Dima Alzayat's 'Alligator and Other Stories': An experimental series of Syrian multiplicities
Dima Alzayat’s debut collection, Alligator and Other Stories is a captivating and nuanced exploration of displacement, identity, and the struggle to feel a sense of belonging.
With its nine stories, this collection takes readers on a journey through the experiences of Syrian immigrants and refugees, and their children in the United States – capturing their hopes and fears, their challenges and triumphs, and the complex ways in which they navigate the (often) sudden changes in their way of life.
"Alzayat has written these distinct and authentic stories with a poetic (yet precise) style that conveys the emotional depth and complexities of her characters' experiences with great sensitivity and insight"
Alzayat’s writing is quite experimental, and this is reflected in the depth and richness of the characterisation.
Her storytelling in each of the stories takes on different narrative styles as well as different character voices. For example, in the opening story Ghusl, Alzayat takes on the voice of an older sister bathing her dead brother, in preparation for the Janazah prayers.
Through this character, Alzayat lyrically describes this ghusl ritual, while giving the reader a glimpse into this character’s hard life, and the grief that she has endured.
The poetry Alzayat infuses into this story also further drives its melancholy. Readers can relate to this story because of the universality of death, but refugees and immigrants will especially empathise with these characters (who have fled their homes in search of safety only to be disappointed so far away from home).
In Disappearance, Alzayat takes on the voice of a young male character in the first-person narrative style; and in Daughters of Manat, she alternates between second and third-person narrative styles. All of these, coupled with her storytelling prowess, enrich the reading experience of this collection.
Experimentation is only one of many attributes that this book exemplifies; one other attribute is that while the core of the collection revolves around the diaspora Syrian experience, Alzayat does not restrict herself to Syrian stories.
This reminds me fondly of Shahla Ujayli’s style in A Bed for the King’s Daughter, and I appreciate this attribute because it gives Alzayat’s experimental writing style more room to flourish.
Her style also announces to the readers that a somewhat clear picture will unravel with each story and that they will not have to wait for too long to see this picture – just the right amount of waiting, which will be amply rewarded; Ghusl and Disappearance are perfect examples of this.
There are two characteristics of short stories that are most appealing to me (compressing a story and handling its final climax) and Alzayat manages to put them on lockdown in Alligator and Other Stories, significantly heightening my reading experience.
Alzayat writes with a keen sense of the intersectionality of identity. She explores the complex ways in which gender, sexuality, class, race, and ethnicity intersect to shape her characters' experiences of the world.
For instance, in Only Those Who Struggle Succeed, a struggling woman has to conceal her Arabness and endure sexual assault/harassment to aspire to career advancement in her workplace.
In the Land of Kana’n, Alzayat again beautifully describes one Islamic practice, the salah, to her readers through the experiences of Farid – a young married man struggling with his sexuality.
Some of the stories also scrutinise the tensions and conflicts that arise when cultures collide; whether it is the clash between Arab and American cultural norms or the tensions within immigrant communities themselves – like in Summer of Sharks, which takes place just before the 9/11 attacks, and in Once We Were Syrians, where an old Syrian woman justifies (to her grand-niece) her decision to turn away another Arab woman in need.
In the titular story, Alligator, Alzayat explores violence and persecution as they relate to race in the United States of America.
The story follows a Syrian-American family whose lives are disrupted because of state-condoned (and supported) violence.
At the same time, readers also get a glimpse into the experiences of a Native American tribe (called the Seminoles), African-Americans, and interestingly, the Black Seminoles (descendants of Seminoles and enslaved Africans).
Incorporating several media formats, like newspapers, transcripts, published essays, YouTube videos and transcripts, interview transcripts, and even online chat rooms, Alzayat takes her experimental writing to a new height.
Perhaps, one of the most interesting things about this story is how it reinforces the fickleness of the concept of race. The Syrian family that suffers police brutality (and then state-endorsed injustice) are technically white at the time – due to their complexion and the many years they lived in the US.
But even this does not spare them from the violence inflicted on the Other. Alligator is not my favourite story but I appreciate its criticism of race and all that it taught me about the Seminoles – the only Native American tribe that did not sign a treaty with the US.
Alzayat has written these distinct and authentic stories with a poetic (yet precise) style that conveys the emotional depth and complexities of her characters' experiences with great sensitivity and insight.
This collection is a powerful and timely reminder of the importance of storytelling in building bridges of understanding between cultures and communities, and of the shared humanity that unites us all.
Aisha Yusuff is a book reviewer with a focus on African and Muslim literature. Her work can be found on @thatothernigeriangirl as well as in digital magazines like Rewrite London.
Follow her on Twitter: @allthingsaeesha