Paradise, by Hannah Lillith Assadi
Read it here in about half an hour.
Thinking about why I love it…
I first read this story in 2020 (it was one of my ‘Top 10’ of that year), but have recently re-read it. I live in Egypt now, and teach students from this country as well as other Arab countries, including Syria, in an international school; the story resonates with me because it’s about a girl living in a country that is not her own, the beauty and challenges of language, and the impact of trauma.
I love the way Arabic is used in the story – it’s spelt phonetically (“Yallah rouh jeeb mai…,”), and is only sometimes translated for the reader; this allows the reader to hear the voice of Rita’s mother, even if they can’t understand it (I wrote about the way Ken Liu similarly uses Mandarin in one of his stories, here). It also Rita to be part of her family unit, while being isolated from others; and it allows Paul to make a connection with Rita, as he tries to learn her language.
I love the way Rita notices the landscape and people around her (‘Over the valley, smog obscured the mountains in the distance, even the one that resembled a camel lying down.’) – I like to notice my surroundings, too, taking note of the differences I find living and travelling overseas.
I love the narrative structure – the way Rita’s past (her trauma) is slowly and delicately built up, with details added, such as her mother’s death, her father and brother’s injuries, and their being smuggled out of the country.
I love the way the story ends without resolution, but with hope.