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In Alligator and Other Stories, Dima Alzayat fuses factual events, from the lynching of a Syrian American man in 1920s Florida to the abduction of Etan Patz in 1970s New York, and the imagined lives in between. Threads of belonging and displacement can be found throughout the short story collection, as too can the subsequent intergenerational issues of trauma, identity and loss: of country, family, and self. Alligator and Other Stories ends with the start of a young woman’s period. Looking at her blood she thinks, ‘This can be anyone’s … not just mine or my mother’s.’ It is this recognition, how blood both unites and separates, that is at the heart of these nine stories. Alzayat has won several awards for her writing, and Alligator and Other Stories was recently long-listed for the Dylan Thomas Prize.
If, after turning over the book to read a blurb, a reader categorized Alligator and Other Stories as a collection of ‘Syrian Immigrant experiences’ they might be missing the point. While several pieces focus on troubling facets of migrant identity and racism, Alzayat’s writing puts under a microscope the innate urge to belong to something and some place. In stories that are as familiar as they are shocking, a woman navigates sexual harassment while trying to achieve professional success, a religious man reckons with his sexuality, a sister thoughtfully prepares her brother’s body for burial, and a classroom hamster is accidentally smashed underfoot. Alzayat artfully zooms in (the thoughts of a woman jumping from a window, concerned her suicide might disgust or inconvenience) and zooms out (observations of chipped toe nail polish amid domestic violence), trusting the reader to pay attention, to read between carefully constructed lines unobstructed by italics or translation.
‘Daughters of Manāt’ and ‘Alligator’ are perhaps the most stylistically complex stories in the collection, with ‘Daughters of Manāt’ comprising three separate narrative strains and ‘Alligator’ collaging historical records, news articles, and letters. ‘Daughters of Manāt’ is a poetic piece that moves back and forth in time, as well as through it, ultimately becoming inconsequential as a woman falling to her death observes the shape of the earth. ‘Alligator’ is historically grounded in the enduring history of American racism. It is a story that connects the hostility and violence experienced by Seminole Indians and enslaved Black peoples to the brutal murder of The Romeys, a Syrian American couple living in Florida. In organizing factual documents alongside a fictional account of the intergenerational trauma experienced by the Romey children, Alzayat swiftly takes readers through decades of polarization and injustice arriving, tenderly, at an all too recognizable present day.
Dima Alzayat’s debut is deliberate and urgent. For all its sprawling historical and political analysis, Alligator and Other Stories is always intimate in its portrayal, as seen in a woman’s reflection of her grandmother.
‘She had been married at fifteen, had borne seven children before she was twenty-four. With her hands she had sorted a lifetime of rice and lentils, had gutted fish and deboned chicken. She knew how to upholster furniture and help grapevine spread and climb, how to cover bruises and scars so no one could see them, how to measure the value of her life and still rise.’