Anis Shivani's Anatolia and Other Stories

Some of you may recall the post in this community earlier about the article naming the fifteen most overrated contemporary writers. I was curious about the author of that piece, Anis Shivani--a fiction writer himself as well as a critic (of the attack variety, it seems)--so I picked up his collection of stories, Anatolia and Other Stories (Black Lawrence Press, 2009). If you check out his web site, you can see the other criticism he's written, and it does seem that he's made a career of pointing out the faults of the existing literary system (MFA programs, literati, etc.).

Nevertheless, the project he undertakes in this collection of stories is actually quite fascinating for Asian American literary studies as a critical project. Over the course of eleven stories, Shivani sketches out a broad canvas of humanity, culture, and subjectivity. I think there are two aspects of this collection that deserve some special attention by Asian American literary critics: first, Shivani's deliberate exploration of a panethnic cast of Asian American and Asian diasporic characters across the stories (and sometimes within individual stories); and second, his emphasis on worldly/international settings that move beyond even the usual transnational claims (where some influence of the United States is central to the story). Some of the stories are also explicitly interested in considering the status of art and literature.

The opening story "Dubai" focuses on an Indian guest worker in Dubai, exploring from his perspective the frantic energy of that city and its constant construction of bigger and more extravagant buildings under the leadership of oil-rich Emirati. The second story then switches to a first-person narrative of an older Japanese American issei in Manzanar's internment camp as he shirks leadership roles for his community. The third story, "Conservation," focuses on a Chinese American woman who works as an art conservator at the Boston Museum of Art. The story concerns her theft of Antoine Watteau's painting La Perspective to protect it from a restoration that would, in her estimation, ruin its beauty. Over the course of the story, we flip between her perspective, that of her boss, of an investor, and of a predecessor conservator such that the whole picture we get is multi-layered in its estimation of the value of art.

In the fourth and fifth stories, Shivani takes jabs at literary and cultural critics as well as at the writing retreats that characterize a certain kind of literary elite. These stories--"Profession" and "Go Sell It on the Mountain"--reminded me the most of his critical essay on the fifteen most overrated writers. In the former, interestingly, the Asian character is a Vietnamese adoptee of a white couple who are university professors. This trope of transnational-transracial adoption functions as a way to explore the relationship between the aging couple whose academic careers have taken opposing trajectories (the wife becomes a superstar with the turn towards theory and criticism in literary studies while the husband languishes in old school sociology).

The title story, "Anatolia," is set in Turkey and focuses on a Muslim woman who is interested in a Jewish merchant. The story following, "Independence," is the most typical postcolonial India story in that it focuses on the era of India's independence and how it created more substantial rifts between Hindus and Muslims than had existed before. The characters head to Pondicherry, a place supposedly with a lot of French influence which mediates the British legacy, and it would be interesting to see how much Shivani's story relies on historical context.

My favorite story in the collection is "Repatriation," an ambiguous postapocalyptic narrative told in epistolary form from a first-person survivor's perspective. The story takes place on a ship where non-white people are being sent out of the United States to Africa and other places after some undefined illness has killed off white Americans on the coasts. There are echoes of narratives of the Atlantic slave trade and of course of other histories of racial segregation and genocide.

The next story, "Texas," has an alternate reality feel to it as well. It focuses on Amy Beederman, a young white woman/teenager who works as a nanny for a wealthy Malaysian couple in Texas. The reversal of races in this setup challenges the usual narrative of the (illegal) immigrant family working for wealthy white couples who can afford to farm out the task of raising their children. After that, "Gypsy" considers a young girl of a Rom family in Indiana shortly following WWII. The persistance of the romane faith and cultural ways in deliberate refusal to assimilate to mainstream ways is the substance of this story, even as the girl struggles with what it might mean to have more agency as a woman. And then the final story, "Tehran," recovers the stories of the victims of a bombing at a cafe in Iran, tracing the disparate worlds from which these people come and how they have negotiated the post-Revolution country.

As you can see from my summaries, the stories range widely in topic, characters, and historical context. I wonder how much research Shivani did for his stories as he clearly is not drawing simply on personal experience to sketch out the emotions and thoughts of his characters. With the international settings of many of his stories, I can see resonances with some recent collections and critical work that imagines American literature in the context of world literature. Shivani's collection calls for a literary studies framework that is global in scope rather than national or even transnational.
  • Current Mood: lazy lazy