THE GRAND TOUR
After a life of living in the desert, Hamid decided to admit a kind of defeat. He was an old man past sixty. By the time he rode into the village of Al-Kharj with his wife, Rafa, and theTexan, Gus, they possessed only the things they tied to the three aging camels and a pair of spindly, recalcitrant mares. Gus asked where they were going, in the mild way Hamid had become accustomed to. “A relation,” Hamid told him. “His father owed mine a debt.” Gus understood about extended Bedouin families; this relation, then, would take them in.
He had been with the husband and wife — who were childless — since the day nearly twenty-five years earlier when they had rescued him from the aftermath of a storm. He had never meant to survive it. His companion had not. Hamid and Rafa seemed to understand Gus’s guilt, and had delivered him up from the wild sands, burying the other and with it, the Texan’s past. He was theirs and stayed theirs, through everything. Now Rafa pulled her camel’s reins taut and sat high in her seat. She surveyed the last downward slope to the village and said, very softly, “Here we will make another home.” Hamid grunted in reply.
Rafa was some years younger than her husband, as was Gus. The Texan had grown into himself (he had been stripped back by his convalescence, Rafa remembered, in both body and mind), and though he remained slight, and the folds of his robes seemed always to find his bones to cling against, the fragility of his appearance was deceptive. His footing in sand was sure, and he was a steady shot with a rifle. On this journey he had been the one to keep them going with kills of small game: they took what they came across,
birds and the occasional hare, once a spiny dubh lizard — a delicacy and, especially now, a good omen. That meal had been the day before reaching Al-Kharj; Rafa agreed with her husband that it was
indeed good luck, and Gus’s providing it seemed to refresh a sense of good will among the three, but as Hamid continued to extol their fortune in the small fire’s light Rafa closed her ears to the
sound of his voice.
Hamid wanted her appreciation now, as the houses of the village came into sharper view, but what she had said did not achieve its mark.
From 'The Grand Tour', Triple Time
click for longer extract
First from the ship her unsteadiness seems natural—her feet now on land, which does not shift or rock, she sways, skirts belling with and against her, seeking her righted self. She inhales salt cod, leathery wetness from sand and soil. Gulls arc and shrill overhead. This cousin she has never met is indeed a dark one, a Portuguese, her mother said: he relieves her of her trunk on the dock and when his face cracks into a smile Mary T_____ shivers, looking into where her life will go. This lowland spit-sand holds for her fish and ice and roof and he. When the wind blows northerly she imagines she will be afraid for what animals they might keep: ducks will swim in a flooded paddock, horses drink snow, and she will never see the harbor in the city again.
No: It will go another way. Next sunrise her steps are worse rubbery, not from what transpired the night before; her skin aflames. From town he pulls her through birch and maple, past the pond with two names. At a clearing down a hidden slope he releases his brief hold on her for good, like that. One day only, she thinks. A marriage made for life?
In the clearing a little house awaits, twelve paces by twenty long. Smoke stirs the air from the chimney. The trees sigh and rustle: Welcome, Mary T_____. Two fresh mounds flank the house and a sweet damp scent—she could swear it to be cinnamon—blooms from the earth. From within, faces turn silently to the door. In this forest, hidden from sea, a new community has begun.
From: The House in the Woods, from The Collagist
I. All Souls
Which ones do you hate, Mercy, she asks me. I turn my head to look at her face, and she keeps her side to me so that I can see the smooth cheek—very pale, like chalk it is—and the only thing to show how strong she might mean her words is a little pulse above the ear. The way she wears her cap, the band be set high on her brow and you see more than you should. There is no line even of whiter flesh where her hair pulls back: It is all the same, same whiteness. Abby’s face don’t bloom like another girl of her age (eleven, twelve: We don’t know for certain).
Why what do you mean, dear, I say back. I am some five or six years older to she, I can speak to her like that, the way I speak to little Ann at home. It is better these girls be calm (so is said often). To-day we must be more careful. Not like we are not watched on all days, but this one is for even more prayer than others. Though truth be told there is always a heavy quotient of that.
