Randa Jarrar’s new collection of short stories, Him, Me, Muhammad Ali, opens with a modern folktale about a girl attempting to catch the moon in order to win the heart of a man she’s in love with. The narrative is a mix of contemporary and folkloric elements—a little like the work of a feminist, Arab American Italo Calvino—but mostly it’s a piece unlike any I’ve read. Funny and darkly imaginative, it boldly announces that the fiction in this collection will go to new, unexpected places.
By places, I’m not talking about the book’s range of settings (from Cairo to Yonkers to Texas), but the secret and overlooked stations of people’s lives. Published on indie press Sarabande Books, Him, Me, Muhammad Ali’s points of view range as widely as its geography. Among them: a child who has been kidnapped (but not unhappily); the disaffected assistant to a prominent feminist; a cosmetologist in Michigan; a woman who is half-human, half-ibex; and the sister of a driver in Cairo who has just run over a little girl with her Lexus. The stories are confessional and riveting by means of the deeply intimate and vulnerable spaces Jarrar’s characters allow us to access, like the empty apartment where a hardworking Egyptian divorcée steals away to nap and masturbate, and later has a sexual reawakening with a childhood friend.
Jarrar’s fiction has exciting range, and she investigates narrative as well as social taboo. Even when her often-fantastical stories veer towards fable, she subverts any expectation of threadbare fairy tale, always finding affecting depths. “Testimony of Mailik, Prisoner #287690” is a story about a kestrel who’s been taken prisoner in Israel, where he’s believed to be a spy. Structured as an interrogation transcript, the story is an astonishingly convincing fable about a lonely and itinerant kestrel who loves cicadas, will eat a mouse if he has to, and fell in love with a seagull. Jarrar’s range is evident in another realist story, of an Arab refugee to America recounting the worst days of his life; the narrative ends with a nod to fiction when he suggests to his son that he “write a story about a man who looks up at the sky and recognizes the exact cloud he’d seen 10 years before, framed by a smoke ring.”
In addition to the tremendous imagination that infuses these stories, I’m impressed by their economy and structure. Often, nothing is fully resolved: No epiphany has been had, a character’s fortune has turned neither better or worse. And yet conclusions are always exacting and poignant. Like the tightrope walker in the opening story, Jarrar pulls off incredible feats again and again. In “Lost in Freakin’ Yonkers,” an 18-year-old Arab American woman, Aida, is pregnant by her alcoholic boyfriend. With Jarrar’s characteristic wry humor and insight Aida tells us, “When you’re disowned your mother becomes your secret lover, calling from pay phones, visiting at odd hours and for short bits of time. And your lover becomes your mother, has to take care of you now that she’s gone. It’s been hard getting used to, and besides, my so-called lover is a drunk and not very motherly.” Things look bad for Aida: She’s hungry, broke, and turning to petty theft to get by. She backs her boyfriend’s car into two vehicles in front of the same cop on the same afternoon, and the story concludes with her getting out of a ticket both times. Nothing changes—for once it just hasn’t gotten any worse. And if not reassuring, this feels bleakly true, showing Jarrar’s gift for realism as well as astonishment.
Video preview of the different characters in Him, Me, Muhammad Ali. Filmed, edited, and everythinged by Kyle Lowe. Music by Donia Jarrar.