The O. Henry prize winners are out, and Literary Hub has published four of the winning short-stories, as some sort of taster-teaser. Just like dessert is something to look forward to and be enjoyed at the end of a meal, I was left feeling Lit Hub had kept the best for last. Here it is, my own teaser for that story, with a link to Literary Hub where the complete story can be found.
The Ride Out of Phrao is a story about a woman who flees Persia in the wake of the Islamic Revolution that turned it into today’s Iran. A doctor in her native country, she finds herself afloat in America, in a society she does not understand or fit in with. She struggles, always thinking of the home and the culture she has left behind, almost longingly, but strangely conscious that it is no longer ‘Persia’ but Iran and therefore a different quantity from what it was and she remembers. In many ways, hanging on to her cultural identity is the way she manages to cope with an American reality that grates her, and which she perceives as flawed and antagonistic.
The portrait Dina Nayeri paints of her main character, Shirin, is an ungilded, honest one, and as the story unfolds we become acquainted with a woman and her fears and shortcomings. Mostly, we become aware of how much this woman is self-unaware and of how low her self-esteem is.
Peripheral to Shirin though providing the counterfoil through which her portrait is drawn, are her daughter Leila, the boy Boonmee and a whole backwater Thai village that provides her with a measure of structure she can relate to and seems to need, and which ultimately becomes the place where she ‘fits in’, and her ‘home’.
But I’ll stop here, and leave you instead with Shirin’s story.
The Ride Out of Phrao
In her last week in America, Shirin sells or gives away all her possessions, returning to the same small parcel she carried when she first arrived — a purse full of dried fruit and extra underwear. She feels thirty again.
She is happy to be leaving Cedar Rapids—a place that, in fifteen years, never grew to fit her strange edges—and to be sent closer to home. She is moving to a village somewhere in northern Thailand. Iran isn’t on the list of Peace Corps countries, after all, and this is a comfort. She has been away for too long and is a stranger now. Why go back and ruin the beautiful image her Tehrani relatives have of her? Still, she misses the East. She writes a letter about it to cousins in Tehran, emphasizing that the Peace Corps is a great honor, leaving out any hint of her lack of options. Months later, she suspects she misspelled the name—Peace Core, she remembers writing, a place that carries peace at its core. Is that not the meaning?
She often reminds herself that to be accepted to the program you have to be American. As a citizen, she qualifies, though now and then it feels like a deception. Sometimes she repeats every detail of her application to herself. Was any of it a lie? No, no, it was not. At first there was some question about her age, but the man on the phone said that she had the enthusiasm of the young and that many older people volunteer every year. To this she replied that she was only forty-five. Yes, of course, the man said, which made her dislike him and look down on his so-called peacekeeping organization. But, for Shirin Khalilipour-Anderson, the Peace Corps is a solid, respectable way out of town. No one will have to know about the bankruptcy, the loss of her house, or the series of demeaning bureaucratic jobs for which she was overqualified and whose titles she often changes for her Iranian friends. Doctor of New Research, she calls the last one, in which she was paid slightly above minimum wage to sit beside three bleary-eyed researchers, filing their work according to a needlessly convoluted system.
She was fired for doing too many “extra” things: for making suggestions to the other employees; bringing baghlava for everyone; tuning out when the boy who hired her spoke. The boy called it downsizing, apologized, then made a backhanded recommendation that she seek work someplace that would appreciate her special kind of initiative. At the next meeting of her church’s widows group—an organization she joined despite the very alive state of both her ex-husbands—Shirin told the other ladies that she had quit her job because of exhaustion. She added that she had spent a week training her replacement—which wasn’t strictly true, but she would have done it, if they had asked.
After a short training program in Washington, DC, she travels to Phrao, a village two hours outside the big city of Chiang Mai. She lives alone. There are no other Peace Corps volunteers in this poverty-stricken town of barely two thousand. She chafes against her new living standards—a hut, no furniture except a small table and a sleeping mat. No air-conditioning. She works under two young Thai bureaucrats, offering medical services in a one-room clinic. Soon she will begin a second job teaching children a few words of English a day. She begins to relish the rigors of it. The Thai people are strange, their every custom a struggle, but Shirin enjoys their company. They seem cold at first. She learns that they aren’t naturally effusive to strangers, as Iranians are. To Persians, a dramatic show of unearned love—hugs and kisses and empty offers—aren’t falsehoods so much as necessary illusions of warmth and community. Privately, Shirin finds it tiresome, though she would never betray her native culture by saying so. Besides, there are the good parts; the face-saving parts—Iranians give each other room to pretend. (Yes, I have a second home in Shiraz. Yes, my son has a PhD. Yes, yes, yes.)
Thai people are restrained. No hugs. They bow and bow.
