Alex Poppe’s collection of short stories is a turbulent itinerary of the marginalised. At face value, the observations laid out in Jinwar and Other Stories tend to border on humour at times. Yet, a cautious approach spells out layers of pain and oblivion as the protagonists in her literature grapple with war, its aftermath and their own place in societies, both their own and others’.
What stands out in Poppe’s literature is the recurring reality of violence, moulded into a theme that permeates the book. The different characters in each story live their own narrative, at times intertwined with others through coincidental meetings or mundane settings, making it impossible to avoid encounters that cross the fine line between past and present. Women feature prominently in this short story collection as protagonists who carry the wounds of violence inflicted by men wielding authority. Female autonomy is shackled, and yet, the women in Poppe’s stories are imbued with courage and determination that is as much connected to their past as it is to their present.
Amid the gruesome details, which are at times skilfully hidden and only hinted at, Poppe’s observations of the mundane details only serve to highlight the isolation experienced by her protagonists. The title story, “Jinwar”, brings the protagonist, who is addicted to Xanax, to a close encounter with her rapist, an ex-commanding officer who was then severely wounded in combat.
The women in this story, notably the protagonist and the ex-commanding officer’s wife, are juxtaposed against each other in status, temperament, and experience. Sparse recollections of the US war in Iraq also feature, as Poppe includes some observations that complete the picture for the reader in terms of cycles of violence and dissociation: “A child’s hand silted with dirt lay near a homemade rag doll, the heart sewn on its chest partially burned off.”
Other stories take the reader through journeys in Kurdistan, Erbil, and Mosul. Each story is fast-paced, yet Poppe dedicates much time to observations that enable the reader to connect intimately with the characters portrayed. Streams of thought, varying landscapes connected by violence, and the presence of characters whose inner dialogue is at times in contradiction with what is verbally expressed.
The intimate narratives, particularly the details of abuse that women suffered, are portrayed in sequences that never fail to shock. One of Poppe’s literary strengths is her ability to convey connection and emotion in unexpected moments. Even the trepidation that ultimately arises as the stories progress is not enough to shield the reader from yet another harrowing story, almost as if the warnings conveyed are not warnings enough. As for identifying with the protagonists, the short stories remove the cliché for the majority of readers as to how one identifies with experiences so far removed from our relatively sheltered world, where atrocities are filtered by the media and the repercussions on society, family and individuals are disseminated merely as stories of interest, devoid of the emotional toll.
Even in the case of Palestinians, whose plight is one of the most prominent and neglected politically, it is difficult for observers to fathom the humiliation that happens at Israeli checkpoints and has been normalised into routine violence. Poppe’s final story in her collection narrates the story of a young pregnant Palestinian woman who is delayed at an Israeli checkpoint while about to give birth. The aftermath – a stillborn child and a deepening silence that descends upon the bereaved couple – depicts a grief that is about distance as much as it is about loss.
Poppe’s writing spells deep, searing emotions on each page. A keen sense of observation that is in constant combat with the normalised oblivion, this collection of short stories remains etched in memory and keeps one wondering, particularly in terms of how much has been retained after the protagonists’ disclosures in each story.