Uncle Sharif’s Life in Music by Kazim Ali
With several volumes of poetry, books of essays, novels, and works in translation under his belt, Kazim Ali seems to have done it all. The writer has few literary genres left to debut and so we are all the more fortunate to have this: his first collection of short stories, Uncle Sharif’s Life in Music.
In the title story, Ali uses the vehicle of Uncle Sharif’s visit and a trip to Niagara Falls to move his young narrator, Zeffer, past his adolescent self-consciousness toward nascent artistic and spiritual sensibilities. The coming-of-age tale told through a visitation works well here and recalls in some ways Jhumpa Lahiri’s “When Mr. Prizada Came to Dine” from her own debut story collection, Interpreter of Maladies. The story is one of Ali’s best, but it’s an odd one to open with and to hang the title on. Along with the book’s cover (Uncle Sharif with his sitar, Zeffer spying puckishly from behind a chair), the story suggests the collection you are about to read is about childhood mischief, retrospection, nostalgia.
Don’t be deceived.
Uncle Sharif’s Life in Music might open with a child narrator, but the majority of the book deals frankly with (bi)sexuality, queerness, and that oh-so-human affliction we call love. After its first story, Ali’s collection not only becomes more adult but also departs from conventional forms with numbered scenes, mini-chapters shifting between points of view, letters, and a novella structured around tarot cards. This stylistic performance makes for unique packaging, but the real strengths of the collection have less to do with formal innovation than moments of human connection and ambivalence, especially as depicted in Ali’s tortured love stories.
At times Uncle Sharif’s Life in Music yearns to be a novel; a trio of stories with linked characters occupy its center (“Screwdriver,” “Morning Raga,” and “Correspondence”). The romantic entanglements in these stories is perhaps best demonstrated by “Screwdriver” in which Alex, who’s with Joel (who might be into Sonny), (sort of) sleeps with Dimitra, who’s with William but is actually in love with Joachim (as is Alex, but we won’t go there). It’s an elaborate web of sexual desire, with the story’s action rising to a sadomasochistic climax that’s more psychological than physical. “The Photograph” also features knotted love—among Benny, Collin, Simon, and Arjun—with an HIV scare driving the conflict. Partly set in Paris, it features a memorable scene at Oscar Wilde’s tomb. These are both stand-out stories in a collection about many mixed-up affections.
“Sewn” is the most experimental story of the batch. An unnamed narrator wakes in a graveyard with amnesia and hallucinates or, perhaps, channels the memories of previous lives. The story reads at times like a lyric essay or prose poem—incantatory writing, but with little for the reader to hold onto. The voice is alive on the page, but the narrative remains hazy and seems out of place in a collection of stories with otherwise coherent (if emotionally distraught) narrators. It’s the one story in which Ali’s poetic impulse overtakes his narrative sensibilities.
“Fool’s Errand,” the novella at the end of the collection, is a coming-out narrative in which Qays, an amateur astronomer, begins a love affair with Ash, a waiter he meets in a Barcelona café. This romance develops much to the dismay of Qays’ cousin, Nour. Unlike earlier stories, the novella is less concerned with the love affair itself than with Qays’ sexual identity and the ramifications it has on his relationship with his family—most notably his mother. Perhaps familiar territory in queer narratives, but no less powerful in Ali’s rendition.
Altogether, the collection’s stylistic embellishments work best when shaping narratives of the heart and sexual identity, proving no genre escapes Ali’s impressive body of work.
Eric Schlich is a PhD candidate in fiction at Florida State University. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Crazyhorse, Mississippi Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Electric Literature, Redivider, River Styx, Nimrod, New South, and others. He is the recipient of an Edward H. and Marie C. Kingsbury Fellowship, a residency at the Hambidge Center for Creative Arts and Sciences, and the 2016 Stella Kupferberg Memorial Short Story Prize.