Trauma changes people. For the unnamed narrator of Layla AlAmmar’s second novel, trauma pushes her to choose silence. “Silence is a Sense” (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2021) follows a Syrian woman who escaped from Syria to the United Kingdom, settling into a quiet English town. She spends her days observing the traumas of her neighbors: from the man who barely ever turns on his lights, to another obsessed with exercising, to an abusive man who beats his wife and children. Her voyeurism feeds into her writing — her only form of expressing herself. She submits essays to a “newsmagazine with a big name” under the pseudonym “the Voiceless,” often discussing the refugee crisis. But as her editor Josie increasingly probes the narrator for intimate details and memories of her experiences in Syria, she begins to question herself: how much of her mind’s ability to make sense of what happened does she trust?
“Everyone here wants a story, a nice little packet of memories,” the narrator writes. She fears trauma has fragmented her memories (apparent to the reader in the disjointed, and at times confusing images of her life in Syria), preventing her from writing what her editor wants. At the same time, she criticizes the necessity of unearthing these intimate details for public consumption. She writes in one essay that ‘“Humanize” is a well-intentioned word that nevertheless concedes the argument that some people are not people and so require some art form to render them human,” as quoted in the New York Times Book Review. All the same, she constantly struggles with the pressure to be a “good” immigrant. The author said in an interview with NPR, “I think in the Western mind, we have these ideas of haunted houses and evil memories that reside in rooms and, like, leak from the walls and stuff. But for her [the narrator], that room is her mind. And that's where all of the horrors reside.”
Layla AlAmmar is a writer from Kuwait and author of numerous short stories, becoming the 2018 British Council International Writer in Residence at the Small Wonder Short Story Festival. Her first novel, “The Pact We Made,” was longlisted for the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award.
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