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Yumna Kassab’s The House of Youssef (Giramondo Publishing) is KYD’s First Book Club pick for September. Read Ellen Cregan’s review of the collection, and Yumna’s Shelf Reflection column on her reading habits and the books that inspired her stories.

When Gandhi arrived in South Africa in 1893, he dressed like a white man, ate like a white man and lived like a white man. When he found himself discriminated against, he decided that he may as well dress, eat and live as an Indian man.  

In considering the use of words, it is useful to remember the Arabs are a tribe. They are the dominant group in 24 countries and they share a common language, a way of life and a viewpoint of the world. Meals are traditionally eaten sitting on the ground, where one is closer to the land. A person uses bread and their hands, and eating is a social event. A person can seek shelter and food for three days, with no questions asked – this is the ancient rule of hospitality, a point of pride in the Arab world.  

Now consider what happens when food is taken off the ground and placed on a table with some placemats. The bread is removed and in their place is the fork and knife. Perhaps if one is ultra-modern, they’re eating their meal alone.  

One might ask how does one live humbly if one forgets to sit close to the land? Can one achieve simplicity if our experiences and living are smoothed over with a modern gloss? And for the writer in me, the question becomes: if I am to write about the ordinary people around mewhat language shall I use? 

My language is humble. It speaks the story of a common life using a dressed down word.   

When I first started writing, I dressed up my language. I had long, descriptive sentences that were rich and often beautiful. I sought to showcase exciting places, so I wrote exciting sentences with exciting events happening to exciting people. But one day I looked around and saw I lived in an ordinary place. The people I knew were ordinary people, and the food I ate with these people belonged on the ground. And so I began to write in a simpler way, as befitting people on the ground. I chose everyday settings that are the background to our lives: there is the living room, the kitchen and of coursethe quintessential yard. These people go about their lives: they work, they eat and they die. This is life stripped to its essentials, and the wording in my stories has been chosen in a similar way. 

My language is humble. It speaks the story of a common life using a dressed down word.   

The stories in The House of Youssef were a departure for me in terms of style. The stories were scenes with a circle drawn around. I had no interest in making them more exotic, or to pad them with details that would turn them into insights into the cultural norms of Arabic-speaking migrants in a Western world. The stories are bare, but I realise this is a worldview, and there is no need to turn it into something else. 

In all things, simplicity and the truth shall suffice.