The Tribe, by Michael Mohammed Ahmad. In this novella, Ahmad brings detailed family relationships to life within a minority Shi’ite Lebanese community in western Sydney. He does so from the perspective of a young boy at varying ages (between 7 and 11). I gained insight into kinship, tradition, and cultural identity through the curious character, Bani. At times, the language of the narrator did not seem match the excess of the content: the huge Arab wedding and dance scenes, scents and smells, the lead up to a fight, women’s and men’s bodies and clothes, illness and love of family. But maybe this disjunction indicates the difficulty of being socialised within ‘the tribe’ and looking out into other cultures, even other Arab traditions in Australia. The book conveyed a tight range of affects. It did not crack open it’s ‘show not tell’ techniques, so loved in writing courses. Rather, the whole thing unfolded like a single take (the Russian Ark) in film, as we see cousins and aunties and uncles and the suburban houses come and go in the present tense. Sometimes I got the feeling the youngster was overwhelmed by his tribe and confused by his role in it, and then there were times when Ahmad was a little heavy handed by concluding elements.
“Russia is a land of women Homers,” Petrushevskaya has said, and it is this informal narrative tradition of ordinary Russian women which gives shape to this novel.
Such women as the protagonist, Anna, who move us throughout day and night, through the piecemeal actions that patch her story, herself and her family, and who pull us into a bleak drama of family tensions that are quite often comedic. Anna is a struggling poet whose adult children continue to depend on her and use her. And it is through this window that Petrushevskaya’s language shows the striations and micropolitics of the Russian state.
Petrushevskaya’s novella has elements of purposeful realism brought into the domestic sphere. There are many details of Russian poverty, and yet there are glimpses of a life lived, Anna’s engagement with language, for example; her performance at readings. “The time: Night” is repeated throughout the novella and becomes like a rhythmic refrain, in which Anna unspools her thoughts about her family members, a different register each time. Aesthetically, it becomes linked with indoors, the place where she can write.”The time: Night”: and now a further narrative progresses that is not exactly linear.
Even though Anna’s voice is forthright, I think Petrushevskaya’s work has postmodern tendencies in that Anna does not present as a traditional subject. From the beginning it is clear that she is writing to her family from beyond the grave, and is a decentred/deconstructed construct. The conceit here is that her poems and narratives are on scraps of paper and telegrams. Character development is also disruptive in temporal peaks and troughs, and the novella tends to blur the line between tragedy and comedy. However, the force of affect is apparent in Anna’s desire to both connect and sever relations with her family members, and this is perhaps a sign that the gendered subject is in motion in a new way. This is most exemplified by Anna’s harsh questioning and refusal of the ‘mother’ role and, in turn, by her melodramatic swooning over her grandchild, Tima.