In the introduction to The Djinn Falls in Love & Other Stories, editors Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin state that their three aims were to “showcase global storytelling,” “showcase the djinn themselves,” and “find a title worthy of the work” (5). All three goals are beautifully accomplished in this collection of mostly prose with some poetry, the irresistible title coming from Robin Moger’s translation of the Egyptian poet Hermes’ poem, which is also printed in the original Arabic.
Amal El-Mohtar’s “A Tale of Ash in Seven Birds” is a somber yet gorgeous prose poem or lyric story, addressing concerns both ancient and contemporary:
The shores, ports, parts, they challenge us to battle. We are weary; we surrender. Nations are great magicians; they pull borders out of hats like knots of silk. Here, says the wizard nation, here are the terms of a truce: be small, be drab, above all be grateful, and we will let you in. We bow our heads, and change. (99)
Stand out fiction for me included the two stories that open the collection, “The Congregation,” by Kamila Shamsie, and “How We Remember You,” by Kuzhali Manickavel. Shamsie’s tale works well to open the collection as it provides a concise origin story that may be useful to western readers: “[J]inn were very much like men in nature, except perhaps a little more fiery in temperament: they were made from smokeless fire while men were made from clay” (14). “The Congregation” is rich with love and longing, the prose deceptively simple:
Qasim’s eyes followed the fortune-teller’s pointing finger. A group of stars which he’d never before noticed detached themselves from the sky and lowered themselves until they were floating just above the banyan tree. He blinked once, and the stars become two boys, their arms around each other’s shoulders, so close he could see the fire of the nearer twin’s eyes. Blinked again, and they were just pinpricks in the darkness, rising back up into the sky. (21)
While Shamsie’s contribution is a beautiful story of familial love, Manickavel’s selection is grimmer. If not for its appearance in a collection called The Djinn Falls in Love, the titular “you” might not be recognizable as an Arabian (or Islamic) genie figure. “How We Remember You” reverses the predicted relationship wherein djinn challenge, tempt, and cajole their human masters or counterparts. An aching study of regret, Manickavel’s story examines how difference can challenge intimacy, especially during adolescence, a time of swift irritation and callous affection, love and hate experienced with agonizing simultaneity:
I remember you honestly to strangers. I tell women in share autos that I never liked you very much, but you were comfortable to sit with and you sang well. I don’t remember what you looked like. . . . I remember that your feet were always dusty and you often breathed through your mouth. Your English-speaking skills were poor; you could not add double-digit numbers in your head. . . . I am pretty sure that if you were still here, you would not have been good at computers. I also remember how your eyes would close as the feathers began to sprout from your shoulders and the way you threw your chest out when your feet were no longer on the ground, when you were just running, the sky opening up slowly underneath you. But I don’t mention that to anyone. (27)
Few of the stories in The Djinn Falls in Love are narrated as folktales, though Claire North’s “Hurrem and the Djinn” follows the long tradition of female storytellers weaving magical narratives disguised as gossip or court intrigue—stories about women who must save themselves from the machinations of powerful men. North’s story satisfies the taste for self-savior tales.
Genre here otherwise varies widely, giving the collection a sense of surprise, from Maria Dahvana Headley’s outstanding western-sci-fi cross “Black Powder,” to Nnedi Okorafor’s contemporary fable “History.” Both of these stories are fun to read and full of read-aloud-worthy prose.
Neil Gaiman’s “Somewhere in America,” reprinted from American Gods, is among the stories in this collection that studies transformations made possible through contact with the djinn, as does Helene Wecker’s “Majnun.” Such transformations never resort to predictable tricks that teach life lessons about the importance of being yourself or placing too much value on fripperies. As Gaiman’s ifrit complains, “They think we grant wishes. If I could grant wishes, do you think I would be driving a cab?” (204). Instead, characters who encounter the djinn, or re-encounter them after long absence, are full of convictions both powerful and wavering; such encounters are charmed but difficult wrestlings, moments of giving in to or resisting temptation that leave the human characters, and often the djinn, deeply changed.
These are profound and often deceptively simple stories, stories that offer insights and gems of phrasing that may follow you around, whispering in memory’s ear when you least expect it, “like a fire with many tongues” (Shamsie 22).
Murad, Mahvesh and Jared Shurin, eds. The Djinn Fall in Love & Other Stories. Solaris, 2017.