Richard Allday enjoys an excellent collection of stories set in countries invaded by the US, by authors from each nation, in The American Way

The American Way: Stories of Invasion ed. Orsola Casagrande and Ra Page (Comma Press 2021), xvii, 510pp.

Cameo: … a gem having two different coloured layers, carved in relief, so that the figures carved in one layer are raised on the background of the other.

A collection of short stories from twenty authors from twenty countries, instancing the impact of imperialism (specifically US imperialism) on individual lives, could so easily have produced little more than sanctimonious tropes on the evils of Yankee intrusion. ‘Political’ fiction is among the harder genres to write, so often involving the jemmying of analysis – or worse, homilies – into any available cranny or fissure in the narrative, damaging both story and politics in the process.

That this anthology soars so loftily above such beartraps is to the credit of the authors, but equally so to the commissioning editors. This doubtless rests in part on their determination that the stories were ‘commissioned exclusively from authors from the countries being trespassed upon.’ This integrity is reinforced by the fact that the accompanying commentaries likewise originate, in almost every case, from writers with organic links to the trespassed-upon. This juxtaposition, of each story with a commentary on the historical and political background to that story, illuminates the ‘fictional’ narrative in a way that highlights the deeper vein of reality that the fiction rests upon, is carved from, and stands in relief from.

For this to work, however, the quality of the writing has to pass a two-fold test: standing aside from the factual commentary, its own merit as a creative depiction justifies itself in itself; and standing on the factual commentary, it deepens our empathetic understanding of the commentary itself.

This standard is met and exceeded; each story, from the first to the last, by binding us to the personality at the centre of the narrative, anchors us in the reality of the world that character inhabits, whether as conscious actor, observer, or ‘merely’ resident in a social setting taken for granted (the normal lived experience of most people, most of the time).

The appended commentary widens our perspective from the individual to the general, giving context and comprehension of the wider setting within which the characters act out their allotted roles. Again, it is to the credit of the editors and contributors that they have ensured that the accompanying testimonies, while exposing the role of imperial brutality, do not obscure, or mitigate, the culpability of the comprador class that benefits from its collaboration. Nor do they sanction the comfortable liberal illusion that our rulers only practise their brutality ‘over there’; the contributions from Italy and Canada are cautionary reminders that our rulers draw no distinction between those they rule by proxy in tributary states, and their direct subjects in the metropolitan centre.

Having paid due respect to the editors and contributors, it is also a fact that an anthology such as this depends in large part on the unsung work of translators. To retain the cadence and pulse of the original whilst simultaneously rendering the meaning into a separate cultural dialect demands acknowledgement, and the translators in this anthology have discharged their responsibilities to the authors and editors superbly.

It would be invidious to pick out specific stories, and at twenty there are too many to comment on individually, but the range of voices, their different tones and perspectives, build a diverse chorus crying out against the inhumanity of empire, whilst also reminding us of the resilience and, ultimately, the optimism of resistance.

I headed this review with a definition (drawn from Merriam-Webster) of ‘cameo’ because I can think of no better description of the contributions of this anthology. The interaction of the short stories with the background supplied by the commentaries heightens the quality of each. The editors have managed to arrange a string of gems, of an unremitting quality, which both sparkle and illuminate. At £14.99 (or 75p per cameo) it is worth every penny and will grace any bookshelf.

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Richard Allday

Richard Allday is a member of Unite the Union’s National Executive, a branch secretary and shop steward in road haulage.  A member of Counterfire, his comrades know him better as 'the angry trucker'.