In compiling this anthology I am very conscious of what an Alexandrian library this website has become. While this is very much my own personal selection, I have also tried to enter into the spirit of what Jonathan Gibbs is building here by weighting my choices towards writers who have not yet featured, though I hope their worthiness is self-evident. I have also included a few stories that are available online so that you might enjoy some down payment of enjoyment and immediate value for your interest.

‘Nobody Mourns the City’s Cats’ by Muhammad El-Hajj, translated from Arabic by Yasmine Zohdi

In this subtle and beautifully executed story Egyptian writer Muhammad El-Hajj portrays the life of a man in emotional transition. The writing evokes a backdrop of famous Cairo alleys and insidious political menace, but it is his masterly skill in the foreground that is particularly memorable where he explores the space between intimacy and uncertainty. 

We’d been playing the same role in turns throughout the ten years we’d been friends; she’d take care of me, and then I’d take care of her, and sometimes we’d both be in so much pain that neither of us could hear the other. Yet the comfort of knowing we were not alone was always enough to make it better.

(I would like to thank the editor of ArabLit Quarterly Marcia Lynx Qualey and the author for agreeing to make this story available online for the purposes of this anthology.)

Published in translation in ArabLit Quarterly Summer 2019: The Sea, and available to read online here

‘Natterbean’ by June Caldwell

There is nothing as universal and yet highly localised as a taxi ride. In this masterpiece of technicolour vernacular, June Caldwell buckles us into a story that celebrates the colour of spoken Dublinese, matched only by her gift – synaesthesia I would say – for imagery. An invigorating story, studded with twisted poetry. 

The docks had a sheeny buzz since they’d done them all up on Fine Fáil chips. No more rust bunks sitting on giant metal plinths. Through civil wars and world wars and the IRA’s gun-running gobshites on the run from themselves, they’d all hid down here, heads low. First batches of heroin were holed up in derelict warehouses full of pigeons. Prozzies from Eastern Europe were brought in through the sea gates. Young lives spent sucking on office peckers dreaming of getting out in a footballer’s convertible before being shot in the head as a favour to a crack baron in Cabra for a write-off of a few quid or other.

First published in Room Little Darker, published by New Island/Head of Zeus, 2018 and available to read online here

‘The Drizzle on the Windscreen’ by Manus Boyle Tobin

This second in a duet of Dublin taxi stories is very different, inhabiting the interior world of a homeless taxi driver who sleeps in his car. It is the seamlessness of it that is so impressive. Using a single sentence, it switches between melancholic dreaming and the grim normality of the Dublin streetscape. For the homeless character, the distinction between inside and outside becomes ever less clear. 

has he worked so long that he’s entered this trance, unaware of anything; barely just the steering wheel in his sleepy hands, the pedals at his feet, the windscreen where his eyes appear to have gotten lost upon looking through it, through the drizzle, and the occasional brake lights of other cars, the driver is resigned to sleeping in this same seat, perhaps that’s why his foot is so soft on the accelerator; he has already arrived at his destination

Winner of the Emerging Fiction and overall prizes at the Hennessy Literary Awards 2018 and published in The Irish Times, March 2018 and available to read here

‘Doors’ by Rania Mamoun, translated from Arabic by Elisabeth Jacquette

Set in Khartoum, this debut collection in English by Rania Mamoun is one of my favourite books of recent years. Her narrative skill creates space for us to observe the characters, and her non-judgmental depiction of Life and lives is filled with humanity. In ‘Doors’ the main character is tantalised by the prospect of escape from poverty, but is ultimately reminded of his powerlessness and dispensability. In a few short sentences about the bus journey to a job interview we get a glimpse of the everyday chaos:

‘Get everyone in the doorway to move back into the bus, boy,’ shouted the driver. ‘Good lord, getting fined is the last thing we need this morning.’
As soon as the driver stopped speaking, the man felt himself being pushed by many hands and a struggle began.
‘Brothers, please, move all the way in, God bless…’
One man punched his neighbour, the person next to him stamped on another one’s foot, and a tall man was hunkered down so much it looked as if he were praying.
‘Guys, open the window… it’s hot, and meningitis is going around!’ someone yelled.

