CHICAGO: Award-winning Syrian author Shahla Ujayli’s “A Bed for the King’s Daughter” is an extraordinary short-story collection of 22 fictional tales.
From a global hunt for a man named Mohammed Ismail, to Cinderella, and a woman who uses her own strength to ensure her fate, the writer’s characters spread themselves around the world.
Translated into English by another prize winner, Sawad Hussain, the subjects of Ujayli’s tales take shape and transform in their incredible thirst for life by living through themes of apartheid, spirituality, life’s contradictions and ironic fates, the curiosity of the young, and the instinct to survive.
Identified as an experimental journey and one that fits no mold, according to Hussain’s translator’s note, there had been difficulties trying to find an editor, despite the collection scooping the 2017 Al-Multaqa award for Arabic short-story collections.
Labeled as “too short” or “not Arab enough,” Hussain said that the collection went beyond what was on the page, inspiring readers to explore what was unsaid and unwritten.
Beginning with the story of Cinderella, whose slipper becomes a weapon of agency rather than a clue that leads to fortune and love, a woman finds strength in her own hands.
But in the second tale, that power is taken away when young children waiting for their Christmas presents are left disappointed when they realize Santa cannot get to them.
From the sheikh who continues to ask the heavens for rain while the youth check the weather on their phones, to the villagers on the mountain who battle the cold and refuse to succumb, Ujayli invokes and massages perspectives and resilience that is carried on the wind of her words. In just a few simple sentences, she conveys the lives of ordinary people and the contradictions and ironic fates they face.
Among the stories there is a desire for life, and each of Ujayli’s characters adapt and fight to survive for the human spirit rather than materials they can possess.
Her characters are stubborn which can bring about their own downfall and sometimes success, as happens in life. But that which is broken, or wounded is still alive in Ujayli’s collection.
There are scars, mental and physical, that mar the collection’s multiple characters, but that shows they have lived and their urgency for life remains long after their stories have ended.