American, she says when introducing herself to her new neighbors, and they nod, easily accepting this. They ask, New York? She smiles and says yes. It’s close enough; her daughter lives there. She misses Leila, twenty now and studying psychology in the world’s top city. It’s a shame none of their Tehrani relatives can see the woman Leila has become, her beauty and charm, her ability to relate to Americans, to make them love her so easily. Leila has many men, and Shirin overlooks this, though it is a sin. The girl is just like her father, so addicted to being adored that he stayed in Tehran among his many lovers rather than risk exile, knowing that a new land would spit him out.
Oh, but Leila… she succeeded at becoming American in less than one year. What a thing to have done! Fifteen years and Shirin has yet to complete this task. And so she wants to show Thailand to her New York daughter—here she seems to have clicked into place somehow. She has written her daughter several times, inviting her to visit. Leila has never written back, and in truth, she hasn’t spoken to Shirin in a year. But that isn’t important—they’ve had a fight, that’s all. Leila often overreacts when Shirin doesn’t spell out every detail in a way that Leila considers “candid.” Now Shirin doesn’t even remember what she is supposed to have lied about—something small like the value of her house, or how many credit cards she had before the bankruptcy. At least a small part of it was over the decision to move to Thailand. Running away, Leila called it.
Young people often travel to Thailand—maybe she will come. Shirin wants Leila to notice that the villagers don’t hear her accent, and, at work, her bosses defer to her because she is older. And if she makes suggestions, they make a show of complying. She marvels at this. How could it be so easy? Later, when her Thai is better, her neighbor, a tiny speckle-faced woman, asks her about her history and she mentions having been a doctor in Iran, then a housewife in America, and then a Manager of Advanced Research. From then on her neighbor calls her “Dr. Rin,” which is a wonder for so many reasons.
The name catches on, and she lets it.
Her early days are spent gradually acquiring this and that. Pots and pans. Sanitary pads. Proper spoons. Conditioner. Toothpaste without salt. (Salt in toothpaste. What a repulsive thing!) A rice cooker is easy to find. She adapts easily to the Thai style of eating rice, happily slicing mango in her bare hands, letting the sticky yellow juice flow through her fingers as she relishes the strange new taste of consuming dry rice, no butter, with fruit. She wipes her hands on her Thai clothes, cheap cotton tunics made for soiling.
She surprises herself each time her sticky hand reaches for her shirt hem as it would a dishrag. At her widow’s group meetings she often wore her nicest silk blouse, a lavender Chanel piece that she had preserved for ten years, ironing it for fifteen minutes after every hand wash. The blouse had an ugly seam just above the hip, an imperfection she took great care to hide, tucking and re-tucking it into her skirt every so often.
Never let your seams show, she used to tell her daughter when she was young.
At church functions, she turned down every good appetizer for fear of soiling that blouse. Now she thinks that this is the greatest sign that she was a stranger there. They’re not your people until you share a meal with some ease. She has never been comfortable eating with Americans. In Iran friends and neighbors ate together on a cloth on the floor, spending hours in one another’s company. They interacted with food and with each other in the most basic and intimate ways.
She finds that Thai stores have all her Persian spices and utensils. Barely any bread, though. When she asks people where to find bread, they say, eyes full of sympathy, “Don’t you have rice to eat?” This makes her chuckle. She answers in clunky Thai, “Just my strange American tastes.”
Her house stands just off the ground, on short stilts hidden here and there by patches of shrubbery. It has a roof shaped like a straw hat, so that from far away, the hut looks like a squatting woman, head down so that her hat falls over her eyes, her skirt of shrubs lifted, exposing her bare legs in two or three places. The image amuses her. It seems to signal the house’s greatest difficulty—the toilet is a hole in the ground, like in Iran. But her bladder is American now and so it takes an hour of squatting to squeeze a few drops. Afterward she’s elated with herself, adapting like a young person.
Most of the meat here is pork. She’s no Muslim, but don’t the Thai people realize that this vile animal eats the flesh of its own species? Evil. A lot of things in Thailand carry the sensation of evil. She doesn’t like the Buddha shelf in her house. She considers Buddhism idol worship. And every morning she wakes up under her mosquito net, eye-to-eye with a new kind of enormous lizard. On the first night she killed one. Its guts are still on her bedroom wall. Each night she scrubs it, in a strange ritualistic way that is starting to feel like penance, and so she has come to a kind of truce with the creatures. The Thai people often talk of demons. Maybe her pretty new house has spirits and they visit her in an endless line of lizards. Now one is dead and the others mourn it, a reptile community, arriving every night to that same spot, flicking their wretched tongues, taunting her. You asked for this, didn’t you?
“Filthy little beasts,” she answers when she is alone and sleepy and she wants to hear the music of Farsi words, even the ugly ones, spoken aloud.
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You can finish reading Dina Naeri’s story, and the other three offerings, over here at Literary Hub. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.
image credit: Mangosteen fruit (illustrating the story @ Literary Hub)