BiblioBuffet: Writing Worth Reading, Reading Worth Writing About
http://www.bibliobuffet.com/content/view/919/248/ November 9, 2008
Silent Girl Speaks Volumes
reviewed by Andi Miller
While I often hear readers say, "I'm not much for short stories. They just seem so unfinished," I seem to be the exception to the rule. A finely crafted short story can wield emotional power so startling that it becomes necessary to lay the book aside and recover. Some of the greatest short stories, such as William Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily," Ray Bradbury's "August 2026: There Will Come Soft Rains," and Andre Dubus's "Killings" left me breathless. Whether it was for the craftsmanship or the warped conclusions, they were all fulfilling and haunting. All of the writers manage to paint a fully realized story with a distinctive beginning, middle and end, leaving the reader with a brief, but engrossing reading experience much like one would expect from a novel. Likewise, a number of contemporary short story writers have taken up a place in my heart: Simon Van Booyfor his book, The Secret Lives of People in Love, Miranda July thanks to her No One Belongs Here More Than You, and now Tricia Dower, author of Silent Girl.
Dower's collection has a great hook. Each of the stories is based on one of Shakespeare's female characters. Although Kate, Viola, and Miranda do not make overt appearances, their plights and relationships offer seeds around which Dower molds her stories. As a whole, Silent Girl is about the lives of women—vibrant women, naïve women, troubled women, and headstrong women. The stories are upsetting and hopeful by turns, allowing the reader to experience a satisfying range of emotions along the way. This collection might offer a refreshing option for readers unaccustomed to reading short stories because it is cohesive and well-rounded, and all of the stories relate to each other so well.
Dower provides an afterword titled "Backstage" which offers some back story of Shakespeare's characters as well as her inspiration for writing the stories. For the uncertain reader, like myself, who is not well versed in all of the plays it is a helpful addition. For instance, the book's title story is loosely based on Pericles and in her explanation Dower writes, "The hero's wife, presumed dead, is buried at sea yet turns up later, alive and untouched by another man, having hidden herself in a temple to the goddess Diana. His daughter, Marina, is kidnapped by pirates and sold to a brothel yet retains her virginity.
Matsi, the young protagonist of the "Silent Girl" manages to hold onto her virginity, but she is subjected to myriad sexual advances. She is kidnapped after the devastation of the tsunami in Thailand and sold to traffickers, ultimately ending up in the sex trade. While her owner feels she is too young to have sex—her virtue will go to the man with the most cash another day—she faces mental, emotional and physical destruction as she dances for the highest bidder day after day and is fondled and otherwise used as a plaything. One man in particular seems to show more restraint and kindness than the others, spending time talking to the ever-silent Matsi after he buys her for the evening. However, like so many silenced women and young girls, when Matsi finally uses her voice, everything changes. Her fate is unknown, but I could not help but feel that Matsi gained some hold over her future simply by being able to speak.
Another story that I found oddly hopeful despite the protagonist's oppression is "Kesh Kumay." Dower explains: "I had been searching for a modern counterpart to The Taming of the Shrew's Kate whose abdication to Petruchio at the end of the play always makes me squirm in empathetic humiliation. By lucky accident, I caught Petr Lom's illuminating and moving documentary The Kidnapped Brides on CBC's Passionate Eye . . .. I knew I had found my Kate in post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan."
Named for a folk game in which a man riding a horse attempts to catch a woman on horseback and kiss her, the story paints a portrait of the independently-minded Kyal, who is forced into an arranged marriage by her family. While she is allowed to spend two years studying in a university, her father decides she has had enough time to find a husband, and if she cannot, he will find one for her. Much to Kyal's surprise the man her family chooses, Jyrgal, is reasonably open-minded to her concerns about such a hasty marriage.
