the varied cultural, social and political atmospheres of the time. His stories provide background for recurrent themes of class distinction, minority status, adherence to or defiance of the status quo, and the ubiquitous influence of authoritarian rule, and they reflect a stream of conflict between past and present, ancient and modern.
"Dubai" depicts the story of Ram, a guest worker in Dubai, who is the lone witness to a car accident. His response reverberates into a long-lasting effect on his life. In "Manzanar," an Issei Japanese, put into an internment camp at the start of World War II, must choose between cooperation or resistance with his American jailors. "Conservation" is about a young Chinese American woman, a conservator who makes a dramatic decision to defy her superiors, risking her career and her future in order to save a treasured painting from damage. In "Gypsy" a Hungarian Gypsy family, recently escaped from Communist Hungary, are living in cultural isolation in Indiana. The young daughter struggles against the constraints of her tradition-bound, authoritarian father. In "Profession" an academic couple hope to revitalize their marriage, and proclaim their liberal attitudes, by adopting an eleven-year-old Vietnamese boy. "Go Sell It on the Mountain" showcases the commercialization and artificiality of some less than dedicated Western writers. The theme of "Repatriation" reveals enormous anger at current American immigration policies which perversely lead to mass exile through the deportation of non-whites back to lands no longer their own. "Texas" depicts a young Malaysian nanny who must deal with her employers' prevailing attitudes of distrust and suspicion of minority groups. In "Independence" a disaffected young Muslim businessman faces changes as an entrepreneur in a majority Hindu country. He must also cope with perceived contempt from his brothers and father, the patriarch of the family. The title story, "Anatolia," traces life in the Ottoman Empire as a honest Jewish merchant faces persecution from less successful Muslim colleagues. The last story in the volume, "Tehran," depicts characters in contemporary Iran, who, having made important life-changing decisions, make one last -and tragic--choice. It is a choice that plunges them into the wrong place at the wrong time, and in the hands of a rejected Baha'i novelist, who is seeking revenge against the fundamentalist regime that dominates all their spheres of action.
Shivani plays with psychological nuances evident in the characters' consciousness and acts. He probes into their moral uncertainties in the face of transition. At times they are resistant, but at other times they fight against injustice, sometimes winning a battle, sometimes losing a more significant one. At other times they compromise, surrendering to authority and the power of others. His treatment of his protagonists, whatever their weaknesses and strengths, is intelligent and compassionate. Having read his published articles and his blog, I expected greater political fervor. The passion is there in some stories, but it is tempered into a thoughtful rendering distinct from an outraged one.
Shivani is an insightful writer. He confronts global issues with intellectual probity. Sometimes his stories border on stereotype but more often they provide insight into complexities of the mind and soul of individuals that cannot be separated easily for analysis. And his style has elegance and pace that is rewarding to the reader.