Review by Adam Berlin
Sandra Hunter’s artfully printed chapbook titled Small Change (Gold Line Press) is physically small–small dimensions, small print—but the aesthetic doesn’t end there. Each of Hunter’s three stories does what stories should do, using small moments in time to touch larger themes. Here the touching, sometimes tactile, sometimes cerebral, sometimes brutal, sometimes beautiful, presses against the Middle East, a place where turmoil too often touches its people.
In 30 Below, thirteen-year-old Sami takes an archetypal journey to get supplies for his family, crawling through a tunnel from Gaza to Egypt. The potential dangers are many—electric wires, a tunnel collapse, gunfire on the other side— but Sami, afraid of sin and bound by duty, pushes forward. When he reaches Egypt he discovers his task: to feed a young calf and bring the calf home, perhaps for food, perhaps to be sacrificed at a festival. Sami’s real-life impression of a land he’s only imagined makes him pause:
Outside the window is Egypt. Gray dust blowing. A girl in a burqah walks past. I thought the girls would wear skirts and t-shirts like I have seen on television. Two men sit at a wooden table that tilts. They have glasses of tea. Near them, a woman ties up a bundle of clothing and shifts it onto her head. But, still, here I am in a foreign country. Egypt. It sounds so foreign in the mouth, like a strange fruit.
Tilting tables. Shifting bundles. Something is off when tunnels are the only route to survival. Sami’s description moves from concrete, a child’s perception full of nouns, to poetic. His new position in the family, his broadening of experience, even the word Egypt is foreign, strange, but it’s an exciting strange, which points to the universal strange that is coming-of-age. Sammy is moving from child to young adult, doing the man’s work of burrowing, the woman’s work of giving milk. When danger does strike and Sami is forced from the tunnel, he says, “We are birthed back into the loud world.” What’s out there, sadly, is loud, harsh, dangerous. But Sami, born back, is ready.
Running. That’s how Say That You Saw Beautiful Things begins. Eleven-year-old narrator Rayan and her friend Nabila trade veils and dresses for track suits and run through the rain. Their backstory is the country’s backstory, Libya on the verge of the Arab Spring, two childhood friends liberating themselves from social constraints. The girls disguised as boys run into a band of fundamentalists, identified by their armbands as Boys of Free Ulema. Nabila’s shrewdness helps the girls move on unscathed, but not before they’re ordered to bring a message to a man wearing a green scarf at the post office. And it’s at the post office where the uprising begins, the crowd exploding as one where “Everyone breathes in the same air together.” That air, breathed in that square, may be the same, but Hunter uses this tense moment to highlight many differences: Girls, forced to dress as boys, craving to run forward. Militants, some cruel, some not, hoping to turn time backward. And a guide, putting blinders on two English-speaking foreigners, urging them to carry on with their tour of old-city Benghazi, “Let us not dwell on this little disturbance. We will create memories of the real Benghazi, the jewel of North Africa.” Skillfully weaving threads of seeing and covering sight and staying under cover, Hunter makes sure this story dwells on disturbances.
The third and final story Jewels We Took With Us is structured by months, not chronologically, covering a timeframe between March 2003 and a recurring January 2012. The premise: four young married teens with TV-show dreams of beautiful Malaga plan their escape by boat from Morocco to Spain. Their motivation: abusive husbands, repressed lives. Yasmina, the youngest of the “leopard-girls” at thirteen, narrates the story; her husband married her so she could bear his children, but “he is looking for a better woman.”
Sections switch between childhood memories and the 2012 task of making their dangerous escape. There are small moments of joy. But abuse abounds. In an October 2010 passage Yasmina states how quickly all four women were married, “boom, boom, boom, boom,” then describes their black-and-blue connection:
At the river, we wash the clothes, sleeves rolled, skirts tucked up. We see the bruises, the bumps on elbows and shins. Sometimes one of us moves more slowly and we know: fractured ribs, wrists, fingers. A bandage wrapping shows from under sleeves. Somehow the husbands know not to damage legs because we won’t be able to clean or cook.
The paragraphs are short, staccato. The things they must do. The things they must carry. Perhaps their efficiency is partially born from abuse; these teenagers have been rendered mere vessels of servitude—cleaning, cooking, bearing children. No wonder Malaga, where some men “even do the cooking,” seems like paradise. The quick paragraphs also push the story’s pace. The four young women need to move quickly during this biggest of rebellions, so different from their small rebellions—washing a husband’s prayer cap with goat pee, lacing a husband’s stew with goat shit.
Sleeping in alleyways in Tangier, fending off attacking men, hiding from guards, Hunter ratchets up the tension as the story nears its end. The open-ended resolution feels right. What’s not open-ended is the allegiance these four young women have for each other and, by extension, to all oppressed women. As Yasmine says, “All the stories we tell won’t change anything. We are like this because our mothers are like this. We are like this until the husbands die, or we die.” But these four are not “like this,” not completely. They attempt change, they do what their mothers didn’t, pushing progress a small step forward.
The characters in these three stories are fastened closely to the worlds they come from, yet, if only for small moments, they break bonds, move forward, create openings of possibility. Small changes are the most real changes. Sandra Hunter’s chapbook highlights the possibility of change in ways that resonate more powerfully than the news stories we read and see. There are moments when a slightly older, reportorial tone enters these stories, when the young first-person narrators fill in background information that sets the larger stage. These moments aren’t needed. Hunter’s carefully chosen details, her sharp dialogue, and her narrators’ kid-like observations all work to suggest the backdrop in each story while highlighting the very poignant, very human struggles at the core of each. There’s hope in Sandra Hunter’s work, tempered as it should be.
Small Change points to big change with quiet grace, touching hard places and hopeful places. Sami’s words at the end of his story seem emblematic of this touch. “There is a broom by the door. I pick it up and start sweeping slowly.” Slowly, quietly, in small increments—that’s how dreams are realized.
About the author:
Adam Berlin is the author of the novels Both Members of the Club (Texas Review Press/winner of the Clay Reynolds Novella Prize), The Number of Missing (Spuyten Duyvil), Belmondo Style (St. Martin’s Press/winner of The Publishing Triangle’s Ferro-Grumley Award) and Headlock (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill). He teaches writing at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City and co-edits J Journal: New Writing on Justice. For more, please visit adamberlin.com