MARCH 12, 2018
AWAYLAND IS a fitting title for Ramona Ausubel’s second collection of short fiction, following her 2013 collection A Guide to Being Born. The characters in these stories are all grappling with the idea of going away, whether that’s leaving a loved one, leaving home, or leaving this material plane. Anxious, whimsical, and deeply felt, Ausubel’s stories weave a remarkable and beautiful tapestry of emotion.
Like in a travel guide, the book’s stories are grouped under four headings that cue their emotional territory and common themes. The stories in the “Bay of Hungers” section, for instance, explore the hunger for love, for home, and for life. In “The Cape of Persistent Hope,” the stories follow characters wishing for the impossible and almost (maybe) attaining it. “The Lonesome Flats” is about forms of loneliness, and in the two stories that make up “The Dream Isles” readers learn of the dreams of mummified animals and dying men.
Ausubel’s first collection was also divided into four sections, but the similarity pretty much ends there. Whether her tastes and interests changed naturally or the political and social climates have affected her, there is a marked difference between the two. Where A Guide to Being Born was concerned with intimacy, familial relationships, and closeness, Awayland has a larger scope, both in setting and in theme, its stories always hinting at larger political themes and structures of power.
For example, in “Mother Land,” a woman whose mother has literally faded away is living with a man referred to only as “the African”: “When she told him about her boyfriend, her father said, ‘An African?’ and Lucy comforted him, ‘He’s white, Dad.’” So much of what we need to know about these characters is packed into this interaction. That Lucy thinks of him as “the African” is a powerful indication of her desire for what she perceives as exotic (as much of white consciousness tends to see the African continent). Equally, that she chooses to comfort her father with the fact of her boyfriend’s white skin speaks to their fear of anything outside the bubble of white privilege.
Ausubel doesn’t shy away from this kind of criticism. Lucy moves with the African back to his continent to be closer to the equator (the exact country is never specified) and “get day and night even again.” But once they do, there is nothing even about their existence: they move into a big house that belonged to the African’s father, an English diplomat, and they have staff, which the African explains is acceptable and normal, shrugging off his class status as if it is meaningless. The African, despite his moniker, was born to European parents who have returned to Europe and left the staff to guard the house for what the African describes as “security reasons.” With no job or occupation, Lucy decides to be an artist and make bowls, which in her flightiness she doesn’t think to dry in a kiln, instead allowing them to dry and crumble in the sun. Having failed at sculpting, Lucy tells the African she’s bored, and he proposes the “ultimate sculpture project”:
building something inside, doubling, doubling until a baby uncurls like a fern. It seemed that all he had to do was speak the idea and she was pregnant already. It scared Lucy, how easily it had happened.
Lucy is an unpleasant character: casually racist, bored of herself and her life, careless in her perceptions of a continent she knows little about. Her Western conditioning shows when she thinks that people are staring at her on the street, that her white skin makes her matter. Watching the African interact with a flight attendant, Lucy observes, surprised, that “she liked this, the old-fashioned racism and sexism of a big white man sweet-talking a small dark woman.” This is a particularly uncomfortable moment in the story and seems to point to the connection between the African’s old-fashioned patriarchy and Lucy’s quiet acceptance of it within her new high-class status. A moment later, though, she seems to sober, hoping that her child will be neither a boy nor a girl — the binary option is distasteful to her. By the end of the story, Ausubel deemphasizes Lucy’s importance and her grand sense of self by placing her beside a far more dazzling sight: zebras in the wild (the black and white metaphor somehow doesn’t feel heavy-handed).
This story and several others in the collection do further work: they deemphasize the presumed centrality and greatness of the United States in favor of a more global view of the world. In “Club Zeus,” a teenager from Orange County is desperate to leave the single-track life he sees ahead of him and goes to Turkey for a summer job at a resort, where he lives with an old woman in an apartment overlooking a cemetery and learns about Greek myths said to have taken place along the coast. In another story, a couple decides to head to India to fulfill a strange fantasy but becomes cowed by the landscape and reticent to join in the tourist shenanigans around them. Over and over again, characters underestimate and misunderstand lands not their own, and always they are humbled by those spaces, by the un-Americanness of it all. Throughout, Ausubel’s irony-tinged third-person narration conveys the limitations of her characters’ simplistic beliefs.
One of the most vivid stories to deal with awayness is “Fresh Water from the Sea.” It centers on Lucy’s unnamed mother as she is physically fading away, making this and “Mother Land” the only stories in the collection linked through character. (There seems to be something in the air about women disappearing; Carmen Maria Machado’s recent collection Her Body and Other Parties includes a story titled “Real Women Have Bodies” in which a disease of sorts makes women slowly turn translucent.) The mother summons Lucy’s unnamed twin to Lebanon, the homeland to which she has returned. As women are trained to do, the mother believes this disappearing is her fault and tells her daughter, “Maybe I didn’t eat enough leafy greens. Maybe I did something awful in a past life. I’m sure I should have loved you better.”
This story, too, deals with the problem of American centrality in a world where the United States has falsely sold itself as a land of freedom and opportunity:
When the woman was eighteen years old, the war had woken back up. Her parents sent her away with a suitcase full of gifts for the relatives in California who had agreed to take her in. “But I don’t know who I am anywhere else.”
The parents said, “You’ll be whoever you become.”
But the woman never does. Although she marries a man whose background is similar to her own, it is implied that he has never known another home besides California. And though the woman surrounds herself with the flavors of home (olives, citrus, honey), teaches her girls about the famous and endangered Lebanese cedar tree, and decorates the house with relics of her old life, still she is not happy there. When her husband insists that they come from the same place, she tells him, “But you are not the place itself. You are not my home.” Instead, home is Beirut, the only place on earth where she would be content to disappear.
Not all the stories in the collection are so somber. In “The Animal Mummies Wish to Thank the Following,” Ausubel imagines the thoughts and feelings of the mummified animals forcibly taken out of the Egyptian pyramids. These include an acerbic aside in which they thank “the British colonial government, without whom the animal mummies might still be at rest, deep in granite tombs, cool and silent.” This is the rare overt mention of colonialism in the book, but the consequences of colonialism are nevertheless made clear in many of the pieces.
The best writers find ways to gather tidbits from their close observation of life and incorporate the strange truths of the world into their fiction. Ausubel’s most playful moments of fabulism exemplify her ability to absorb the odd, the amusing, and the eerie in everyday life. For example, in “Template for a Proclamation to Save the Species,” the mayor of a small town in Minnesota declares September 12 “Family Contact Day” to encourage couples to take the day off and try to conceive new offspring. He offers “an economy car, a tiny white Ford” to any mother who gives birth on June 12, nine months later. This seems clearly drawn from the real-life case of a small Russian town that in 2005 began offering prizes to anyone born on Vladimir Lenin’s birthday as a way to stem population decline. Moments like these, in which Ausubel ties her narrative whimsy to stranger-than-fiction truths, allow the collection some levity and provide breathing room for the more emotionally challenging stories.
There is ultimately less play in this collection than in A Guide to Being Born — or, more accurately, less play that leaves the reader with a light heart. The uncanny is often present in Ausubel’s new stories, but it often illuminates the screwed-up realities of the world rather than its beauty, as in the collection’s unsettling final story, “Do Not Save the Ferocious, Save the Tender.” Ausubel’s signature ability to create atmosphere is in full force throughout Awayland, and the surreal or discomfiting moods sometimes wrapped around the stories are fitting for characters moving away from their comfort zones. By also touching upon social and political issues, she adds a new layer to her work that invites readers to move away from their comfort zones as well.