First published in translations in Thirteen Months of Sunrise, Comma Press, 2019, and available to read online here

‘The Story of the Girl Whose Birds Flew Away’ by Bushra al-Fadil, translated from Arabic by Max Schmookler

Bushra al-Fadil, a Sudanese writer based in Saudi Arabia, won the 2017 Cain Prize with this deceptively sophisticated story. It opens with chaotic street scenes in Khartoum, before switching into his dream-like fascination with the eponymous Girl. 

There I was, cutting through a strange market crowd – not just people shopping for their salad greens, but beggars and butchers and thieves, prancers and Prophet-praisers and soft-sided soldiers, the newly-arrived and the just-retired, the flabby and the flimsy, sellers roaming and street kids goraning, god-damners, bus waiters and white-robed traders, elegant and fumbling.

While it is not uncommon for short stories to spring something on us, the skill is in the unfolding; the way in which this story transitions from liveliness to something more mournful reveals how layered it is.

Published in The Book of Khartoum, edited by Raph McCormack and Max Schmookler, Comma Press, 2016. Available to listen to, read by Elmi Ali here

‘Moonlight Shadow’ by Banana Yoshimoto, translated by Megan Backus

Usually included with Banana Yoshimoto’s zesty debut novel Kitchen, Moonlight Shadow encapsulates much of what I so admire about her writing. Though she is emotionally unguarded, her cheerfulness is often tinged with stoicism and grief. In this story a young woman recovers from the death of her boyfriend and, as is typical in Banana Yoshimoto’s work, the supernatural and natural worlds open to each other to bridge the gap between what we feel and what we understand.  

A lover should die after a long lifetime. I lost Hitoshi at the age of twenty, and I suffered from it so much that I felt as if my own life had stopped. The night he died, my soul went away to some other place and I couldn’t bring it back. It was impossible to see the world as I had before. My brain ebbed and flowed, unstable, and I passed the days in a relentless state of dull oppression.

Published in Kitchen, Faber 1997

‘The Neighborhood Phone’ by Gabriella Ghermandi, translated from Italian by Giovanna Bellesia-Contuzzi and by Victoria Offredi Poletto

The Italo-Ethiopian writer Gabriella Ghermandi was born in Addis Ababa in 1965 and moved to Italy in 1979. This evocative story tells of her return to Ethiopia, and the strange homelessness of those who belong in two places and therefore neither place. The story revolves around the only telephone in the village and the people whose lives are connected by it. This is a place of sleepy inefficiency and poverty, jarringly so for the author; however, within the story there is the flowering of a sense of home and continuity.

I cried all of the following days, in front of my old house with the abandoned garden, at my father’s grave, whenever the phone rang, when I saw the witch. I cried and I washed the anger of such a long separation out of my heart. Finally, I felt light in my heart and I no longer minded the waits by the phone, the buses that never seemed to leave, the lines to buy sugar, the haggling with taxi drivers, the hugs of dirty children. My land was once again familiar to me.

First published in English in Words Without Borders, December 2008, and available to read online here

‘Pursuit’ by Naguib Mahfouz, translated from Arabic by Roger Allen

This is one of eighteen lost stories by Naguib Mahfouz, the Egyptian writer and first Arabic author to win the Nobel Prize. Though not his strongest work, the collection – recently discovered, and published in English by Saqi press – captures the timeless storytelling touch of Mahfouz and his ability to wrap the individual into society to make something universal. In this story a woman returns to town nursing her illegitimate baby; powerless and poor she seeks redress by her will and wits.

In one hand she would hold a basket full of halva squares and in the other she clutched her baby. She began to move from face to face, hawking her halva, but it seemed she was making a special point of standing in front of Boss Uthman’s shop. She made sure that he could hear her voice or see her in person. He could not ignore her forever.

