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FICTION: MADE OF SMOKELESS FIRE

October 22, 2017

In comparative literature there is frequent discussion about how to make the study of literature broader and more inclusive, how to explore different literary texts and the ways in which they might complement each other without resorting to Western-centric modes and standards of comparison and how to give sustained scholarly consideration to literary voices that don’t necessarily get their fair share of space in the global literary marketplace, either in terms of the generic tradition they are working within, or the socio-political and geographical position they are working from.

In the context of such conversations, The Djinn Falls in Love and Other Stories, an anthology of prose and poetry from around the world all centred around the theme of the djinn, is a comparatist’s ideal literary work. Edited by Pakistani literary critic Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin, showcasing writers from Morocco to Bangladesh to Singapore, and featuring writing from multiple genres — science fiction, fantasy, literary fiction, poetry — the collection demonstrates how a single theme takes on unique flavours when seen through different cultural and literary lenses. It also helps that most of the writings in this collection are a pleasure to read: the comparatist in me is delighted at this anthology’s existence and its implications for my academic field; the reader in me is just plain delighted.

In their introduction to the anthology, Murad and Shurin write that they were pleasantly surprised to find how often the stories they compiled subverted and challenged the conventional mode of viewing the djinn as the other to us humans: “When Allah created man out of clay, Allah also created the djinn out of fire. We may stem from different materials, but in all the ways that matter, we are very much the same. The contributors saw this too.” It is a sense that recurs often to the reader as well, the empathy with which the djinns (or jinns or genies — in keeping with the inclusive spirit of the anthology, the editors chose not to standardise the spelling) have been rendered, how human their desires and fears and concerns are, and the ways in which they often function as vehicles to explore human themes of connection, belonging and a desire for understanding (its attempts as well as its failures).

An anthology of stories from around the world depicts djinns via different cultural lenses

In one of the collection’s best stories, Bangladeshi writer Saad Z. Hossain’s ‘Bring Your Own Spoon’ a human, Hanu, and a djinn called Imbidor come together in post-apocalyptic Dhaka where the boundary between the human and superhuman worlds has become threadbare because of a collective struggle for survival. In a richly drawn world that has been devastated by climate change, both humans and djinns struggle to eke out a daily existence. Hanu and Imbidor band together and start a restaurant of sorts in the wilderness, allowing the people on the fringes of this society to come together as a community through food and collective memory of a better past. Despite its bleak, apocalyptic setting, Hossain’s story is the most hopeful of the lot, gesturing toward connection and community (between humans and djinns, and amongst humans themselves) even in the darkest of times.

Other stories also highlight the permeable division between the human and djinn worlds. In renowned Pakistani writer Kamila Shamsie’s ‘The Congregation’, a young man in search of his brother ends up going back and forth between the two worlds, one world being both strange and familiar to the other. Shamsie puts a fascinating twist to the Greek myth of the twin brothers Castor and Pollux; the djinns are not just close to the humans, they are family bound by ties of blood and kinship. In ‘Somewhere in America’, an excerpt from American fantasy writer Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods, an Omani immigrant, overwhelmed by the foreignness of New York City, finds solace not in the company of another human, but with a djinn.

Other stories explore the flip side of this need for connection — the desire, unfulfilled, to belong. In Singaporean fantasy writer J.Y. Yang’s ‘Glass Lights’, a half-djinn in an unnamed East Asian city struggles to fit in with her colleagues, not because of her djinn ancestry, but because of the more human divisions of race and religion (she belongs to a Muslim minority ethnicity of East Asia). Marked as an outsider, the young protagonist has to content herself with granting the wishes of those around her while harbouring unfulfilled wishes of her own.

In many stories in the collection, the traditional roles of human and djinn are reversed or subverted, often showing how the djinn protagonists are more human (or at least more sympathetic) than the human characters. In Indian writer Kuzhali Manickavel’s story ‘How We Remember You’, a group of children capture and torment an innocent djinn. Scottish writer Kristy Logan’s ‘The Spite House’ is about a bitter, mean-spirited woman who tricks and forces an unwilling djinn to do her evil bidding. Sometimes the failure of humans to extend empathy and compassion relates not to an otherworldly djinn, but to another fellow human. In ‘The Righteous Guide of Arabsat’ by Qatari writer Sophia Al Maria, a newly married young man fails to view his wife in all her humanity, and when confronted with her sexuality and desire, resorts to othering her by viewing her as being possessed by a djinn and therefore dangerous. Meanwhile Pakistani fantasy writer Usman T. Malik’s surreal and strange ‘Emperors of Jinn’ explores human injustice and possession in the context of the feudal landowning class of Pakistan.

It was widely acknowledged that Mars was infested with jinn. Allah might have made the red planet specifically for them; they loved its dust, its volcanic landscape and boundless plains. Earth had become too crowded. What was left of the rolling sands, the desert caves that cooled with the lowering sun? The jinn have been squeezed out, she thought. Chased by one world to the next by an insatiable human race; little wonder that they, too, have turned their gaze to Ganymede…Humans misunderstood jinn; they regarded them as childish and chaotic because the consequences of their actions could be childish and chaotic. In reality, the jinn had a design to their work. — Excerpt from the story ‘The Jinn Hunter’s Apprentice’ by E.J. Swift

The literary traditions within which each writer works bring their own strengths to the stories. Helene Wecker, an American writer who has previously written on superhuman characters with extraordinary depth and compassion in her novel The Golem and the Jinni, brings her characteristic warmth to the characters in ‘Majnun’¸ about a young jinn recently converted to Islam. He now lives as a human and works as an exorcist, expelling his fellow djinn from the bodies of the humans they possess. During one such exorcism he meets a former lover, a powerful jinniyah of Morocco. Pakistani fantasy writer Sami Shah brings horror to the forefront in his story ‘Reap’, about a group of American drone operators surveilling a village in North Waziristan who see a young girl possessed by a mysterious creature. Another compelling story is ‘The Jinn Hunter’s Apprentice’ by British author E.J. Swift, set in a future where humans have colonised various planets and their moons. A mysterious jinn hunter’s apprentice is called to task when a spaceship heading to Jupiter’s moon is suddenly infested with malevolent djinns. With a total of 21 pieces, including two poems, The Djinn Falls in Love and Other Stories is a remarkable collection, albeit with some entries that are stronger and will appeal more than others. It is a significant feat that the anthology has managed, bringing together so many disparate literary voices in such a thematically cohesive manner.

The reviewer teaches comparative literature at Habib University

The Djinn Falls in Love and
Other Stories
Edited by Mahvesh Murad
and Jared Shurin
Solaris Books, UK
ISBN: 978-1781084168
384pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 22nd, 2017