April 22, 2020: “Better Than War” by Siamak Vossoughi

Hey hey, Story366!

Today is Earth Day, another “holiday” for which I did not plan, so no earthy, environmentally conscious story today. Not sure why I keep bringing this up, what I’m not doing, but hey, Happy Earth Day.

Later today, I’m headed out for what will be the family’s first non-grocery shopping trip: Lowe’s. I’ve ordered ahead and my order will be ready, though I’m not sure yet if there’s going to be a curbside pick-up situation or if I’m going to have to go inside. All signs point to me having to go inside, so I guess I’ll mask up and head on in; if I would have known that when I made the order, I probably wouldn’t have made the order. None of the items I’ve purchased—chainsaw oil, hooks for our garage wall, and a new pair of pruning shears—are essential, just things that make the stay-at-home time go by a bit more easily, help me get some things done around the yard. I guess I’m going to go, though, as I don’t see me cancelling the order. All I know is, when the family and I take rides around town, the one place with a full parking lot—even fuller than the grocery stores—is Lowe’s. Looks like they’re thriving, in fact. So it looks like I’m going to have to prepare for a relatively crowded scene, my first in over a month.

Today, I read from Siakam Vossoughi‘s collection, Better Than War, out in 2015 from the the University of Georgia Press as a winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. I don’t think I’ve read Vossoughi before today, but he did read as part of one of the SmokeLong Quarterly online parties I attended last week. I liked what I heard, ordered his book, and here we are.

The stories in Vossoughi’s book are all relatively short, without being flash, most of them three to six pages long. So, I’d guess, at the short end, he barely fits into SLQ‘s one-thousand-word limit, and then he runs twice that length at his most extended. The stories all feature, thematically and centrally, Vossoughi’s Iranian heritage and culture, the author having grown up in Iran before being educated in and moving to America later on.

On top of that, the stories in this book read as ethical ponderings, perhaps moral dilemmas, the protagonists often faced with a conflict, or even a simple topic. The stories are then comprised of the internal dialogue the character conducts  as he or she (note: I didn’t come across any shes) works through the topic; sometimes this is done in dialogue with another character, the back-and-forth serving the same purpose, basically, as the protagonist hashing it out internally.

The title story, “Better Than War,” is like that, dialogue-heavy. It’s about a man (who we assume is Iranian) who has a conversation with an Iranian boy, the boy wanting to ask out an American girl. The boy is worried, however, that she won’t accept him for being Iranian; on top of that, the boy invents all kinds of scenarios for what could go wrong if she accepts. Basically, the kid is nervous, justifiably, because of the preconceived bigotry he’s expecting—and because he’s a young boy asking a young girl on a date. I experienced the latter, turning me into a sack of jellied nerves, so I can hardly imagine adding the bigotry aspect in as well (i.e, white privilege).

The narrator/protagonist of this story tries to reason with the kid, tells him to simply ask the girl out and not worry about it. The boy thinks the girl won’t like him, and even if she does, her father won’t like him. Most of all, the boy is worried that between the asking for a date and the date, a war will break out between the U.S. and Iran, changing the girl’s feelings toward him. What if she’s super-patriotic? What if he dad’s super-patriotic?

The conversation grows deeper, though, about the nature of war, of the self, and of happiness. Some of it is the boy just being scared, but some of it allows the protagonist to reflect on his own thoughts on war. In the end—which I won’t specifically reveal here—Vossoughi offers up a vision of idealism that makes this story feel hopeful, whether or not this one boy asks this one girl on a date.

Other stories follow similar methodologies, only with different topics. “Shoes,” the first story in the book, is about a guy buying a pair of shoes, his first in a long time. This purchase leads him to reminisce about a guy he knew in the resistance back in Iran, how he wouldn’t travel down from the mountains for meetings because he didn’t want to scuff his new shoes; this made everyone go up to the mountains, to him, instead. The luxury of shoes becomes the overall point of this story, a luxury the narrator doesn’t take for granted.

“The Broken Finger” tells the story of a man who as a boy, knew a man whose finger was broken in interrogation. The man handled his torture well, better than could be expected, and the boy—now a man, now our narrator—has taken some surprsing lessons from that story.

“Nine Innings” is a love story about a guy in San Francisco dating a woman who lives in New York. The story pits him in a bar, watching a Giants-Mets game. The woman isn’t watching in New York, but he feels closer to her, his team in the Big Apple, this scant connection giving him a sliver of joy. The score, however, isn’t going the Giants’ way, down 16-2 early, and when the bartender wants to change the channel, our hero asks him not to and has to explain himself. Thus starts a deep conversation about love; the bartender will keep the game on—the Giants stage an epic comeback—only if the man agrees to go to New York, immediately, to be with his love in person. Ruminations on love and the situation end the story, to which I was becoming accustomed.

Those are just a few highlights from Better Than War, Siamak Vossoughi’s story collection that reads so differently from any collection I’ve encountered so far. The stories feel a lot like essays, especially because it’s easy to picture the author as the narrator in most cases, all of them young Iranian-American men. I’d rather not make that assumption—this is fiction, after all. Vossoughi’s unique style and approach also throw me back to a different era of writing, when writers weren’t mere storytellers, but philosophers, ethicists, and statesmen as well. I liked reading every one of these stories, in any case, and learned a lot about Iran and Iranian-American relations to boot. A bonus, though the stories were enough.