Threa Almontaser, The Wild Fox of Yemen – review

The approach of Threa Almontaser’s The Wild Fox of Yemen is quite different [to that of Maurice Riordan’s Shoulder Tap]. Though she’s uneven, some readers will prefer her vivid self-dramatisations and linguistic excitement to Riordan’s polished reserve. Her book explores the difficulties of living between two cultures as an American woman of Yemeni heritage, especially after the Twin Towers attack. Sometimes its protagonist feels excluded by America and reacts defiantly, aggressively asserting her Yemeni identity, as when she says

I quit being cautious in third grade
when the towers fell &, later, wore

the city’s hatred as hijab’.

Sometimes, however, it’s Yemeni culture that seems alien and excluding. Such problems will resonate powerfully with many people. Throughout the book they’re embedded in a language that switches between American English and Arabic, and uses other devices to force the reader to experience what being a foreigner can feel like (there’s a stanza written backwards, for example).

Her linguistic exuberance and willingness to take risks make for memorable, excitingly original writing but do create their own problems. On the one hand, she makes lovely, sensuous images and phrases. For example, the poem ‘After Running Away from Another Marriage Proposal’ uses the recurring image of the wild fox of the book’s title. It starts with a lucidly evocative image of the fox’s flight in the desert – ‘I run, for months, a furred wind of sand and blue silt. At the dunes, midnight.’ However, to me the next sentence seems jarringly overdone, almost pseudo-poetic: ‘I am in the mounds, illumed, topaz-mooned, sprinked quiet.’ That’s one recurring problem. Another shows itself in the next paragraph or prose stanza – one that, ironically, is extremely good in other ways:

A rishta auntie’s whisper falls out of a shooting star. My animal ear pivots, To be single is to grieve. Until zawaj, you are only half of what you could be.

The Internet tells me ‘zawaj’ means ‘marriage’ and a ‘rishta auntie’ is a matchmaker. I love the whisper out of a falling star. ‘My animal ear pivots’ is a startlingly vivid activation of the fox metaphor. That daring switch between sensuous image and abstract argument works brilliantly. However, having to look up ‘zawaj’ and ‘rishta’ threw me out of the poem. Another reservation is that I sometimes felt the sheer vividness of the images overwhelmed the ideas they were meant to express.

Threa Almontaser, The Wild Fox of Yemen, 96pp, £10.99, Picador, London

I would like to thank Ann and Peter Sansom and Suzannah Evans for permission to post this extract from my review of books by Maurice Riordan, Threa Almontaser and Tua Forsström in issue 68 of The North.

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