July 16, 2018: “All the Names for God” by Anjali Sachdeva

And a good Monday to you, too, Story366! Nice to be back and reading and writing again after a weekend on the road. No camping or vacation this time, and with the Cubs in San Diego, my trip the past few days was comprised of selling beer at two concerts at Wrigley: Jimmy Buffet on Friday and The Pretenders/Journey/Def Leppard on Saturday. I haven’t worked a concert since Roger Waters did The Wall in the Friendly Confines six or seven years ago, but my brother and nephew (also beer vendors) talked me into it, pointing out how much more concert-goers drink than (even) baseball fans. I had a pretty good weekend in terms of sales—better for the three acts on Saturday than for the stoned, margarita-wanted Parrotheads on Saturday—but I also genuinely enjoyed the concerts. After spending most of my high school and college years going to any show I could, I’ve fallen off the scene since adulthood and especially since kids. Karen and I saw Bob Dylan at the basketball stadium on the MSU campus some years back, and we also saw Elvis Costello one night and Neutral Milk Hotel another at the really nice venue in downtown Springfield. That was 2013. It was nice to get back to a live show, even if I had to run around on hot, humid Chicago nights selling beer to do it.

And even if I’m not necessarily a fan of these particular acts. I do adore the Pretenders, who absolutely rocked. Chrissie Hynde’s voice has really aged well (though her jet-black hair is now white), as she’s never been a screamer or a falsetto; it’s not like she’s Robert Plant up there trying to hide the fact that some notes just aren’t hittable anymore. Otherwise, I’ve been indifferent, or maybe a non-fan, to the other three acts. I was never into Journey, though they put on a great show, doing what they do, playing their many recognizable hits . I have to admit, “Don’t Stop Believin’” is a pretty great rock song, how it moves in stages, builds in intensity, and then delivers a great, singalong chorus. I guess I bought Hysteria by Def Leppard when I was in high school—we all did—and banged my head to their mostly alike-sounding songs until I discovered REM, the Pixies, and other, better bands soon after. (Note, when Hysteria came out, they played three shows at the World Music Theater outside Chicago one weekend and that following Monday, I’d guess that three-fifths of my high school wore a Def Leppard T-shirt to school.) Boz Scaggs opened for Buffett, and while I like to consider myself knowledgeable about rock music, I couldn’t name a song before the concert but now realize he sings a couple of rock radio semi-staples, “Lido Shuffle” and “Lowdown.”

I’ve certainly never been a Parrothead, considering Buffett to be a relic from the generation before mine. I never got into that identity, the Hawaiian shirts, the longing for the sea, a bunch of old dudes thinking they’re some sort of pirates, steering their own vessels through drunkenness and failed marriages. Still, seeing him play for a couple of hours and immersing myself in the crowd, I have to admit, it was fun. I only knew two songs, “Margaritaville” and “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” and Buffett has a couple of others songs that sound almost exactly like those two, with different lyrics. But it was fun. People—beautiful, tan, affluent-looking people—were having a good time, smoking the shit out of pot, sporting leis and shark hats, and dancing in the aisles. I’m not converted or anything, but considering the general mopeyness and outright violence of the punk rock and alternative music I listen to, dancing and having fun (and probably getting laid soon after) suddenly seemed like a positive alternative to my moshpitting and shoegazing. I’ve been to a lot of shows, but how many can I say that I actually had fun at? That I left smiling? Not too many.

This morning I read a few stories from Anjali Sachdeva’s brand-new collection, All the Names They Used for God, out this summer from Spiegel & Grau. From three stories, I confidently proclaim this: Sachdeva is eclectic as all hell, as one story was about this blind poet, a buddy of Galileo, who is pushed into writing an epic poem by a couple of angels. Another, “Anything You Might Want”—which, okay, I read because it sounds like a Journey song—is about a young, rich Montana woman who runs away from home with one of the workers from her father’s mine, setting out on a series of adventures and life lessons. Two stories, set centuries and oceans apart, with characters who couldn’t be more different. Sachdeva nailed them both, though, as I enjoyed each of them quite a bit.