First published in The Quarter, Saqi Press, 2019

‘This Hostel Life’ by Melatu Uche Okorie

This title piece from a three-story collection is by former asylum seeker Melatu Uche Okorie, originally from Nigeria but now living in Ireland where she is doing a PhD in creative writing. It tells of the experience of the controversial direct provision system with a clear voice and gift for voicing her characters. Irish writing is still very much lacking in diversity and this collection offers a perspective on Ireland and Irish people we have not seen in fiction before.

In my last hostel dey give you provision any day, but it’s gonna be one month since you collect last. So if you get toilet paper today, it’s gonna be one month before you get another. Dat is why me I happy when dey give me every week for here, now, me I don feel happy again. Dis direct provision business is all the same, you see, because even if you collect provision for every week or you collect for every month, it is still somebody dat is give you the provision. Nothing is better than when you decide something for yourself.

First published in This Hostel Life by Skein Press, 2018. Also available from Virago, 2019

‘Letters without Envelopes’ by Suzana Tratnik, translated from Slovene by Špela Bibič

This story from Slovenian writer Suzana Tratnik tells of a go-between in a lesbian love affair between Mara – who describes herself as the only lesbian in 1980s Yugoslavia – and Ana, her secret lover. In the era before email, the narrator is the conduit through which the two lovers correspond. This is a touching account of war and its many manifestations, and the resourcefulness of the truest human feelings.

Mara’s first letter came in the autumn of the late 1980s. The fact that she had gotten my address in Switzerland, as she explained at the beginning, seemed incredible to me, almost mysterious. She lived in Dalmatia, in a town I had never been to. She wrote me a two-page letter, mentioning more than once that she was a lesbian, probably the only one in Dalmatia, if not the whole of Croatia. For a number of years, she had been visiting her uncle in Zurich and particularly her friend Uli, whom she had met at the city’s lesbian center. Uli was therefore the only lesbian she knew. But on her last visit to Zurich, her Swiss friend had assured her that she was no longer the only lesbian in Yugoslavia.

First published in translation in Words Without Borders, June 2013, and available to read online here

‘The Last Day’ by Jaroslavas Melnikas, translated from Lithuanian by Marija Marcinkute

Jaroslavas Melnikas is a Lithuanian of Ukranian descent and this story is from a collection that won him the BBC Book of the Year. With Melnikas we always get an interesting premise. In this story a book is created which foretells with accuracy the date of death of everyone alive. This acts as the opening note which reverberates throughout the narrative as people come to terms with the implications of knowing their fate and that of their loved ones. There is a parable-like feel to this story, though it concludes on ambiguous note, leaving us question what moral, if any, we are to draw from it, or indeed, from Life.

At first it just seemed bizarre. Three hundred thousand people from all over the world filed a lawsuit against the madman in whose warehouse the eight million volumes were heaped. He had poured nearly all his wealth into printing the thick volumes. It was blasphemy. He was obviously mad. Only a lunatic would print the dates of the deaths of everybody on the planet.

First published in translation by Noir Press, 2018

‘Record of a Night Too Brief’ by Hiromi Kawakami, translated by Lucy North

This story, and the collection it comes from, marks a contrast in style from Hiromi Kawakami’s later novels about romantic intimacy, such as Strange Weather in Tokyo (tr Alison Markin Powell). In this story she experiments with surrealism, creating dream-like settings where confusion and the threat of danger weigh on the text. This approach allows her to move into a more abstractly psychological style of writing reminiscent of Korean writer Bae Suah or Chinese writer Can Xue. 

What was that itch on my back, I wondered. And then I realized: the night was nibbling into me.It wasn’t that late yet, still only dusk, but the darkness appeared to be collecting just above my shoulders. A particularly black clump of it had fastened onto my back, and a part of the area where it was touching me had been eaten away.
I wriggled and tried to shake it off, but the night clung fast. 

First published in translation in Words Without Borders, July 2012, and available to read online here. Collected in Record of a Night Too Brief, Pushkin Press, 2017