Exploring the art of prose


“Mulberry Street” by Madiha Sattar

The use of a first person direct address—the narrator addressing another character—is not seen frequently in fiction. And yet it’s a marvelous voice to use. It immediately creates mystery and intrigue as the reader must determine who the narrator is addressing and why. There’s a wonderful intimacy in this voice, as it represents a conversation between two of the characters. The reader gets to be part of that dialogue.

In “Mulberry Street,” first published in Glimmer Train in April, 2018, the first person narrator is a woman, living alone in New York, in an apartment building on the Lower East Side. Madiha Sattar uses the first person direct address so beautifully here, because the narrator is speaking to someone who is dead, someone the narrator barely knew and yet lived next door to for seven years. So much of this story is about loneliness and isolation and longing for home; the direct address here crosses that chasm of loneliness as the narrator creates this intimate relationship with her neighbor.

Lucy doesn’t understand where I’m from and bends forward at me with a frown and shouts “where?!” when I say Pakistan, so at some point I started saying Atlanta, Georgia instead. And she doesn’t understand what I do for a living so I just say “bank” and I think she thinks “teller.” I think she asks me all these questions because she wants to set me up with her son Tony, the super, who is fifty-six but has asked me out four times and flirts with his arms inside the toilet bowl when he comes to unclog the plumbing with his paunch straining out of his wife-beater and his thin, greying ponytail struggling down his fat, hairy back.

Lucy was the one who told me it was you who had died when she saw me reading the announcement with its white wreath on the door of our building earlier today. It said you died three days ago, but I didn’t know it meant you because I never knew your name. It’s the Spanish lady that’s dead, Lucy said. And by Spanish she meant Puerto Rican because, though you and I never spoke in the seven years I’ve lived here and we lived next to each other, the flags you strung up across our shared fire escape flutter at my window too.

This is not the way we do it at home. At home we know our neighbors’ names, and the names of their children and grandchildren and in-laws, and we don’t need to read notices to learn that they have died. The way we do it, dozens of people visit us in our grief. Like the day Mother finally left us, when even Father’s mistresses and the second wife he thought we didn’t know about and the second wife’s children and his brother who had shunted him out of the family business all showed up and we all pretended Mother hadn’t set herself on fire in the kitchen that morning but instead had simply passed away for no reason at forty-five and healthy. The way we do it, everyone comes the day we lose someone, even if they have never met the person who is gone. The next day they come again, and dozens more do too. The way we do it, some relative or friend will make sure that large pots — daigs, I wonder if there is even a word for them in the English language — of steaming turmeric-tinged rice and spiced meat, heated so long their bottoms turn black, are laid out in our homes all day, day after day, for our own mourning households and our streams of visiting friends and co-workers and distant relatives who must not go hungry even if we have lost someone whose departure we think might kill us, too, with the way it leaves only nothingness, or anger, behind.

But I, your neighbor, remain sitting on the other side of our wall, quiet and alone, on the broken cane sofa left behind by the last girl who rented this flat. I listen, without coming over, to the sounds of two women I have never met crying and remembering you, their dead mother, on our landing because there is no room inside your home. I listen to one of your children telling the rest in your accent that he has to go to midtown to argue with the landlord because he fears your family is about to get locked out of your home, and theirs.

I don’t know much about the intricacies of rental law in New York. But I do know the story of the old Chinese couple on the third floor who would leave their door open in the summer because they had no air conditioning — do you remember how, when you or I climbed up the stairs past their flat, we would see them sitting silently, staring wordlessly into nothing among the red wall hangings and portraits of a sullen Mao and their belongings that were reaching up in curving piles from the floor nearly to the ceiling, reaching for a way out of this city that was no longer theirs? I know they disappeared quietly last year, and Lucy says they had been bought out and had moved to South Carolina, so I imagine your children and their children are being forced to leave your rent-controlled flat in Manhattan’s most rapidly gentrifying few blocks now that you have died. The days after death in Nolita in New York City in the United States of America are not like the days after death in Pakistan.