Them for instance, Abby says.
We have reached the opening to the little lane behind the church. No wagon tracks turn this way; it seems like an escape. The sky is bright and we blink. Some others come out of the church now and stand quietly talking: None will show they wish not to hurry. For November the day carries memory of summer, like a reprieve.
This will not last long, I think, pushing my collar from my throat. Too warm. I feel a dampness round the edge of my cap.
From Souls, Seduction Of, Web Conjunctions
Description of Triple Time
For Jill, a young American living in Saudi Arabia in the 1980s, life is in “a holding pattern” of long days in a restrictive place-“sandlocked nowhere,” as another expat calls it. Others don't know how to leave, and try to adopt the country as their own. And to those who were born there, the changes seem to come at warp speed: Thurayya, the daughter of a Bedouin chief, later finds herself living in a Riyadh high-rise where, she says, there are “worlds wound together with years.”
The characters in the linked stories in Triple Time are living an uneasy mesh of two divergent cultures, in a place where tradition and progress are continually in flux. These are tales of confliction-of old and new, rich and poor, sexual repression and personal freedom. We experience a barren yet strangely beautiful landscape jolted by sleek glass apartment towers and opulent fountains. On the fringes of urbanity, Bedouins traverse the desert in search of the next watering hole.
Anne Sanow is the author of the story collection Triple Time, winner of the 2009 Drue Heinz Literature Prize, the 2010 PEN New England/L. L. Winship Award for fiction, and a finalist for the Massachusetts Book Award. Her work has been published in Dossier, Kenyon Review, Shenandoah, Malahat Review, The Collagist, and elsewhere. The winner of the 2009 Nelson Algren Award for the short story from the Chicago Tribune, she has received fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the MacDowell Colony, and the National Endowment for the Arts.
What are you currently working on?
I've been working on a novel called The Dailies for some years now, which is set partly in Berlin's WWII film industry and follows two German half-sisters and other characters during the war and after. It sprawls and spirals, though, both geographically and over generations, though the connecting thread is the estrangement of these sisters and the legacy of silence in German families. This one is (thankfully!) nearing conclusion; at a recent residency I had a good breakthrough in terms of the voice and structure, so I'm now busy rewriting the entire draft in this vein.
One reason this book has taken so long is that I've routinely cheated on it with other projects. I've made a start on a next novel project, which will return to the Middle East in the era of the Gulf Wars with military characters whose lives are affected by Don't Ask, Don't Tell. And I do have some new short stories in various draft stages as well.
In working on new work are you finding correlations with Triple Time, or are you consciously starting over?
When I first began The Dailies it seemed to have nothing whatever to do with Triple Time—other than that they both engage in history and involved research (something that's an aspect of anything I write). So perhaps on that level the correlation would be a kind of investigation; I'm very much in the camp of writers who likes to write about what I don't know about what I may know, so discovery is a large part of that process. It's only recently that I realized that I was not finished with the Middle East as a setting, which is why I'm returning there in the just-started next book.
But another correlation, topically at least, is war, and oddly enough it took another writer friend pointing out the obvious for me to fully embrace that. War isn't engaged with directly in the stories in Triple Time, but it's thrumming around in the background there. The Dailies engages it directly, of course, as will the next novel. I don't think that someone would read my work and refer to it as "war writing"—which we customarily imagine to be that of direct combat, for the most part. What I keep learning as I write is that my path—and that of my characters—often goes about exploring that thematic on the oblique. I'm interested in the spaces in between: what so-called daily life is like, how these engagements alter and change us, epically, even if we're not on the front lines. A totem book for me that does this is Shirley Hazzard's The Great Fire: though set post-WWII, the aftereffects of war—that "great conflagration"—are inescapable for the characters, and I really admire the way in which Hazzard makes that pause (almost a hiccup) between the conflicts of the Second World War and the Cold War, etc. to come seem as dangerous as any hand-to-hand combat ever would.
