The House of Youssef
It is human / so human / to leave.
‘In Order to Return’, Omar Sakr, The Lost Arabs
The first two parts of Yumna Kassab’s House of Youssef are made up of very short sections, some not much longer than a page. In an interview with Sunil Badami, Kassab suggests her habit of taking photos of ‘everyday things’ in and around Parramatta has perhaps filtered through to her writing, to create this ‘snapshot’ form.[i] Each chapter feels tightly framed, often focused on an individual character — a single mother looking for a house to rent; a man interviewing suitors for his daughter’s hand — and the writing too is careful and economical. Action (marriages collapsing; sons entering prison) unfolds beyond the frame of the page, alluded to or mentioned in passing. ‘Births, Deaths, Marriages’, for example, opens like this: ‘The day after he killed his wife, Mohamed goes to visit his cousin’ (84).
By the end of these opening two parts, we have been introduced to several dozen characters. In musical terms, we might think of this multiplication of voices as almost orchestral; a full range of timbres and tones that, heard in quick succession, create a polyphonic texture. The second two parts, in contrast, each feature an individual voice speaking at length, and these might be thought of as solo performances. In ‘Darkness, Speak’ a mother tenderly addresses her daughter, and in ‘Homing’ an old man reflects on his life, still ‘lost in the memory of another land’ (193).
Though this is a variegated portrait, Kassab’s characters are united by the fact they all form part of the Lebanese diaspora, all live in Western Sydney, and all grapple with questions of belonging and identity. Kassab’s language evokes this distinctive setting: she incorporates Australian vernacular (‘his bomb of a car had copped it’) as well as capturing the cadences of first-generation migrant voices:
This country is full of work. People work many hours of the day and when they don’t work, they talk about work…. Yes, work is good. It keeps the heart strong but you work so you can buy the good things for your family. There is no need to grab money. The things people do today for money! They act as if they are without soul. (201)
In an Author’s note, we are told that in Arabic, parents are often referred to by the name of their eldest male child. Um Abdullah, for example, means ‘mother of Abdullah’. So before the (non-Arabic-speaking) reader even enters the book, Kassab re-orients us. Each individual’s name (and by implication, each individual) does not stand alone, but is defined relationally. Some names recur, yet are attached to different characters. A name like ‘Amanda’ stands out here, and association with such a name is often a source of disgrace. There is pressure to anglicise names: ‘His mother told him to change his name on his CV to Kurtis or Kyle’ (104), and resistance to this pressure: ‘this is my name, I will keep it’ (104). Mayada resolves to stop going by her name: ‘That was once me but no more, no more Mayada for me’ (171), and her family, ashamed at how ‘feral’ and ‘wild’ she has become, despairs that she ‘did not look after her name’ (180).
Taken collectively, the above practices and attitudes attached to naming signal a deeper set of beliefs. For the first-generation migrants that populate Kassab’s stories, tradition, honour and respect are paramount. To dishonour one’s name is tantamount to a severing from one’s culture, one’s family, and one’s origins. Some mentally ill characters literally forget their own names (‘She went delirious mad. Cuckoo. Over the edge, no going back. Mayada did not even know her own name’, 166), the ultimate source of shame.
Tensions are ever-present, not only between white Australian culture and Lebanese Muslim culture, but between the first and second generations of Lebanese migrants. Kassab herself grew up in Sydney, and yet she inhabits the psyches of older migrants convincingly. She depicts the older generation as at times vicious (refusing to meet her own grand-daughter, one character hisses: ‘I don’t care if you’ve had some half-breed child’, 57) but also deeply vulnerable. The narrator of ‘Homing’ confides that ‘sometimes all I want in this life is for my children to listen without laughing’ (203). He reveals a terrible loneliness, identifying with the boat-people in the news who his own sons scorn, concluding ‘my world will always be strange to them’ (210). The younger generation, conversely, can be brash but we also feel for their predicament. They must straddle two worlds, stifled by the over-protectiveness of their parents, but facing hostility and Islamophobia in the schoolyard, in the workplace, and in wider society. It is testament to Kassab’s skill as a writer that we are never made to side with anyone. At times her writing has a fable-like quality, yet she resists any attempt to moralise.
In Australia, the term ‘culture clash’ gets thrown about. It suggests something overt, but in Kassab’s depiction, cultural tensions and divides are often more internalised and insidious. The younger generation must be vigilant of the unspoken rules of two worlds, and this can require not just compromise, but deception. Ayesha must live a ‘double life’: she skips her exams to go to the beach, carrying her ‘invisible audience’ with her, who ‘watch, assess, correct and reprimand her’ (94). The same object can have starkly different meaning according to its context, and the younger generation are hyper-sensitive to this, too. The hijab, for instance, is an object of both devotion and suspicion. Kassab hints at this double reality through moments of dramatic irony, which can make the (white Australian) reader feel implicated: ‘I know she does not touch the drink but she goes out to the pub with her white friends’ (258). The older generation, meanwhile, are desperate to keep their culture and language alive, but simultaneously want their children to fit in. Sumaya, for example, lacks money but still buys her son brand-new things so ‘he would not be different from the other children’ (116). All, ultimately, are quite tragic figures. The younger generation must bear the weight of familial expectation, but the older ones live in fear of being ‘ruined’ by their children’s choices.
At its heart, The House of Youssef is about home. The bulk of the stories take place in domestic settings (over the kitchen sink; in a living room). But ironically, most of the characters, born here or not, feel un-homed. The opening image of ‘The House of Youssef’ is a hole in the earth where the Youssefs’ house has just been bulldozed, foreshadowing what is yet to befall the family. Ghassan Hage writes that while we usually conceive of nostalgia as a time-centred notion, nostalgia for migrant communities is characterised by a greater foregrounding of place.[ii] This yearning for the ‘motherland’ is palpable among Kassab’s characters. The narrator of ‘Homing’ despairs that ‘I have spent more of my life here than there but this land is not known to me’ (194). Visiting is not so easy either: ‘Will I know anyone when I return? It could be I have been forgotten’ (200). And the question of home is not straightforward even for those born here. For poet Omar Sakr, the second-generation must also grapple with a sense of loss. He talks of his own ‘strategic distancing’ from his Lebanese family and culture: ‘Sometimes we have to leave even God behind in order to hold on to ourselves, or feel that we must, and it is so often through distance that we understand why it is we need to return’.[iii] We see this distancing enacted repeatedly in The House of Youssef, as the new generation figures out for themselves what it means to belong, what it means to come home.
[i] The House of Youssef: Yumna Kassab in conversation with Sunil Badami, Conversations from Byron, Byron Writers Festival (2020)
[ii] Ghassan Hage, ‘The Difficult Temporality of Diasporic Nostalgia‘, University of Helsinki Anthropology (28 September 2019)
[iii] To Remember, Read, and Return: A Conversation Between Omar Sakr and George Abraham, Los Angeles Review of Books (25 June 2020)
Yumna Kassab, The House of Youssef. Artarmon, NSW: Giramondo, 2019. ISBN: 9781925818192