On horseback being pursued by her intended husband in the game for which the story is named, Kyal begins to mull over a fitting compromise. She might put up less of a fight against marrying Jyrgal if allowed to finish her education:
He looks different in the sun's heat. Almost attractive. But she'd rather make love to his horse. Ha! She is buoyant with audacity. When there wasn't the opportunity to decide, Jyrgal seemed as undesirable as any other villager. Now, she sees a tolerable possibility: marriage in exchange for a degree. She will convince Usen to forego any other bride price. He will persuade Jyrgal's family she'll be much more valuable property, later, when she commands a good salary and brings them prestige. "Our daughter-in-law, the ambassador." She'll need to stay in Bishkek during the school year, so there's her room and meals to cover as well as tuition. If Jyrgal insists, she will visit him weekends provided he doesn't disturb her study times. She can suffer his body two nights a week.
She is not happy about the marriage, but hers is a story of hope even as it concludes in an ambiguous way. I couldn't help but feel that Kyal might find some compromise with Jyrgal even if her future wasn't exactly as she had planned.
Kyal's predicament in "Kesh Kumay" made her a sympathetic character. Not only her horror at the thought of an arranged marriage but her need to reconcile her family's traditional values and financial needs with her progressive tendencies made her very relatable. While small-town U.S.A. is a far cry from the wilds of Kyrgyzstan, many women still feel the pull of family in direct opposition to career opportunities that threaten to take them elsewhere. Kyal never found an opportunity to break free of her situation completely, but she did the best she could with an impossible situation—something women do every day in every country around the world. My affection for Kyal inevitably makes me wonder what I've missed by not reading The Taming of the Shrew. Since Dower used Kate as her jumping-off point for the story, I must eventually meet her, too.
Despite the oppressive difficulties standing in the way of each of her heroines, Dower allows all of her characters to find some solution or compromise in their respective situations. While the compromise is often less than ideal—suicide, relocation, sacrifice—it is always a means to an end, either emotionally or physically, for the story's protagonist; some path to a different kind of existence. Reading about these silenced women, though it may be cliché, was incredibly touching. I was consistently relieved that my life was much less difficult than theirs, but I could find common ground in their stories and appreciate my struggles all the more.
My biggest concern when I picked up Silent Girl was my lack of knowledge about Shakespeare's women. I read the standard plays in high school. When I read Romeo and Juliet during my freshman year, it sent me on a significant Shakespeare jag. Subsequently, I read Macbeth, Hamlet, Julius Caesar, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Othello. I was unfamiliar with the majority of the women in Silent Girl, however, and in the hands of a lesser author my inexperience might have left me lost, confused, and reaching for meaning. Instead I found that Dower had made Shakespeare's women her own and painted complete, rounded characters that I cared about deeply. Perhaps the best part about Dower's writing is that she has given me a push to explore Shakespeare's work further to find out exactly how she took inspiration from the Bard. Truthfully, a reader need not have any knowledge of Shakespeare to enjoy Dower's stories, but at a minimum a cursory understanding of his work and the plays in question would enrich the reading experience.
When it comes to good short story writing, Tricia Dower is among some of the best I have had the pleasure of reading. Her tales are emotional and each one stands apart from the others with its own sense of uniqueness and purpose. Sadly, I seem to have fallen off the short story wagon this year, but Dower's work reminded me of what I would undoubtedly miss if I continue to ignore the genre. For that I am grateful, and I have every intention of re-reading the book at some point down the line. I would urge anyone who dislikes short stories to dip into this collection for it just might bring them around and open up a rich, new reading experience.
Andi Miller is a recovering university academic employed by the North Carolina community college system as an English instructor. While she decided to forego a Ph.D. and career as a professor, she fills in all the free time her current position affords her with editing literary publications, reviewing, freelancing, and blogging at Tripping Toward Lucidity: Estella's Revenge. Her work can be found in the journal, Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States (MELUS), and Altar magazine as well as online in various venues such as PopMatters.com. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC), and writes fiction. Her turn-ons include new books and gelato, while her turn-offs are reality television and washing dishes.
Published in BiblioBuffet: Writing Worth Reading, Reading Worth Writing About, November 9, 2008. www.bibliobuffet.com Reprinted with permission. Andi Miller's column, The Finicky Reader, is found at: http://www.bibliobuffet.com/content/blogcategory/60/248.