The title of this diverse anthology is taken from the opening line of Afghan fairy tales, not unlike ‘once upon a time.’ In this case, afsanah, seesanah – one story, thirty stories – “acknowledge[s] the significance that storytelling has had in our lives, its impact on our memories as Afghan Americans,” write the two editors Zohra Saed and Sahar Muradi. Serendipitously, a few weeks before picking up Story, I experienced the stupendous three-part theater marathon, The Great Game: Afghanistan, which with its 150-plus years of Afghan history culled into some 11 hours, surely enriched my reading of this collection.
Comprised of poems, short fiction, essays, excerpts from two blogs, and rich appendices (including a “Themes Index” and “Chronology of Afghan American History” – bet you didn’t know that dance legend Robert Joffrey was hapa Afghan American, or that an Afghan American invented the cooking method that became “Minute Rice”!), Story gathers the work of one of America’s newest ethnic groups. Afghan Americans number “just several hundred thousand people distributed across the country in scattered pockets, a community born of disaster halfway around the planet: in the last decades of the twentieth century, a revolution, an invasion from the north, a civil war, and finally a descent into chaos, utter chaos, which drove millions of refugees out of Afghanistan,” explains Mir Tamim Ansary in his “Foreword.”
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan on December 25, 1979 looms large as the catalyst for many of the writers’ immigration memories included here. So too, of course, does 9/11 which changed for many the concept of what it means to be ‘American’; ironically, 9/11 eventually opened the door for 1.5-and second-generation Afghan Americans to return to their ancestral homeland to visit, reunite with family, to work, to even help rebuild the war-torn country.
Personal standouts include Yasmine Delawari Johnson’s “The Girl with the Green Eyes,” a poignant comparison of Johnson’s own life to a life she might have lived as she identifies with Sharbatgul, the National Geographic cover girl with the legendary piercing eyes; Khalida Sethi’s “My Mother,” in which she asks questions of her mother that Sethi answers through her own experiences that reflect her growing admiration and gratitude for her immigrant mother’s sacrifice and dedication; Sahar Muradi’s “The Things They Wait For,” which follows the quiet life of her displaced elderly grandparents; and Waheeda Samady’s “The Cab Driver’s Daughter,” which proudly honors her gentle father who bears no resemblance to the stereotypical labels of an “oppressor.”
While the contents of the collection are somewhat uneven and overall not yet mature, its absolute significance in the development in Afghan American literature cannot be diminished. With the exception of perhaps Khaled Hosseini (The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns) – whose work is not included, although referenced several times – who seems to have entered the literary canon fully formed, the writers here are still in the midst of finding their voices while their journeys are driven by challenging self-identification and transformative exploration.