Anyone who has been reading Shauna Singh Baldwin over the years and has come to love the way she creates an aura around her subject matter, weaving history with fictional narrative, and training her eye on how characters survive their circumstances, will appreciate but be surprised by her new collection. We Are Not in Pakistan is a collection of 10 stories, sometimes fantastical and sometimes heart rending, but always unexpected. Baldwin stretches her gift for creating fictional worlds by using a subtle brand of magic realism in stories that, if written by anyone else, would seem ridiculously implausible.
The title story, “We Are Not in Pakistan,” is an eerie narrative about a mother and daughter, who, after the mother’s divorce, go to live with her Pakistani Christian parents. Kathleen, the daughter, is stifled in her grandparent’s home and deeply ashamed of her traditional grandmother who insists on walking her to her new school, regaling her along the way with stories of days gone by. The sweet-natured grandmother notices beauty in everything and attempts to point out the entirety of what she sees to Kathleen, but her granddaughter simmers with a horrifying and almost pathological resentment of everything foreign. She goes as far as shunning a classmate who wears the hijab and sits and eats by herself in the lunchroom every day, ignored by everyone. When Kathleen wakes up one day and her grandmother is nowhere to be found, her grandfather and her mother construct elaborate reasons why she cannot be found and, in the end, seem not at all concerned with her unusual and unprecedented disappearance from their lives.
In “The View from the Mountain,” a friendship and partnership is forged between a native Costa Rican and a big American newcomer, appropriately named Ted Grand, who initially exhibits a respect for his adopted country and the people in it until the tragedy of 9/11 shatters all of his notions of what it means to live safely in the world. “The Raghead,” while horrifyingly exploiting nearly every available xenophobic stereotype, sees the main character, Larry Reilly, through his day as he encounters his neighbors: a “kike,” a “kraut,” a “raghead” and all of the other “unsavory” characters that white men of his kind may fear or want to avoid. Reilly’s experiences in the war (“Which one?” his “raghead” doctor asks him), loss of his brother in the same war, and the information he comes upon regarding his brother’s death lead him to recall the words of the “peacenik” who lives next door: “The government always knows something we don’t.”
Baldwin writes as a true citizen of the world, and, as clichéd as it may sound, artfully blends the personal and the political. She leaves readers to draw our own conclusions—about our political climate, our identities, our nationalistic attitudes, and our penchant for always viewing the other as an outsider—while admittedly giving a strong nudge in the direction she wishes us to see.
In Baldwin’s capable hands, these stories fairly throb with heart and meaning. They beg more questions than they answer, but then again, that is clearly the point.
|Michelle Reale is an academic librarian and a fiction writer, living in the suburbs of Philadelphia.|