Triple Time is a series of seven interlinked short stories in which you interrogate Saudi from many perspectives, from ex-pats to citizens. Much of this is deeply informed, it's an insiders view in which the subject seems equally to be Saudi and isolation. There's a tight link between context and character, and a good deal of misunderstanding. People constantly getting things wrong. There's a sense of parsing out a subject - can you speak about that structuring, and maybe how that structuring reflected on the content?
Place and isolation: you're so right about that, and it's something I tend to think of as deep-structure subject here. Another thing I'm always writing toward (or around? within?) is some concept of "home" and belonging—these are universals of course—and I think they're the things I'm most conscious of when I'm writing. In each story there's a character grappling with those things. As to structure, this began to happen when I had four or five drafts completed (and I should add here that not every story I wrote made it into the book; I'm pretty ruthless in terms of throwing things away if they just don't work for me on the language level, or if they seem like they're beating the same dead horse thematically).
So it must be about character, then, yes? Because otherwise that deep-structure thematic or subject gets quite boring. What happened with TT is that some drafts in, I realized that I had three voices that were the strongest: Gus (the Texan, WWII pilot); Thurayya (younger sister of Gus's Bedouin lover, and later depicted as a matriarch); and Kimberly (the young American expat who becomes Thurayya's daughter-in-law). The linking began to happen when I realized that these characters would drive the collection, and that I'd depict them at different points in their lives—and that somehow, they'd connect. At that point I worked more strategically to link up other drafts (though some of those links are lighter than others, and stylistically the stories differ: this is why one wants to write a collection rather than a novel in some cases).
And yes: these characters are always misunderstanding, or trying to understand, understanding the wrong thing, or the right thing too late. Any place or culture or time is about being an insider or an outsider, but in Saudi in particular, with its mix of natives and expatriates, this condition is acute. I lived there myself for just two years, but it's the strongest thing I've retained from my time there. If there's a grand context or theme it would be that.
There's a discipline in story writing, an expectation that each story will be about something distinctive. Did you divide concerns, or issues, between characters. Were the characters a way of interrogating one set of ideas which would rub against the next, and so on?
I think that I detailed a bit of that above, in terms of how the stories and book developed. That really was organic and not initially planned — and again, character-driven, with a story arc I needed to figure out for each. I didn't consciously divide up issues or concerns, and wouldn't want to work that way. For me issues arise from characters, and I try to resist imposing anything from on high. Of course, as I say this, I have to admit too that I was conscious when writing the TT stories that I was taking on a culture imbued with much mystery and misunderstanding, and as an American writer—so of course, it's freighted with a responsibility, as well as the risk of being labeled a literary tourist. My writing mantra is "up from under": I want to write from the center of something, pushing outward, exploring from the inside even if I, as the author, am anything but. What I want to resist is explanation. Does this make sense? I think it might be my way of trying to humanize history writ large; it's my attempt to capture characters in context and let them do what they would really do—which might not be what is ideal—and thus not let "history" press back on the characters.
One key issue is about tradition verses modernisation.
Definitely — that was much of what caught my attention about writing the TT stories to begin with, and I hope that I captured some of the poignant parts of that as well as the harsh realities. (And I didn't want to pin this on characters in a predictable way: hence Thurayya, a former Bedouin girl, lives in a high rise as an older woman and enjoys it; her American daughter-in-law has in some ways restricted her independence more than anyone else has. I knew that this would seem to be going against the expected grain; not only was that intentional, but, I think, it became more essentially true for these particular characters.) Change is always a good theme for fiction, and in Saudi, during the period the stories are set, change really was happening at a kind of warp speed.
But you know: I want to be a bit less obvious with that thematic in the next Middle East book. I'm a bit wary of overdoing that trope. "Up from under," "up from under" . . . I need to find a new way to work with that.
Anne Sanow website
US publisher: University of Pittsburgh Press
Triple Time at Amazon