Masha’allah and Other Stories by Mariah K. Young, recipient of the James D. Houston Award, is a book of nine short stories that take place in the Bay Area of California. Young, enlivened by the energy and spirit of the streets, uses an empathic voice to imagine the lives of those around her living in financial insecurity as they cobble together a living with various gigs, pot drop-offs, random parties to bartend, limo drivers with pick-ups, men meeting in clusters to be day laborers. She writes about those trapped and pushing against economic restraints: people induced to come to America under false promises by their own countrymen, minorities finding ways to use their talents to catch the rung up out of what they were born into, immigrants constructing a forged identity to become citizens, a teenage girl who escapes the life of her parents’ illegal operation to breed dogs for dog fighting. Young’s empathic voice lets us feel the humanity of the characters beyond class and ethnicity . . . “they are us.” Even though it may not be their voice and the way they would express their experiences, or even their ethos, we are given a path to cross over to them.
Three of the stories are about immigrants, “One Space,” “The Front of the House,” and “Prints.” Each story shows the global society in which we are now living—the new melting pot of economic refugees from all over the world. “One Space,” written in the second person, is unsettling as the character is experiencing a life of dislocation from his wife and the familiarity of his homeland. This unnamed man, being in America illegally, has had a series of different names from Phoenix to Los Angeles to Oakland. His alienation is penetratingly deep as he is sending money home to his family even as he wants to be with his wife: “But to come home without something to offer—best not to come home at all. The score is clear: back in Poza Rica, you wouldn’t be working at all. You would never be able to have a home for you and Eldie.”
In “Prints,” the series of multiple names appears again as we meet a seven year old who is terrified that he won’t remember to say he was born in San Francisco, not Manila. His final time to clinch onto citizenship is at sixteen, if he passes the test for his driver’s license and has his photo and name on the same document. He will have no more worries: “The license would be my proof.” In “The Front of the House,” two people were tricked by their countryman, Ramesh, into coming to America, one for a good marriage and the other for a good job—both remaining in the same economic plight as if they had remained in India. Jack, renaming himself, coming from Delhi to be a manager, was put to washing dishes. He did not know “when he could finally bring them over—Sati would have to point him out to their son, introduce them like strangers.” His son had been in the womb when he left three years prior.
Running through the stories are the longings of an economic underclass trying to get a handhold up to a place of a more assured survival. What the characters have in common is a drive to combine their will and talent to find a place which is often about being “legit.” In “Chinta’s Fabulous Traveling Salon,” Chinta saves to be able to rent her own chair in a salon. In “Studies in Entropic Botany,” Art, growing marijuana for the street gangs, dreams of wearing a suit, having a desk, and selling his wares in a licensed medicinal club that he owns: “I wanted on that club train.” The push against poverty leeches them from below, but their spirits are strong and each of them, in full dignity, is never a victim.
Young’s writing techniques provide the stories with layers and depth. Metaphors are created purely by the specific. In “Litters,” a pit bull delivering her pups turns and eats the weakest one, making a bloody mess and frightening away seventeen-year-old Della’s cousin. The story that Della’s deceased father told her to make it better when she was a child she now tells her cousin: “She had to feed her other pups. . . . Instinct. It was the only thing she knew to do.” The pit bull’s action and the explanation echoes through passage after passage of her family’s plight, centering the punch of the story. Another writing technique that makes the characters come alive is their moment to moment self-reflection and decision-making that are list-like but have the effect of immediacy.
In “Masha’allah,” Sully, a limousine driver who had better things planned for himself and his beloved wife but got caught in a job lay-off he could never recover from, thinks to himself:
. . . that same logic is probably what keeps Suze with him—Sully was a good bet once, and she’s too loyal or too stubborn to admit that he didn’t pay out the way he was supposed to. No kids, a pissant pension, and they are still living in the same house on Twenty-sixth Street, the house that they were supposed to move out of once he got a management job at the shipping yard . . .
Experiencing the empathic, even though hypothesized, drama in the dominant culture’s voice of being an immigrant or a minority dealing with the limitations of poverty, we come closer to feeling what it is like to not fit into an economy held together by an entrenched social system. The empathic voice not only lets us see ourselves, but lets us experience the lives of other people and the world in a more accurate way—we are now in the first stages of a global society, more and more neighborhoods in the large cities a mixture of many ethnicities and cultures. The American melting pot, unlike in the past, is now mostly non-European. We need a human bridge to one another, and the vision and insight of these stories are a link in providing that.