And then there’s the focus of today’s post, the almost-titular “All the Names for God,” which I read first. Before I start in on my usual plot rundown, I want to get out that this story moved me, as a person and a writer, and is one of the most powerful, clever, and interestingly rendered stories I’ve read in a while. It’s a story I will certainly be using in my classes, a story I need for my students to read, because of what happens, but also because how Sachdeva pulls it off, the feats she performs within.

“All the Names for God” is about Promise, a woman whose friend, Abike, kicks the story off by asking if she wants to go on a trip to visit their (respective) parents. Promise runs the idea through her head in the first couple of paragraphs, and in that short expanse, we find out that Promise hasn’t seen her family in eight years because she and Abike were the victims of a kidnapping when they were teens. Sachdeva puts it all out there, making me want to read on, find out the circumstances of the kidnapping, yes, but also why it’s taken Promise so long to get home, to see her family, when it seems like Abike’s question is so casual. I was hooked right away, to say the least, a neat convention that Sachdeva uses slyly and confidently.

The story proceeds in two timelines, the women going to see their families in the frontstory, the tale of the kidnapping in the back. In the present, Abike and Promise sojourn to their hometown, which Promise hasn’t been to since being taken (though Abike has, several times). When they get there, Promise suggests the two spend a night on the town before visiting their folks. Again: Why hadn’t she run home to her family? Why hadn’t she done this at first opportunity? What’s going on? Sachdeva even addresses these questions later in the story, via a short breaking of the fourth wall, and again, keeps us reading to find this out.

(By the way, I got a real sense of Camus here, Promise wanting to disco instead of going home, kind of like The Stranger going for a dip despite Mother died today.)

The women do indeed hit a local club that night, but not before getting a free luxury hotel room, apparently by willing it to happen, by assuaging the clerk to do it. Later, the ladies need some money and simply walk up to a man by the pool and ask him for it, watching as he reaches into his wallet and hands them his billfold. At this point, it seems as if something’s up, that these women have a certain power over others, that they’re able to influence people in ways that don’t quite make sense.

Back in the backstory, we hear the horrible tale that maybe we’re all expecting to hear. Promise and Abike and all the girls in their school are violently removed, their teacher shot in the face, and carted off to a camp (yes, like the Chibok girls in Nigeria). There, the girls are programmed to pray, to obey, to be well behaved, conservative Muslims, under the threat of death—any girl who falls out of line is literally beaten to death in front of the others. Several weeks in, government soldiers come to rescue the girls, but the kidnappers, using the girls as human shields, kill all the soldiers. They then move camp, but not before making their detainees pile and burn the dead. On the way out, the surviving girls are paired with their abductors and married, followed by being raped, over and over again, into even deeper submission. Like I said, it’s the horror story we all knew was coming, but Sachdeva is able to depict it with empathy, compassion, and intensity, all of which she projects on to us as we read.

After a night on the town in the present story, Promise and Abike head to their respective parents’ houses. Promise hasn’t been since the abduction, and we finally find out why: She’s ashamed of the things she’s done—because of both threat and programming—but she’s been ashamed nonetheless, keeping her from looking her family in their eyes. She has a nice visit for a couple of days—of course, the reunion scenes are touching and well done—but after that, Promise gathers up Abike and heads back to from where they came, promising her parents to soon return.

Remember, at this point we don’t know how the backstory ends, how Promise and Abike were able to get away, to get to the point where they could go to clubs and visit their parents. Not to mention the whole mind control thing. I won’t reveal anything further here, as it’s all cool and weird and surprising, an ending that makes this story truly great. You’ll need to read it for yourself, and I highly recommend that you do. What a fucking story. What a great writer.

So, big thumbs up for All the Names They Used for God by Anjali Sachdeva. These stories appeared in a lot of lit mags, but I hadn’t read anything by her before I saw people buzzing it, recommending it, over on social media. Anyone who told me to get this was right, as Sachdeva’s imagination and ability have led to quite the fantastic debut. I predict this will end up being one of the best books of 2018, on a lot of those year-end lists. It’ll be on mine. I’d mark it now.