Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Silent Girl by Tricia Dower

"You don't write because you want to say something, you write because you've got something to say," said F. Scott Fitzgerald, which is intriguing. However faulty, as of course merely having something to say doesn't necessarily make one adept at the saying. A successful story is the result of various fortunate collisions, but I was thinking of the Fitzgerald quotation when I came across Tricia Dower's story collection Silent Girl (Inanna). Stories pushed less for being stories than for what Dower has to say with them, how they "deal with a range of contemporary issues: racism, social isolation, sexual slavery, kidnapping, violence, family dynamics and the fluid boundaries of gender."

I was interested also in the nature of this collection, its eight stories linked by a feminist theme. Each of them inspired by one of Shakespeare's plays-- for example, The Taming of the Shrew for a story of a kidnapped bride in Kyrgyzstan, Hamlet to show "Gertrude's" side with the story, a widow left with a troubled farm after her husband's death, and the comfort she finds in his brother. These allusions not necessary to appreciate these stories-- my own Shakespeare could certainly use a brush-up-- but just another example of the various collisions behind the creation of Silent Girl.

How would such a collection work, I wondered. Stories can often be collected at random, but in this case where they weren't, would some read deliberately? Would the "something to say" take priority over the saying? Were the feminist links sort of a stretch, or were they actually a part of the book's construction?

The stories within Silent Girl are various, points of view from women of many ages, from different cultures and places. It is this variousness that makes the stories' main links (Shakespeare, women's issues-- that "something to say") particularly interesting, as the connections aren't really obvious until we come out of the stories' individual worlds, backing away to look at the book's overarching theme. Which is to say that many of the stories in this collection are wonderful, stand alone, and it is only when they're grouped together that their "issues" become relevant. Remaining secondary to the stories themselves, which is how it should be, but still adding a worthwhile dimension. Stories taking full advantage of collectivity to expand on the ideas each raises alone.

The title story is perhaps the strongest in the collection, bookended by the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami and Hurricane Katrina. Matsi the "silent girl" taken from Thailand in the aftermath of the former, living in New Orleans on the cusp of the latter, and working as a child sex slave. Her attempts at self-preservation are heartbreaking and heroic, and the spell never breaks Dower's depiction of this child's point of view so absolutely convincing. She must also be commended for a most spectacular narrative arc.

"Deep Deep Waves" manages to be as enveloping as it is troubling, the story of an abused wife whose role as victim is not so passive. Challenging perceived narratives of domestic violence (Dower here offering part of "a new mythology" she thinks necessary to move away from "locked gender roles and a patriarchal value system"), Sona implicates herself in her own story. In "Nobody; I Myself", the narrator does the same but for different reasons, for love instead of violence.

Though it's not all dark here either-- "Cocktails with Charles" is charming, lively and funny at its heart, and a most delightful story.

Critically, however, and I've written of this before (Hello, Vincent Lam!), I've got an aversion to fiction requiring a "Glossary of Terms". I feel any good story should have sufficient stuff to be filled out on its own, and though Dower's glossary is not extensive, I note that the stories I found weakest are most cited. Perhaps with so much something to say, fact drowned the stories themselves, but this was only really troubling in the case of the collection's final story. A longish allegorical distopian sci/fi bent, it wasn't my thing anyway, but even less so considering the appendix. An allegory which puts a layer between the reader and the story, which is a shame after we've been so close to all the rest.

To finish reading Tricia Dower's Silent Girl is to have the fortunate collisions continue, ideas emerging from the stories themselves, from their relationships to one another, and how they depict the status of women throughout the world. Making Shakespeare vital and relevant too, for as Dower writes in her afterword, "some things haven't changed for women since Shakespeare's time". Plenty of valuable insight is also offered on Dower's excellent blog and on her website for the ideas in her stories to continue their expansion.

For-- and as Fitzgerald advised-- however much the girl is silent, these stories have so much to say.