Slice of life, stark, nuanced stories, centered around the themes of immigrants, terrorism, and racism, Shauna Singh Baldwin’s collection of short stories makes one confront the very real fears of our times. Her remarkable insight into the working of the minds of her characters that are from various parts of the world – Ukrainian, Irish, Mexican, Pakistani -- trying to dig in roots in their new soil and at the same time threatened by an alien world around them. Like a bill stand with a paper spear that goes through each bill, each of these stories is speared through with fear and unease that leaves one worried and sad for the loneliness and the marginalization that humans suffer and the realization that with all our awareness too we are only growing towards the darkness.
My favourite stories from this collection are, Only a Button, Fletcher and The Distance Between Us.
The disturbing quiet of a housewife, the oh, no, oh no that keeps resonating in her head even as she complies with the demands of her marriage in Only a Button will always stay with the reader. When her mother-in-law calls her husband and tells him to ask her to look for a button she has lost in their apartment during her visit, the thoughts that go on in the girl’s mind, her helpless and the underlying truth of the marriage that - This man she loves is the one person she can’t tell how she feels – is the truth for many who, like her, continue to live in denial of it.
Victor placed a call to Kyiv. “Olena says she cannot find it.”
He should have said, Olena cannot find it. That might have kept Matushka quiet. He could have said, We have been trying to find your button ever since you called, and we have looked everywhere, but we cannot find it. He could have said, as one says to a child, Don’t worry, it’s only a button. We’ll find another just like it.
Fletcher, a wise and perceptive Lhasa Apso as the narrator, brings to surface the dilemmas of the human mind and the games people play to control others. Masterfully, the author studs the narrative with wit and wry humour that balances off the underlying gloom.
The Distance Between Us is a sensitive portrayal of a Sikh professor living in the United States meeting his 21-year-old daughter for the first time. On the one hand, he is the object of racial hate and on the other, he is filled with affection for a daughter he did not know existed.
The title of the book comes from a story by the same name in which sixteen-year-old Kathleen living in the United States with her Pakistani grandmother keeps reminding her that We Are Not in Pakistan in response to her grandmother’s Pakistani ways and views.
*I first read this book when it came out in 2009 in India (published 2007) and I read this again now because this is my depth year which means I go back to books that I enjoyed, read more classics that fell through the gaps while trying to hold too much, and read more books by the same authors to gain insight into their craft.