A Space for Women of the World
Co-editor Casandra Lopez Reviews Annam Manthirum’s short story collection Dysfunction
If you are looking to read a short stories with a happy endings you should not read Annam Manthirum’s short story collection, Dysfunction because this collection contains stories that are often dark with complex characters who will haunt you long after you have finished reading them. Manthirum, author of the novel After the Tsunami gets the opportunity to demonstrate her range in Dysfunction, a diverse collection. It contains several flash fiction pieces interspersed between longer stories. A few of the pieces make use of interesting framing devises to structure the stories such as, “Variations On A Blossoming Marriage,” which uses the names of flowers as a starting off point to delve into various failed relationships of the nameless protagonist. The tone is lighter in this story then in some others, but still pointed and intriguing. Under the heading “Nigella” Manthirum writes, “He was black; I was the box marked other.” These small snapshots of relationships work as individual micro stories, which build upon each other.
One story that is far from light is “Pro-Choice,” an eerie flash fiction piece about a mother of an infant. This piece is filled with a lot of tension and immediately grabbed my attention. It also moved in unexpected ways that didn’t feel gimmicky. For such a short story there is a lot at stake in “Pro-Choice and so when Manthirum writes towards the end, “I love my son more than this life. Wherever we go, we must go together,” I wasn’t ready for the story to end. And when the story did end I wasn’t ready to go put the book down and go to sleep so I read the flash fiction story, “SuperHeros,” which challenges common societal expectations of superheros and in the process society. Manthirum writes, “Superheroes are not Indian. They don’t drown in seven yards of fabric or keep their privates cool with man skirts…Superheroes don’t cry. Not even when they get fired from a job (which they never are), or are told they don’t qualify for welfare because they are not from here, and if they don’t like it, why don’t they go back to where they came from?” The story is both humorous and reflective.
Many of the stories are of a domestic nature, which doesn’t mean that they don’t explore difficult subject matter or are staid. In fact many of them have unexpected elements like in “When You Were Young,” which challenged my own expectations. In this story Poornima, a young Indian women with a cleft lip is married to an elderly Indian man. The couple has to contend with intrusions from Poornima’s family as well as her husband’s mortality. In this story and in others others Manthirum delicately weaves in issues related to class, culture, and gender.
What I liked about these stories were the risk that were taken by the writer. Some of the characters are broken or disconnected, but we are always given an intimate sense of them and their struggles, and therefore each story reveals a bit of humanity.