By David Lynn, Editor
I had never read work by Aisha Gawad before, but when I came across this passage early in her story “Waking Luna,” [now in KR, Spring 2013], I found myself captivated:
I have driven here in Baba’s old Tercel all the way from Bay Ridge—that sliver of South Brooklyn that smells of lamb on a spit for blocks. I am eating hot grape leaves from a Styrofoam container when she calls—Come get me, she says, not a command, not a plea, just a statement of fact. It is a Friday afternoon and both our mothers are at the masjid for Jumaa prayers like the good Muslim women they raised us to be. I find my father smoking rose water shisha on a sidewalk corner with all two of the other Arab atheists. I tell him I am going to the library. He hands me the car keys.
Here we have all the struggles for identity evoked in savory—lamb on a spit—and tactile—hot grape leaves—and religious/cultural—good Muslim women they raised us to be—details conjured by Amira, our narrator.
Best of all, of course, is that “good Muslim women they raised us to be.” It implies without declaring just how Amira and her cousin Luna have failed, at least in their own eyes. Their parents and aunts and uncles who live in Brooklyn or endure jail in Cairo still belong very much to the old world, a world they fled but that still defines them. Amira and Luna, however, like so many memorable characters from other cultures brought to life in short stories, are already and irrevocably American—though their challenge is also to define just what that means for their generation.
Luna is the pole dancer, the bad girl, addicted to cocaine and brandy. Yet she also observes the fast during Ramadan, not eating or drinking during the day, returning to drugs and alcohol only after sundown. Amira, bound to her cousin since childhood, feels guilty because she is the one who cheats during the holiday, “taking big, desperate gulps of water when no one [is] looking.” And then the brilliant narrative touch: Amira watches Luna’s face “so I would know what thirst looked like.”
The reader, like Amira’s friends as she projects into the future, cannot help but wonder why she keeps rescuing her cousin, why she continues to put herself in danger for the sake of someone apparently so lost and self-destructive. She answers us toward the end of the story:
But who am I if I don’t answer, if I don’t go? I’m nobody, just a girl who used to sleep curled up with my cheek pressed against the cool skin of her back.
At this moment Gawad’s story soars beyond the frame of the immigrant tale to higher stakes of identity, of responsibility, of self-creation—a very significant achievement indeed.