Nor are they like the days before death in Pakistan. Mother had fallen silent for several years before I left home for university in New York at age eighteen, twelve years ago now. But even in exile in her own marriage, her quiet presence had always been there, flipping Father’s red-chili omelets and spreading a uniformly thick layer of strawberry jam on his toast and ironing his clothes herself because only she knew, and the servants never understood, she had explained before she went silent, how toasted he liked his toast and which creases he liked his underwear folded along. At some point words could no longer convey the grief of the many ways in which love had let her down, and the many ways it hadn’t let other women down quite as badly, so she had given them up forever. After then she was silent even when I came home drunk past 5 a.m. in strapless dresses while she was reading the Quran, or when she could smell the unsatisfying sex I had just had in the back seat of a car. She was silent even when Father or Ali or I would get held up for our mobile phones or narrowly escape political gunfights or Taliban suicide bombings, even while all the other mothers I knew had set up a loud, unending refrain of worry for their families.

Your silence was different, I think. I never saw a man entering or leaving your home other than young men who I think must have been your sons or sons-in-law, so I assume you were no longer silenced by the heartbreaks and humiliations and quiet, searing bolts of sadness that only the man she loves can cause a woman. I think you were silent because you had learned after coming to New York that this is the New York way. The silence between you and me, between all of us who live at 225 Mulberry Street, exists because we cannot express to each other how beautiful and painful are the places that we come from. Home has come with us, and it will always come between us. It is a home with walls thicker even than the brick walls of this century-old tenement.

Father hadn’t found other women because Mother stopped speaking. She stopped speaking because he found them. There had always been another woman hovering on the periphery of our lives, someone with blonde highlights we glimpsed leaving the house in Father’s car, driven by his driver, as Ali and I were being dropped home from school by a concerned teacher, someone who had left crimson lipstick stains on a glass hurriedly stuffed back into a kitchen cupboard, someone Father was running out to sleep with between praying five times a day and planning trips to Mecca. When we heard he had married one of them and kept her in a house nearby we were thankful, hoping he had finally replaced Mother once and for all, till we realized the stream of women wasn’t going to stop. Relief didn’t come until much later, until I left for university in America and decided, as I abandoned my exiled, wordless mother at the airport, that I was never going back.

I remember meeting you, once. I was locked out of my flat and decided to knock on your door, half a foot from mine. I did not know then, and do not know now, the people who live behind the other doors on this fifth floor we share. When you opened your door I understood from your silent smile that you didn’t speak English, or didn’t want to, and I saw that your place hadn’t been renovated but was otherwise just like mine, with the door opening into the living room that was also the kitchen, but it smelled of stale grease and something I couldn’t recognize cooking for dinner. I pointed to the fire escape and walked through your apartment’s two cluttered rooms, three adults and four children, children giggling and hiding behind the folds of your floral dress, to the window in your bedroom, and then I climbed out onto the fire escape and across to my own window. I said thank you as I went, but those are the only two words I said to you in seven years, and you said none to me.

I wondered, that day, how much you were paying for the three hundred square feet that cost me twenty-four hundred dollars a month and days spent creating Excel spreadsheets that remain dull no matter how intricate they become. I know Lucy pays two hundred and fifty dollars for hers. I know this because once when she had been standing in her doorway on the fourth floor hoping for company I had been accosted on my way up by her large bosom and tall silver puff of hair, and she had made me come in and listen to her shock at the prices of flats that had been taken off rent control and admire her photographs from growing up here, in what was once Little Italy. Lucy isn’t as silent as we are — as you were — because her home is where she is; she was born in the flat opposite hers and crossed the landing into this one when she married. She showed me yellowing letters her husband had sent her from the war and portraits of her in a lace wedding dress and curling snapshots of friends and family whiling away evenings on our street, Mulberry Street. They were black and white, those photographs, of groomed young men in thick black spectacle frames and side parts and old men in suspenders with potbellies sitting, and smoking, on benches in front of cafes in the neighborhood.

Today there are only us silent exiles, and the fashionable, languorous bodies draped on the bench outside the trendy Korean-Italian fusion restaurant on the ground floor. Tony stops me to talk when I’m walking home from the N train, just as I reach our door and all I’m really interested in doing is looking at how radiant and comfortable they are, these people, and none of us will ever be as radiant or at this much ease or even be noticed as we walk by them and through the stairwell the restaurant pumps its greasy fumes into and up into our flats, which will eventually, or soon, be their flats. Lucy plants herself on that bench sometimes, next to the actors and models; the servers ignore her and don’t make her order anything because they think she is senile.

