Visiting a place is quite different from living in it. In an ideal world, everyone would have the opportunity to experience life in all the corners of the world. It would certainly help people understand each other better. This is where the written word comes in handy. Reading allows people to inhabit a character, real or imagined, in places to which they could only dream of travelling. In her debut collection, Travel Is So Broadening And Other Stories, Wasela Hiyate attempts to transport her readers to familiar and unknown worlds — and succeeds wonderfully.
The book’s prose inhabits a variety of characters who journey to foreign lands, back to their places of origins, or who are just finding themselves in the here and now. The opening story, “The Monkeys in Songkhla,” tells of a woman named Ayah who has travelled with her husband Don to teach English in Thailand. At first it feels like a possible eternal vacation for the both of them, but soon Ayah realizes that that it might not be as easy as that.
I’ve only ever been aware of being an Asian chick while walking around the east part of Montreal a few times. I don’t think I look Thai but there is a Chinese population here too. Who knows what they think? All I know is that I’ve never been worried about being taken for a prostitute before.
Her dilemma is not often seen in literature, but it’s something that happens to many in her shoes. Many tourists are treated to privileges because they are foreigners, but how about going somewhere you could be mistaken as a local? It is a concern for Ayah because while she might look Thai, her Canadian-Korean background has her feeling isolated from many of the people around her.
Hiyate takes various approaches to express this feeling of detachment. In “The Boston Wedding,” Theresa and her boyfriend Paul meet up with Paul’s ex, Mel, for a friend’s wedding. Theresa is surprised by Mel and Paul’s closeness. Although she rationalizes with the fact that they are former lovers, she feels removed from the situation. Hiyate cleverly frames this with thoughts on Theresa’s parental background in Boston.
Her mother recounted the horrors of stepping out of that school bus each day in the middle of an openly hostile white neighbourhood, but she also acknowledged it was the school that was the first step in sending her to university in Montreal, where she eventually met Theresa’s father.
Later in the story Theresa realizes that, out of the celebratory environment she is in, her relationship with Paul requires a deeper understanding or a thorough look within herself.
Disenfranchisement comes in many forms and can lead to the sort of enlightenment that either changes lives or causes them to require pause. This is an integral theme that interweaves throughout Hiyate’s stories and infuses them with rich imagery that delights the senses. Readers will find themselves thirsting for the salt in the ocean or craving the therapeutic stimulus of a good meal. In “Mo,” a story about a new Canadian-Pakistani restaurant worker, even condiments get a good descriptive treatment.
…the preferred sauce was a thick red liquid in a bottle that was both sweet and tangy, called ketchup. Canadians oozed – used? – the stuff over everything. Mo watched in fascination while Shawn drowned a plate of French fries in ketchup and vinegar. The tutor responded to Mo’s incredulous stare, “What? You have curry sauce, we have this.”
Passages like these guide a reader into thought-provoking perspectives. It is a universal construct that everyone is a tourist in life. Having lived and worked in the Caribbean, Latin America and in Europe, Hiyate uses her experiences to fuel her narratives and enrich her readers’ eyes through emotional contacts. A strong example of this is “The Package.” Uma is a renowned chef with a kinky side. Yet even with this other part of herself, she is lost when it comes to love and attachment. With delicious elements of food in the cravings of “yam frites with satay dip,” Hiyate has Uma discover herself with the same intensity she already does with food.
“It didn’t feel strange, but completely… good. Tara moved her hand to Uma’s breast, tracing the hard nipple she found there, while Uma’s hand moved to the girl’s lap, stroking the velvet hip, and the skin underneath the net pattern of her stockings.”
Food and sex become an interesting allegory for the human being as ubiquitous tourist. Hiyate grounds her narratives with delectable descriptors and places them in invigorating settings. There’s innovation in here in terms of how easy and comfortable it is to dwell in Hiyate’s characters. It is also her artistry as a writer, using wit and beautiful turns of phrase that makes this collection so riveting.
Quattro | 132 pages | $18.00 | paper | ISBN# 978-1927443828