By Yumna KassabFictionGiramondo Publishing

The House of Youssef

This debut collection of short stories by Yumna Kassab is remarkable for its minimalism. Set in the suburbs of Western Sydney, it portrays the lives of Lebanese immigrants, and their families. The stories revolve around their hopes and regrets, their feelings of isolation, and their nostalgia for what they might have lost or left behind. In particular, The House of Youssef is about relationships, and the customs which complicate them: children growing away from their parents, parents anxious about their children’s futures, the intricacies of marriage, the breakable bonds of friendship. The stories are told with an extreme economy – some are only two pages long – and a spareness of detail which heightens their emotional intensity.

There are two sequences of stories, composed of vignettes which focus on moments of domestic crisis, and which combine, in the second sequence, to chart the demise of a single family, ‘the House of Youssef’. Kassab then expands the short form, through elaboration, into two extended soliloquies. ‘Homing’ expresses the longing of an old man for the homeland he will never return to. ‘Darkness, Speak’ is a mother’s testament, addressed to her daughter, about how things have gone for her in this new country.

Portrait of Yumna Kassab

Yumna Kassab

Yumna Kassab was born and raised in Western Sydney. She completed her schooling in Parramatta, except for two formative years when she lived in Lebanon with her family. She went on to study medical science at Macquarie University and neuroscience at Sydney University. She currently teaches in regional New South Wales.

Judges’ report

Set in the suburbs of Western Sydney, The House of Youssef portrays the lives of Lebanese immigrants and their families. Composed of four sections in total, Yumna Kassab employs a minimalist aesthetic both in style and in format. While most stories are only a few pages long, each one is precise and assured in its focus on the domestic, the daily, the dreams and the obligations of Lebanese-Australians. As the reader works through these vignettes, the many lenses through which these characters see the world becomes strikingly apparent, and their effect on the reader stunning. Minimalism is not just the format of this book, but it becomes its metaphor a writerly tool to express the ongoing effects of Islamophobia.

These stories convey a rich emotional tapestry: from the hopes of a bride and groom on their wedding to the despair of a single man post-9/11. There is a strong sense of community in The House of Youssef, despite the fact that it often depicts the ways in which many people who come to Australia feel dislocated and disconnected both from the culture of their home country and from the Australian culture they encounter. The House of Youssef confronts the reader, in a bold and singular voice, with the societal and systemic barriers that immigrants to this country themselves confront.

Extract

Cigarettes and Smoke

Um Ali – fifty-seven, divorced, mother to six adult children, long-term resident of housing commission – awakens on her couch. The curtains cover the window but it is daylight now. The television is off and outside there is silence. What is it that woke her?

She shuts her eyes and adjusts the blanket. It will be winter soon. She hates winter.

Her son's alarm goes off again in the next room. It was his alarm! She hollers for him to get up. At least he is working again.

She hears his footsteps and then his lips brush her cheek. ‘What do you need today?’

Nothing, she thinks. ‘Cigarettes. I need cigarettes.’

‘You need to get out. You go get them. I'm going to boil an egg. Do you want one?’

It always runs like this: he asks, she says cigarettes, he ignores her request and then offers breakfast. Today will be like yesterday and every other day. She will stare at the egg, go to the corner store for smokes, shut the curtains he has opened, turn on the television, and with coffee and her cigarettes, she will manage to get through another day.

A boiled egg is placed before her. Eventually her son cracks it and peels the shell. He sets out bread next to her plate, also measuring out salt and pepper. ‘Eat.’

‘I'm not hungry.’ She lights her first cigarette of the day. Bliss. It is her last one. She always leaves one in the pack. It gives her something to look forward to.

He cleans up, leaving her alone with the egg. Before he leaves, he kisses her cheek once more.

 

Back on her couch, she sets the coffee pot on a newspaper. She removes the plastic from her cigarettes. She opens the lid and sniffs them. She loves that smell most in the world.

She uses her second cigarette to choose the shows she will watch today. She circles them with a pencil so her day will stay on track.

In three minutes, her first selection will begin. It is a 1973 romance about a pilot whose plane goes down off the coast of Italy. A nun finds him…and that is all the guide reveals.

 

The pilot is speaking to the youngest nun when there is a knock on the door.

She is expecting no one. She waits. There is the knocking again. A woman calls out her name.

Um Ali glances at the TV, at the earnest face of the pilot, and then she goes to the door.

It is Um Ahmed. How many years has it been since she visited? Three, four? It was before Ali was caught so it must be four at least.

She invites Um Ahmed in. She does not open the curtains. Instead she turns on the lights. Her children are constantly complaining about her electricity bill but she won't leave her guest in the dark. From the kitchen, she picks a second cup, one that matches her cup, and then she returns to the television.

In her absence, the pilot has had a scuffle with one of the village men. A nun is dabbing at a cut on his cheek.

Um Ahmed asks after her health, her children, the missing Abu Ali. ‘Good, good, they're all good,’ she says.

‘And your heart? I heard about your heart.’

‘My heart is good.’

‘That is good to hear.’

The pilot is tanning by the sea in his shorts. He has taken up fishing. People were more beautiful in those days.

‘And how is Ali?’

‘He is the same.’ Another cigarette, more coffee. ‘He is the same.’ Her stomach rumbles. Um Ahmed laughs. The egg, plus bread, salt, pepper, sits untouched on the table.

‘When will he be getting out?’

She considers the question and why people ask questions with no answer. Is it curiosity, is it mere conversation? Either way, wouldn't it be better to speak of topics with clear answers?

‘Not for a while.’

‘Have you seen him lately?’

And then there are the questions with obvious answers that are not worth the breath required to ask them.

‘Yes.’

‘And Mohamed, is he working again?’

The pilot is lying in the water, laughing with his clear, white teeth. Excepting the cut on his cheek, he is all health. She would like to be on a beach somewhere, away from this couch, this woman with her stupid questions.

‘Yes.’

‘That is good. It is important for boys to work.’

‘He is a good boy. That is more important than anything else.’

‘Yes, yes, but work is important too.’

She thinks of Ali serving time for his line of work, of Sami paralysed from a scaffolding accident, of the other one fighting in some war somewhere, the two girls married stay-at-home mothers, and Mohamed working in factories again. She would give all the cigarettes in the world to have her children around her every day.

Um Ahmed asks something. She pretends not to hear the question or the next one. Eventually Um Ahmed makes an excuse and gets up to leave. Um Ali locks the door after her, turns off the lights again, lights a fresh cigarette, and sits alone with her pilot once more.

The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist