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Monday, May 27, 2013

The Home Jar by Nancy Zafris: A Review

Never start a story with a ringing alarm clock.  This is a mistake many amateur writers make, and it's a logical one; after all, if a day starts with a ringing clock, why shouldn't a story?  But a ringing alarm clock is a sure sign the story will be lame.  If you really want to know, here's how to start a story:

"There came a day when I stole the llama farm from Amy Boyd."

That sentence, the opening line from Nancy Zafris' short story collection, The Home Jar, is a flat masterpiece.  I could spend a week just analyzing the weight of meaning in the idiom, "there came a day."  An opening sentence isn't an alarm telling you, "Wake up and start reading," it's a promise that what follows with be worth reading about.  Writing a great opening sentence, making an irresistible promise is half what it takes to be a great writer.  Keeping the promise is the other half.  Nancy Zafris is master of both.

Obviously, "Stealing the Llama Farm" will have a strong and distinctive flavor, and if Zafris attempted to repeat the recipe over and over, the delight would soon cloy.  But Zafris is far too versatile for that; Home Jar contains a panoply of voices and worlds, and as you read, it dawns on you that you are in the presence of a writer whose home is not Ohio, but the world.  The thing I would love to ask her is just how the hell she so convincingly brings us such diverse experiences.  The title story is about an Eritrean.  Does anybody out there even know where Eritrea is?  I had an Eritrean student, and I cannot convey the intense passionate pride he had in his homeland.  Never have I felt the glow of real patriotism before meeting him.  How did Zafris know about that?  How did she know Eritrea was the perfect country of origin for a man who winds up being degraded to help the family he no longer even knows?  How does Zafris know what it's like to be a Japanese stewardess?  Does she wake up to the alarm clock and say, "What shall I write about today?  An Eritrean?  A Japanese stewardess?  Maybe something with llamas?"  Or does she start with the particular longing of her characters and twist and turn it in her hands until she realizes this one sorts metal and this one hunts lepers.

It really doesn't matter how she enters these worlds, but that she does it so well.  And that she brings us with her.

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