Review: And the World Changed

And the World Changed
Edited by Muneeza Shamsie
The Feminist Press: New York, 2008

 

I read fiction to be reminded that my experience of the world both is and is not singularly mine. I read it to experience the pain and joy of others, to be moved by their stories, and to try to see their truth in my own. I read fiction because it is full of the humanity that is sorely lacking from our daily lives—because I cannot be petty when I experience life through a lens of comparison. And sometimes I even believe that reading fiction makes me a better person.

And the World Changed is the first-ever collection of short stories by Pakistani women written in English. Spanning generations and continents, editor Muneeza Shamsie has compiled an amazing work of 25 writers and nearly 400 pages. Situated chronologically, the stories seamlessly flow from one to the next and the reader is hard pressed to find a flaw. Because flaws have a tendency to provide character, I will share the only one I was able to locate: Prior to each story, Shamsie provides a brief biography of the writer along with a pithy analysis of the meaning contained in their contribution to the book. I wish this had come after the reading instead of before, as Shamsie’s synopsis interrupts the story’s natural unfolding. This, however, is a minor complaint, which is easily rectified by reading the chapter’s sections in reverse.

The stories jump temporally and geographically—from Lahore to Oaxaca to Berkeley to Japan to London to Karachi. The voices that emerge are as diverse as the population itself, and represent the internal and external struggles caused by differing ideas about issues such as religion, modernization, violence, and gender roles. These issues cause liberation and enslavement, a double yoke that is so difficult, at times impossible, to transcend.

A young bride-to-be is devastated when she bumps into her future in-laws wearing jeans after a day of hiking. An older woman considers how her life has been shaped by the world’s bloody conflicts (Partition, Vietnam, Civil Rights, Zapatistas, Sandinistas). Childhood friends are reunited far from home and re-open wounds that refuse to heal. A new immigrant searches for a mosque in New York City in the days following 9/11, only to be turned away because she is a woman. A community of poor women scheme to utilize cultural norms in order to protect an innocent who cannot protect herself. There are numerous stories of love’s joy and devastation.

Much meaning is gently folded into words as they are lined up to create these fictions, and sometimes the weight is so heavy that it literally pulls you down. Other times the descriptions are so wonderfully precise that you can almost taste the sweetness of paan or chai rolling around on your tongue, feel the acrid pollution burning your nose, or hear the honking of cars and squawking of crows blaring in your ears. Time and place becomes intertwined as you move between the spaces of past, present, and future. And all is lost and found in the exquisite placement of words on each page.


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