Mariam Pirbhai was born in Pakistan and lived in England and the Philippines before emigrating to Canada. She lives in Waterloo, Ontario, where she is an Associate Professor in the Department of English and Film Studies, at Wilfrid Laurier University. Her short stories have also appeared in numerous anthologies and literary journals. Outside People and Other Stories (2017, Inanna Publications) is her debut collection of short fiction.I am fascinated by stories, fictional or otherwise of the immigrant’s experience in coming to a new country and adjusting to the western way of life. Outside People and Other Stories contains nine expertly crafted works of short fiction about such experiences. Told either from the viewpoint of the person in their new country (Canada, in this instance) or from the point of view of the family left behind, we are given a glimpse, albeit brief into the lives and thoughts of such persons, typically from a woman’s perspective. Ms Pirbhai has us peer into the lives of chambermaids, migrant workers, bankers, factory workers, maids, a cancer victim and a Haitian woman whose sister was a victim of a senseless crime thousands of miles away in Montreal.
The Outside People
Some of Ms Pirbhai’s characters are “outside” as respects being outside their native country (the usual case), and outside of their areas of experience and training, such as is the case with Radha Chatterjee, a woman with degrees in English and Education, who cannot get a position in Canada as a teacher:
She understood that a woman in a sari, a long black plait and a red dot on her forehead was not qualified to relate to a roomful of North American teenagers. She understood that in this country her qualifications were no better than a weight around a drowning man’s neck.
That excerpt is from “Crossing Over” my personal favourite of the nine stories here. It is about two couples, one doing well financially (Krishna and Radha), the other (Tariq and Mumtaz) not so much since coming to Canada.
Their vastly different trajectories to the West filled the space between them [Krishna and Tariq] with epic tension, Krishna looking on their migration with unqualified pride and Tariq looking on his with unqualified resentment.
Another favourite was “Sunshine Guarantee” which is the story of Lucita, a chambermaid working in a Mexican vacation resort. Her brother has emigrated to Canada, and her son has met a girl from Guyana and may be moving to Europe with her. Lucita lives with her mother who is suffering from dementia. There’s a lot Lucita doesn’t understand, such as what a sunshine guarantee is. Angelica, a front desk staff explains that the “gringos” expect sun, not rain, when on vacation. If it rains, they get something for free, like a day at the spa or a snorkelling lesson.
“You know how much the gringos love free stuff. Mira: people like you think that nothing good comes for free, and working hard is the only way to heaven. But most people think that because nothing comes for free, heaven must be a place where you get more for less. And Mexico is where the gringos come to get more for less. I bet you didn’t know you’re already in heaven, Lucita. Now you can forfeit next Sunday’s confession and live a little.”
Notable is the fact that each of the nine stories are infused with words and phrases in the storyteller’s native language, adding authenticity and realism to the narratives. There is even a Glossary at the back of the book that translates these for those of us not fluent in Spanish, Hindi/Urdu, French, Arabic, Tagalog and island Creoles. Most refreshing is the fact that Ms Pirbhai has felt no need to tell these stories with any unnecessary profanity or unwarranted adult content. I would venture to say Outside People would be enjoyed by mature young adult readers too.
In short, Outside People and Other Stories is an exceptional group of short narratives that are appealing, insightful and a treat to read. Rhoda Rabinowitz Green, the author of Aspects of Nature, says of Outside People: “Outside People and Other Stories views the world and humanity through a wide-angled lens. Give it a read. It will both entertain and enlighten.” I thoroughly agree, and this collection will go on my 2018 longlist for The Very Best! Awards in the short fiction category.