August 2002

Roohi Choudhry

fiction

The Best of Gowanus edited by Thomas J. Hubschman

I'll admit it. I have something of a soft spot for Gowanus, An International Online Journal of Idea & Observation. A few years ago, when I had nothing more to show for my writing than a mounting pile of rejection slips, editor Tom Hubschman decided a piece I had submitted was worthy of inclusion in his online magazine. He sent me my first ever payment for writing: a check I still haven't cashed because I can't bear to part with it.

So when it came time to review The Best of Gowanus -- an anthology chronicling the journal's best work since its inception in 1997 -- I was more than a little nervous. Given my disposition to criticize rather than appreciate most books I read, I was sure I would find something to dislike about this one, too. How could I write a bad review for an anthology compiled by the editor who gave me my first break?

Fortunately for me, and for you as readers, I didn't have to puzzle over that ethical dilemma for very long. The Best of Gowanus is such a refreshing break from the ordinary, such a fascinating and thought-provoking collection, that there is really nothing to attack. A few pages into it, I had to renounce all other reading and direct my undivided attention on exploring this find.

The online journal (residing at http://www.gowanusbooks.com) proclaims: "GOWANUS wants to know what life is like in Kinshasa and Sarajevo, in suburban Cleveland and in Delhi."

This is just a snapshot of the breadth spanned by The Best Of Gowanus. While certain regions are perhaps represented more generously than others, the sheer scope of global coverage is astounding. Of course, there are lots of "international collections" out there. What sets The Best of Gowanus apart is the sincerity of its authors. In some cases, an awkward turn of phrase reminds one that English is the writer's second language, but this realization only brings home how first-hand these accounts are, how raw and unadulterated their perspectives. There is no self-conscious exoticism, nothing artificial about this work.

The editor deftly juxtaposes fiction as well as non-fiction in this anthology. Many of the stories and novel excerpts are shorter than traditional American fiction and some are reminiscent of fables. The pieces are vastly different -- from Anjana Basu's tale of a goose-white grandmother in an excerpt from "Curses and Poetry," to Ellen Larson's rendering of an Egyptian sentry's life story in "Bridges and Trees." But they all share a sense of descriptive intensity. While many of the stories are poignant, the authors are not maudlin; they simply sketch the patterns of lives in their own cultural contexts. The resulting pathos is merely a side effect.

However, the non-fiction works -- the personal memoirs and essays -- are what propel this collection beyond others of its kind. The articles are compelling and incisive, providing uncensored images that make CNN look about as informative as Sesame Street.

In fact, the authors of the essays often use metaphor and image so skillfully that they manage to communicate subtle ideas better than some of the more heavy-handed fiction pieces included.

Norma Kitson shares an unsettling memoir about an encounter with "Rhodies" or colonialists in post-independence Zimbabwe. Abbas Zaidi's insight into the Kafir tribe of northern Pakistan exposes a disturbing history of ethnic cleansing which the rest of the country and the world has conveniently ignored. Victor Car's brief journal entries pondering life as a Croat among Serbs on the brink of war emits more reality than anything I have ever read about the region in the past decade.

Perhaps that is one of the chief accomplishments of The Best of Gowanus. By amplifying all these untempered voices, it resurrects tragedies dead to us from overkill. It succeeds where ads featuring swollen bellies and soulful eyes have failed: it awakens us from our media-desensitized slumber and launches us into an all-too-real world. It's a jolt you should not miss.

The Best of Gowanus edited by Thomas J. Hubschman
Published by Savvy Press
ISBN:0966987721
228 Pages