“Studying life everywhere is my job.” This statement, from a reporter in the opening story of Shauna Singh Baldwin’s latest collection of short fiction, reveals the author’s mission. We Are Not in Pakistan is a study in cultural contrasts.
Inhabitants of the 10 stories are male and female, young and old, rich and poor, likeable and hateful. They are Jewish, Christian, Sikh, American, Canadian, Pakistani, Costa Rican, Ukrainian, Mexican, and Greek. World events such as 9/11, Chernobyl, and the Indian Partition share the stage with smaller-scale tragedies: a Pakistani grandmother suddenly disappears in the U.S.; a Ukrainian family is sickened, not just by radioactive fallout, but by the equally unseen elements that contaminate and deform personal relationships. For Baldwin, the individual’s significance is as great as the global, since “every little thing – even a moving shadow – it means something much bigger.”
What unifies the collection is its diversity: human differences, examined, reveal important commonalities. As in Baldwin’s previous work, themes of fear, foreignness, and the essential question of “Who knows who I am?” bridge cultural chasms. Her stylistic approach in the new collection is therefore appropriately diverse. One story is structured as a series of monologues, while another gives voice to a Lhasa apso named Fletcher. No one’s left out.
Not all the narrative voices are equally believable, though. The pile-on of racist insults in one story – the character refers to kikes, krauts, Eye-talians, Mexicans, frogs, peaceniks, and ragheads – strains credulity. While white, middle-class conservativism is a valid view to excavate, lines like “Go home, Bin Laden” or “Bastards! Nuke the lot” simply feel clichéd, which mars Baldwin’s artistry.