Short and Sweet: Silmy Abdullah + Home of the Floating Lily
May is Short Story Month, and this year All Lit Up celebrates this under-appreciated form with Short and Sweet, a little series featuring 12 short story collections and their authors, who share brief thoughts on the short form.
A (short) interview with Silmy Abdullah, author of Home of the Floating Lily
All Lit Up: Describe your collection in under 100 words.
Silmy Abdullah: Home of the Floating Lily is a collection of eight short stories, highlighting the Bangladeshi immigrant experience in Canada. The stories are set in both Canada and Bangladesh, and all of them have a connection to a specific neighbourhood in Toronto, a fictional place called “Crescent Oak Village.” These are stories about family, friendship and community, about the lives of everyday people as they navigate the complexities of migration, displacement, love, friendship, and familial conflict. At its core, every story in this collection is about our universal longing for home, both in the world and within our own selves.
ALU: What do you love about the short story form?
SA: I love the brevity, and the fact that I can foresee some kind of a resolution when I am crafting a story, which is much harder to do in a novel, in my opinion. Because you are working with a limited number of pages, I also find it is much more fun to focus on and play around with style and form in a short story. Many might think the short story is more restrictive because of the demands for being concise, but I think it is the opposite. I find there is a lot more flexibility with this form because you can make a story both by magnifying a single moment, and compressing a large period of time by cutting out unnecessary details.
ALU: Who is your fave short story author?
SA: Jhumpa Lahiri.
An excerpt from "Across the Ocean"
A touch on my head awakens me, not from deep sleep, but a drowsy half-slumber. The soft strokes rouse me gently, gradually, as if bringing me out of a trance. I cannot remember when sleep left me this morning. It must have been when the crows began their caw-caw and the hawkers started singing about bread and biscuits, eggs and vegetables. And then there was that smell, that damp, fishy smell from the lake outside, seeping in through the window, filling up every corner of my room.
When I open my eyes, finally alert, I find her standing by my bedside, hovering over me while she runs her palm through my hair — Amina. My aunt’s helper. She is wearing the same salwar kameez and the same look as yesterday, when we met for the first time. A look of unsettling familiarity.
“Oh, it’s you,” I say to her. “I thought it was Aunty.” “You will not come down for breakfast? It’s eleven, Apa.”
Already, she has started to address me as “Apa,” the Bangla term for an older sister. The warmth of her fingers tempts me to stay in bed. It invites memories of a distant past, of those days when my mother used to oil my hair with her soft, long fingers and all the worries of the world seemed to vanish in an instant. But I sit up and reach for the elastic band that’s next to my pillow. “Should I make a ponytail for you?” she asks, her eyes full of anticipation.
“No, it’s okay.”
I twist the band around my hair, still dry and brittle from my flight the day before. The smell reaches my nostrils with a renewed intensity. I scurry over to the window and my gaze falls briefly outside. The lake behind Aunty’s posh duplex house is peppered with garbage. The slum houses lining its bank on the other side look more cramped, more fragile than I ever remember them looking. I quickly shut the window, pushing the glass flaps against the net screen as a tepid breeze slaps me again with the stench.
“How come you had the window open?” Amina says. “No AC?”
“I was feeling too cold. It was suffocating.”
Here in Dhaka, I’ve always slept with the window shut. Curtains drawn. Air conditioner full blast. Strange what one year out of the country can do to the most stringent of habits. I’ve become so used to the natural air in my Toronto apartment that I woke up shivering early this morning, turned off the AC, and pulled open the window flaps before crawling back to bed.
“And you slept well after that?” Amina asks. “So-so.”
“What’s for breakfast?” I ask Amina, watching her fold my quilt into a perfect rectangle. Particles of dust fly up as she beats my mattress with a coconut broom and smooths out the creases in the bedsheet.
Aunty, my mother’s sister, says Amina is a couple of years younger than me, which means she is about seventeen. Yet a solemn maturity lurks behind her youthful olive skin, beneath the surface of the innocent wonder in her large chocolate-coloured eyes.
“Porota, omelette, potato fry, tea,” she says with a smile, ex- posing her rust-coloured, betel-stained teeth.
Instantly, my mouth moistens. Over the past year in Toronto, I’ve only come to know cereal and Tim Hortons muffins for breakfast. The few times I tried the store-bought porota from No Frills supermarket, it felt as though I was eating rubber.
“Amina, have you died?” a shrill voice travels from the first floor and shoots through the door of my room. “Come set the table!"
She runs out instantly, the sound of her frantic footsteps fading quickly as she descends the staircase to attend to Aunty.
My aunt’s household is known for the quick turnover of maids. A perfectionist at the age of fifty-seven, she screens and selects them herself, refusing to trust her friends’ recommendations or borrow her neighbours’ employees. She blames it on her only son, who left her alone and moved to America with his wife soon after my uncle’s passing.
“I can’t even trust my family. How can I trust strangers?” she says. “I must be careful.”
So, every few months, she sets out with Hussain, her driver, to her ancestral village— first in a car, then on a ferry, and finally on a motorboat — with the mission of finding a new girl or boy, having fired the previous one for arguing too much, or watching TV, or surreptitiously eating sugar from the kitchen at night. I watched them come and go during the three years I lived in this house after my parents’ death. In the past year alone, while I was in Toronto, two more were let go. Amina is the latest addition, and I am certain that by my next visit to Dhaka she’ll be gone.
By the time I join the breakfast table, Aunty has almost finished eating. It is Saturday, but she is dressed to go out. I observe her carefully. She looks different. More wrinkles have drawn lines on her skin. The silver in her hair is more prominent than it was a year ago. Still, I see glimpses of my mother in her, like I always have — in the corner of her smile, in the arch of her eyebrows, when her index finger stretches out as she puts food in her mouth.
“Sorry. I couldn’t wait, dear,” she says. “Running late. Have a meeting at a colleague’s house.” It doesn’t surprise me. I’ve seen enough of my aunt’s absences. Too many times, I’ve heard about her fictitious weekend meetings with her professor colleagues, which are nothing but chit-chat sessions over cha and samosa.
“If you need anything, ask Amina,” she says as she gets up from her seat and slides the strap of her purse onto her shoulder.
Amina stands in a corner against the wall, alert and ready to take the next instruction.
Excerpt from Home of the Floating Lily by Silmy Abdullah © 2021. All rights reserved. Published by Dundurn Press Limited.
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Silmy Abdullah is a Bangladeshi-Canadian author and lawyer. Her legal practice focuses on the intersection of immigration, poverty, and gender-based violence. Silmy writes both fiction and non-fiction, and Home of the Floating Lily is her debut collection. She lives in Toronto.
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More short sweetness is in reach! You can catch up on our Short Story Month series here. And follow along on social with #ALUShortandSweet.
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