In the mountains on the way to Iraq, the lieutenant’s jeep pulls over. He hops out the back and takes a few, crunchy steps through the snow down the hill. He has to piss again. “Is it healthy?” Corporal Kayaoğlu…
“That’s one way to live your life here, in the land of this-or-that.” brings my story to a close, but the line was hard to reconcile. A friend of mine recommended deleting it entirely, another suggested writing something else there. I grew concerned that the line was ruinous, but I came to realize my anxiety over the sentence was born from its on-the-nose feeling.
American short fiction, as a genre, is wrought for better or worse by an obsession with perfection. Writers feel so guilty about cliché that they abandon all sincerity for the safety of Socratic irony or self-reduction (re: the check-mark stamped on program fiction) that is so often lauded as “tight” “terse” “clean” and “lean” that there is no hope for a story except in butchering and excising all blemishes. This inherently lends itself to an impossible process of constant editing while writing (how else could perfection be achieved, the loop perfectly sealed if not by unending adjustments?). Perfection is about constant self-restriction and preemptive removal instead of the process I espouse: overwrite and sculpt. Where the strive for perfection prohibits exploration and unallows surprise in favor of constraint, overwriting is how I have found the core of all of my stories. It allows me to be sincere while the procession of perfection crushes sincerity out of fear that it bloom into cliché.
I am against perfection. It is smooth and comforting. It is concerned with rewarding the reader for getting the story instead of engaging and challenging them. It removes conversation and debate (what is there to say about perfection?), and destroys the small pleasures of complaint by the audience. It admits there is a right and a wrong.
With sincerity there is the possibility of looking distinctly like an idiot, the possibility of cliché or speaking too bluntly in a field that praises hyperreal exteriors and muddled, vague interiors, but there is also the hope of literature instead of hollow excellence. I think of Hassan Blasim’s stories, or Sait Faik Abasıyanık’s stories, or Ahmed Sadawi’s novel Frankenstein in Bagdad as examples of sincerity, the way they deal so bluntly with the largeness of the human condition would be balked at in a workshop, teetering on the passé. The last sentence commits my story to an ideology so it is not safely ironic. Because of it, the story experiences an axial shift in its thematic interests (we are cast into the interrogation of duality instead loyalty, thus leaving our narrator and his struggle to connect the dots of tolerable evils for the sake of a homeland for the binary of Yilmaz). This means it is flawed—the threads have come undone, we are taken out of the fictional dream, and in the last moments we are left with questions outside of the confines of the narrative. Whether or not the line succeeds is individually at each reader’s discretion (for that is where literature occurs). The sentence can be called an unearned or unwarranted shift; it can be called flawed and committed; it can be called cliché and didactic, but it makes me happy. It reminds me that even for our fictions there are always other people to consider.
KENAN ORHAN is a Turkish-American writer with an MFA from Emerson College. His stories appear or are forthcoming in The Common, Massachusetts Review, McNeese Review and others. He lives in Kansas City.