I don’t usually write literary or general fiction, so it was a surprise to me when this one came bubbling up and I didn’t even think of making it a horror story. I could have, I guess — there’s certainly plenty of fodder, from djinni to (were)jackals to Pazuzu and other assorted demons — but my decision not to go there was based on two reasons:
- Cultural appropriation. To get something like a djinn right, I’d have to do a lot of research — more than I necessarily wanted for a short story.
- More importantly: my sense that the Syrian people have already had enough suffering visited on them. I wanted to tell a story of hope, rather than exploit them. (Not that I’ll argue if a Syrian writer someday publishes some dark fiction based on their lived experience in that environment.)
Writing “out of my lane,” as it were, even if I wasn’t going to write djinni or other supernatural creatures into the story, I wanted to be as sensitive and realistic as possible to the culture, the people, and the language. I chose the characters’ names carefully, researched food and clothing and words (“tayaran” in Arabic means “flight”), and yes, I hired a sensitivity reader.
The question at the heart of “Tayaran”
The idea for this story is fairly straightforward. The local Islamic Center offered a screening of the documentary, “Salam Neighbor,” and I was curious, so I went. Watching the film, I began to wonder: how would my son, then 10, cope with living in a refugee camp?
At the time, he was heavy into parkour. He and a neighborhood friend would leap over whatever obstacles they could find; one time they even climbed onto our roof and knocked on my office skylight. (While I was unemployed. Without health insurance.) He even quit karate because his sensei dragged parkour as a sport (because it lacks discipline? I couldn’t figure that one out).
Finding an ending — and a home — with meaning
My biggest challenge was the ending. They’re a perennial weakness of mine; basically, I never want a given story to end, so I struggle to tie it off in a way that satisfies. With “Tayaran,” I had to go through two rounds, between comments from the sensitivity reader and from Kit-Bacon at Writers Resist, to arrive at a positive ending we could agree on.
You can find the end result here, and I couldn’t be prouder. It took me a long time to find a home for this story, and even after it was accepted, I worried that it was no longer as relevant to the times. The Middle Eastern refugee camps have all but fallen off media radar, as other conflicts and scandals and disasters take center stage.
Then I learned that the detention center for Latinx children in Tornillo, Texas was expanding, and suddenly, that made this story relevant again.
Promoting #ownvoices from the region
Finding a home for “Tayaran” also gives me the chance to promote both the poets who appeared in the same issue alongside my story, and Syrian and other Arab writers who are more influential and/or closer to the conflict than I am:
- You can find poems by Tara Campbell, Karen Greenbaum-Maya, Larry D. Thacker (whose poem “24-Hour Relevance” was my personal favorite), & M.A. Durand, also in Issue 73 at Writers Resist.
- Syrian writer Samar Yazbek “focuses on the silent, or silenced, actors of the revolution: Women.” Find a brief excerpt and other links here.
- A translated excerpt of Maha Hassan’s “Aleppo Metro” includes this: “I have two books that I write in: my dream book, to confirm that I’m in Paris; and my war book, to remind myself that I’m not in Aleppo.”
- These very short pieces from Osama Alomar make you think.
- Zakaria Tamer’s short “stories are solidly grounded in a fairy-tale imagination, with often surprising gestures toward poetic reverie, realism, sarcasm, and the plot twist.”
- Publishers Weekly also listed “9 Essential Books by Arab Writers” to check out.
- Finally, I’d like to add a very special shout-out to the sensitivity reader I hired, who writes under the pen name Nora Salem. She validated some things and helped me fix others, and her encouragement meant the world. Her short story “The End of the World” can be found in the Islamicates anthology.
What did you think of “Tayaran,” or the other stories and excerpts I posted? Leave a comment or find me on social media!
Image credit: Marco Gomes on Flickr