That’s where she was sitting this afternoon when she told me it was you who had died and that the two blonde girls in velour sweatpants directing the men carrying Ikea dressers and canopy beds into the building had just signed a lease for a flat on the fifth floor and, can you believe it, they’re going to pay three thousand dollars a month, Tony said so, and even though it’s two bedrooms it doesn’t matter because it’s really just one bedroom divided, by a fake wall, into two.

I ran into those girls on my way up, and they were loud and cheery and wanted to know where I was from, and I pretended I hadn’t heard the question, and they said they were from Mississippi and had just graduated college and invited me over for drinks and their accents grated and their nails were too polished. I missed you, then, and how quiet you were. But mostly I missed home, despite its own, its different, silences, and I have decided, as I sit here on the other side of our wall, that I am going back, where I will have family to be silent with through it all, and, despite those silences, people to mourn me when I go.

“Mulberry Street” was awarded second place in Glimmer Train‘s Spring 2017 Very Short Fiction contest and was originally published by Glimmer Train in April, 2018.

MADIHA SATTAR grew up in Karachi, is currently based in Dubai, and has lived in New York City and in Cambridge, MA, where she studied History & Literature at Harvard College. Her fiction has appeared in journals including Glimmer TrainThe Kenyon Review and Guernica. As a former newspaper and magazine editor she covered culture, society, politics and US foreign policy in South Asia, and her reporting and other nonfiction have appeared in publications including The CommonForeign Policy online, The Economist and The Caravan. She can be found at www.madihasattar.com and on Twitter at @madihasattar 

Author’s Note

This story took six years to write. Or rather, the writing of it unfolded over six years. And it wasn’t until one key element was added that it turned the corner from being musings on a page, to becoming a story.

My “Mulberry Street” folder tells me I started writing the piece in 2011 and continued revising it the following year, all the while submitting it to journals and having it rejected. I returned to it in 2016, when I was between jobs and using the time to focus on my writing again, and kept refining and submitting it until Glimmer Train accepted it a year later.

There is one lone draft in between, dated April 2013. But it is the critical one. That is when the key to unlocking the story first shows up, and that is when I must have understood what needed to be added to make the story work.

The protagonist in “Mulberry Street” realizes, when she reads an announcement about the woman in the apartment next door having passed away, that deaths in New York City are very different from deaths back in Karachi. That here, in her adopted city, neither lives, nor the endings of lives, are communal affairs. That you can live next to someone for years, never speak to them, and not even know they have died.

My early drafts are heavy with that sense of alienation. But they fail to acknowledge that nostalgia cannot be trusted. And that, especially for the immigrant, no place is truly home.

In the 2013 draft the protagonist’s mother first appears, as does the protagonist’s complicated family life in Pakistan which, she remembers on looking back on it more carefully, was trapped in its own, different silences. It was then that I must have discovered— though I can’t recall what triggered this discovery— that the silences between residents of this building on Mulberry Street in New York, silences across class, time, language and ethnicity, recall earlier gulfs the protagonist has tried, and failed, to escape.

Nor is she alone in her isolation. Her former tenement building in Little Italy has become home to immigrants of many different ethnic backgrounds over the years. It is now home to them all, and also to young, wealthy Americans moving into a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. The one thing that binds this group of people together is their alienation from each other.

It was the realization that these parallels are important that unlocked this story, because it achieved two things. One, parallels are satisfying. Our minds seek out patterns and linkages, both on the pages in front of us and across the unfolding of our lives. Second, nothing in life is uncomplicated, nothing is one-note, and anything that is will not ring true, even in fiction. In “Mulberry Street,” old-home is as bittersweet as new-home, and wherever we end up will never be enough.

MADIHA SATTAR grew up in Karachi, is currently based in Dubai, and has lived in New York City and in Cambridge, MA, where she studied History & Literature at Harvard College. Her fiction has appeared in journals including Glimmer TrainThe Kenyon Review and Guernica. As a former newspaper and magazine editor she covered culture, society, politics and US foreign policy in South Asia, and her reporting and other nonfiction have appeared in publications including The CommonForeign Policy online, The Economist and The Caravan. She can be found at www.madihasattar.com and on Twitter at @madihasattar