Book Review: Siamak Vossoughi’s "Better Than War"


Siamak Vossoughi’s debut collection of short stories, Better Than War, is more than simply a finely crafted, exceptional book: it is a living, breathing, emotional connection. Winner of the 2014 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, Vossoughi’s book begins with a Pearl Jam quote and a story ostensibly about shoes that delves into the politics and social reality of famine and war, and ends with a story about a book that is no ordinary book. Each story is tightly written with an almost austere use of language that is reminiscent of Jean Rhys; Vossoughi appears to have carefully crafted each story down to the word—there is intent found on every page that beautifully manages to maintain readability. The starkness of language allows the reader to easily jump right into the interconnected world of each story, yet the dynamism of thought and complexity of ideas disallows for an easy take away. Vossoughi is challenging us to think, to search for truths that may not even exist, but that isn’t about to stop him from inviting us on this journey. He is welcoming, yet passionately honest.

Vossoughi is Iranian American and much of his book speaks to what it means to be Iranian American without attempting to define the experience, or to universalize it. There is a socio-political undertone (both blatant and subtle) throughout the stories that serves to remind the reader that there is more at stake than what is on the surface. In the first story, “Shoes,” which focuses on revolution and famine, Vossoughi echoes Edward Said’s “Exile begets exile” in writing about the principles of respect, in family and at work. The binaries of success versus failure and hope versus despair—and the dichotomies at work in the creation/manifestation of revolution and/or war—remain on an individual level within the stories as the reader is confronted with the lives of an array of characters and sees the beauty, the confusion, the heart, the loss, the wonderment, the exploration. Yet it is the questions raised, the thoughts and hearts and minds of these characters that intersect with the broader issues of war, famine, the everyday, politics, and even sports, that create a lasting impression.

Each story stands on its own, yet is best read in order, allowing the characters’ to build on each other, to search for meaning alongside them, rather than simply just gazing upon them. Vossoughi is a writer with a lot to say, a voice we should listen to, because we might just learn something about what it means to live in a world where war is so commonplace, yet rarely takes place on American soil.

There is an intense level of awareness in Vossoughi’s writing of what can be at stake; in “The Broken Finger,” a piece of metafiction, he turns an extremely literal story into the importance of listening, without being prescriptive: “…a man my father knew in the Shah’s prison in Iran…was having his finger pulled back by one of his jailers when he said, ‘If you pull it back any farther, it will break.’ They pulled it, and it broke. ‘You see now,’ he said. ‘I told you it would break.’ ” He explores who we do—and who we should—listen to, and how important what the unheard have to say is. This exploration is reinforced in the final story in the collection, “The Book That Was Too Good to Read,” by reminding the reader that Vossoughi is writing beyond the page. In “The Street,” he mines the depths of what makes a place, in a manner reminiscent of Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place, and asks, “Is there love and beauty and sorrow in the world?”

In “The Movie Quitters,” the story revolves around an uncle asking, “ ‘I’m tired of being moved to tears by American movies. When are Americans going to be moved to tears by Iranian movies?’ ” In a time where one of the most crucial questions that has been asked this year—when is America going to love Black people as much as Black culture?—Vossoughi gets to the heart of the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange by discussing something that appears innocuous—going to the movies—but is ultimately another example of an unequal power dynamic. This theme runs throughout the collection—in “The Theater of War,” he quietly reminds us of not only the folly of remaining ignorant, insular, and self-focused, but why many of the stories focus on children’s exploration of their identity and of the world: “…because the ones in front of him were kids, they were less likely to think that something was being taken from them when they learned about somewhere else.”

In the titular story, the story is told once-removed of an Iranian boy who waited to ask an American girl on a date until he knew if there would be war. The conversation between the two boys about whether or not he should ask the girl out on a date is a masterful exploration of the impact of even the idea of war and hatred and how to find connection and hope, how to be “better than war.”

Not to be missed: “In the Library” focuses on two boys reading about a woman in Iran being sentenced to death by stoning who are torn between their dream of going to an American dance with a girl and the importance of reading the newspaper the right way (which is paralleled in “Sunday in the Park”). “The two boys believed that they would want to know what was happening in Iran even if they weren’t Iranian. It was because the dance was half the story. The other half was the world.”

There are stories about shoes, running, movies, childhood games and school dances, a baseball game, a broken easel, cars, a girls’ basketball team, etc.—these are stories about everyday and extraordinary life, about war, about hope, and about heart. These are stories about people, about individuals, about places, about communities, about dreams and dreaming. These are stories about “why it’s always different when a black girl calls herself a princess from when a white girl does it.” These are stories where harmful dichotomies are destroyed—where a girls’ basketball team can be quiet while yelling and where it is okay to cry or to stop crying. Where everyone has a right to exist. These are stories that will stay with you, long after you have finished the last page.

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