Masha'allah and Other Stories

Image of Masha'allah and Other Stories
Release Date: 
November 1, 2012
Heyday Publishing
Reviewed by: 

“Mariah K. Young is a new author of great promise. And Masha’allah and Other Stories is a collection worthy of broad notice.”

In Masha’allah and Other Stories, a sharp new collection of short fiction, author Mariah K. Young makes a compelling argument for the fact that, although we all share a single nation, we live in many different worlds.

Throughout the nine stories contained in Masha’allah, Ms. Young in turns instructs, involves and entertains with her portraits of those who live on the fringes of the golden prosperity of California’s Bay Area, those for whom the boom and bust and boom again of the tech bubble went unnoticed.

Hers is a collection of tales of those who go unnoticed: day laborers, house cleaners, hairdressers, bartenders and limo drivers.

The best thing that may be said about these stories is that in them Ms. Young never is content to deliver retreads, to issue the easy political statement in place of a skilled literary comment.

Given her choice of material, clichés are most certainly possible, even expected, and others might well have produced an NPR-ish series on the alienation and fear common to those born and raised in poverty, or those illegal immigrants who, to their dismay, find themselves yearning for their lives back home. But the author instead works from a fresh, creative and honest viewpoint, creates a believable and concrete (in both senses of the word) landscape, and births flesh and blood characters to inhabit those environs just as we each of us inhabit worlds of our own.

The worst things that can be said about these stories is that they are uneven. That Ms. Young is an author still finding her own voice and that not all of the chances she takes pay off from the reader’s point of view.

There is, for example, “One Space,” a story that Ms. Young has opted to present entirely in second person.

Thus, it begins:

“Normally, the alarm wakes you, rouses you out of dream darkness. But this morning it is the ache that cracks the back of sleep, a gash on your left hip, just above your belt line, still fresh from yesterday. You keep your eyes closed. Focus on the dark, ignore the slight burn and linger in that haze, those last few moments of quiet.”

The reader, thrust into the role of the protagonist, is meant to feel an immediacy, a finger poke of recognition. You! You! You!

Instead, the device annoys. By the second page of the story, the reader is alienated by being asked to wear the character’s wardrobe, see the world through his eyes through the use of this rather clumsy and invasive device.

In other places, other tales, Ms. Young plays with verb tense the same way, jumping from present to past and back again, again no doubt in search of that errant sense of immediacy. And yet when her fiction works best and seems most of the present moment, when it is most captivating and effective, is when the author simply ignores the various tricks and gimmicks common to MFA graduates and writes solid, intriguing sentences—tells the stories with utter simplicity.

As here, in “Prints,” where she shares how the child of illegal aliens (“I rehearsed it in my head: San Francisco, San Francisco, San Francisco. The first thing Inay told me and my sister Carina about school was to always listen to the teacher, and the second was never to say that we were born in Manila.”) ponders the many names by which he is addressed while moving through the average day:

“At school, I am Eddie. On my school ID, I am Edgar Villanueva, and my picture isn’t grainy enough to hide the acne on my cheeks. On papers I write only my last name with the capital V like a dagger coming down. To the assistant vice principal, I am Mr. Vil-la-nu-va. On the street, I am Eddie. ‘Go, Chinaman,’ I have heard more than once when I’m skateboarding down a sloping street. In the malls, I am Suspect, shadowed by security guards. To Carina’s boyfriends, I am Scary Gary. To the neighbors, I am one of Aunt Silva’s sons or maybe a nephew (the eyes and the years play tricks), but probably trouble, just like the other two. To girls, I am whatever name they go with, and if they hear the other names I am called, they look at me like I’m playing tricks on them. In the end, I always am. On the back of family photos, I am Edgardo Junior. At home, Inay calls me anak and only that. She says my name only when speaking about me to someone else. Itay calls me son when he is proud of me and has no name for me when he is angry. Carina calls me Eddie when we’re at school, Gordo in front of the family, and kuya—brother—when we are alone.”

Safe to say identity is the theme that unites these stories as surely as the struggles that poverty brings. Each character puzzles his or her way through days that are like a series of jigsaw pieces, and, in that search for an ultimate solution, these stories are born:

In “Litters,” an extraordinary and groundbreaking story the likes of which the reader has not seen before, a young girl delivers pitbulls from her mother’s puppy mills to those who use them in dog fights, who tuck an extra twenty dollars in her breast pocket so she can stop at a Chinese restaurant for dinner to break up the long, hot drive back home.

In “The Front of the House,” a particularly bad night hosting a wedding at an Indian restaurant becomes a watershed moment of members of the wait staff.

In “Studies in Entropic Botany,” perhaps this reader’s favorite of the stories, a small-time drug pusher, thanks to his innate understanding of the art of growing, begins to dream of life as a medical marijuana entrepreneur:

“I was in it…I was making plans to file my paperwork as a vendor soon and anxious to start looking at retail spaces in Hayward. I could see myself in an office, suit and tie if I wanted. My club up and running, and I’d spend my days managing and my nights working in my gardens.”

And in the story “Masha’allah,” the superb story that gives the collection its name, a limo driver wends his way through his day, biding his time until he, his wife and his niece Cherise can get away on a trip to Reno, the dream that carries him through his minefield of a day:

“What time should they leave on Friday, or should the drive up early Saturday? Sully won’t mind doing the lion’s share of the driving, and the highway through the mountains will be salted and clear of snow. Wen they get there, he’ll have cash for them—tens and twenties to press into their palms like secrets—and he’ll tell them to have fun, go shopping.”

The story also gives us this, the reason why Masha’allah is such a fitting and memorable title:

“’Masha’allah,’ she said and smoothed the curled edges of her notebook, and Sully felt like he should have understood her, that he’d heard her say the word so many times he should have picked it up by osmosis. But she saved him, didn’t make him ask her again what it meant. ‘What God will, Uncle Sully, what God wants,’ she said, then turned back to her notebook and scribbled out the word for him to see.

“’Masha’allah,’ he breathes as he rounds the corner onto Embarcadero, all windows down, he neck cold. He says it like he remembers Cherise saying it, thick on the first syllable, his voice as sure as hers would be. He hopes he is saying it right.”

At times, Ms. Young’s short stories instill within the reader the same sense of respect and surprise that Jayne Anne Phillips commanded with her debut collection Black Tickets. Both focused their attention on the disenfranchised and highlight the relentless weight that poverty and a lack of education represent. And both share the same startling ability to write with unblinking candor, to say to their reader, “Look at this and don’t look away.”

Mariah K. Young is a new author of great promise. And Masha’allah and Other Stories is a collection worthy of broad notice.