Sunday, January 10, 2021



Suman Mallick
Category: Contemporary / Literary Fiction / Multicultural
Publisher: Atmosphere Press
Date of Publication: October 13, 2020
Number of Pages: 166 pages

Zuleikha arrives in the US from Lahore, Pakistan, by marriage, having trained as a pianist without ever owning a real piano. Now she finally has one-a wedding present from her husband-but nevertheless finds it difficult to get used to her new role of a suburban middle-class housewife who has an abundance of time to play it. 

Haunted by the imaginary worlds of the confiscated contraband books and movies that her father trafficked in to pay for her education and her dowry, and unable to reconcile them with the expectations of the real world of her present, she ends up as the central figure in a scandal that catapults her into the public eye and plays out in equal measures in the local news and in backroom deliberations, all fueled by winds of anti-Muslim hysteria. 

The Black-Marketer's Daughter was a finalist for the Disquiet Open Borders Book Prize, and praised by the jury as a "complicated and compelling story" of our times, with two key cornerstones of the novel being the unsympathetic voice with which Mallick, almost objectively, relays catastrophic and deeply emotional events, and the unsparing eye with which he illuminates the different angles and conflicting interests at work in a complex situation. The cumulative effects, while deliberately unsettling to readers, nevertheless keeps them glued to the pages out of sheer curiosity about what will happen next.

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"Mallick offers an impressively realistic depiction of a woman caught between tradition, family, and her own sense of empowerment." ~ Kirkus Reviews

"The Black-Marketer's Daughter is a key-hole look at a few things: a mismatched marriage, the plight of immigrants in the U.S., the emotional toll of culture shock, and the brutal way Muslim women are treated, especially by men within their own community. Titling it—defining the heroine by her relationship to a man rather than as a woman in her own right—suggests how deeply ingrained that inequality can be." ~ IndieReader Reviews

"The Black-Marketer's Daughter is the portrait of a woman who endures violence, intimidation, xenophobia and grief, and yet refuses to be called a victim. In this slender novel, Suman Mallick deftly navigates the funhouse maze of immigrant life in contemporary America—around each corner the possibility of a delight, a terror, or a distorted reflection of oneself." ~ Matthew Valentine, Winner, Montana Prize for Fiction; Lecturer, University of Texas at Austin

Excerpt from The Black-Marketer’s Daughter

By Suman Mallick

         Her first winter in Texas is mild and dry. Apart from a short trip to Washington, D.C. to visit Iskander’s parents during the holidays, it passes slowly and methodically, in the kitchen, at the library, in front of the piano.

She makes a new year’s resolution to finally master Balakirev’s Islamey, but as the weeks progress, she finds herself spending more time doubting the foolhardiness of undertaking that enterprise than on her piano bench. She can get through the first section effortlessly, but then has to slow down the tempo to negotiate all the octaves and double notes. It irks her to contemplate that unlike the soldiers whose triumphs in hard-fought battles inspired the composition of such a challenging masterpiece, she might lack the endurance to truly capture its essence by pounding on strings with a hammer. At other times, she feels somewhat grateful that at least she can recognize the limits of her own abilities. She decides she is glad that she isn’t like Frances Ha, a character portrayal she and Marianne both immensely enjoyed on screen, but one whose blindness to her own limitations, whose persistence and struggles, are truly foreign to her sensibilities.

One afternoon the following spring, the sky turns menacing into abstract shades of dark gray. As Zuleikha drives home from the library, a woman’s voice on her car radio (which by now has discarded all pretense of cooperating and stays permanently on) makes an urgent announcement about a tornado watch. Zuleikha hurries inside their house just as the winds begin to act drunk and disorderly, and then all of nature gets violently ill. She calls Iskander at work, leaves a voice message, tries him again before hanging up. After a while he returns her call, chuckling, saying she had better get used to those “tornado things,” because they’re just a fact of life in north Texas. And by the way, the shelter is the hallway closet in the middle of the house and away from all the windows, just in case the siren sounds. She can just see the sly smile on his face as he speaks on the phone, the pressed lips.

When the siren does sound, she hides in the closet, feeling alternately ridiculous and terrified while hail rattles the roof. It’s the first time she has been inside an enclosed space this small. A black leather jacket hangs in a clear garment bag. She looks closer and sees the thick wide scrapes on the leather. On the shelf are a toolbox and an old compact-disc player. A closer inspection in the space between them reveals a tattered, torn glove. Zuleikha reaches for the glove and picks it up just as lightning strikes nearby and the power goes out. She screams.

After the eye of the storm has passed and electricity has been restored, she sits at the piano, still unsettled, playing short pieces from memory, jumping from one fragment to another, alternately upset with her husband for the chuckle and with his wife for panicking so easily; scolding, willing herself to continue playing.

She lingers on the first of Erik Satie’s Gnossiennes, a staple at school and a favorite ever since she borrowed a bootleg copy of The Painted Veil from Papajaan’s store and watched it with her friends from the academy. The piece is dark and simple, nothing like Islamey, or even Chopin’s Nocturnes or Liszt’s Concertos that still frustrate her to no end, and when she is finished, a voice startles her.

“Amazing,” Iskander says. Instead of leaving his car parked outside and coming in through the front door as usual, he has entered through the garage and has been standing in the hallway, listening, for how long she doesn’t know. It embarrasses her.

But isn’t this the type of affirmation from a man she’s dreamed about all these years?

Now her husband comes up and stands behind, his clothes, smelling of the damp air and the rain, brushing against her. He places his hands on her shoulders and says, “That was stunning, Zu. And in this weather! I thought I’d walked into a haunted house up on a hill instead of my own.”

In an instant the chuckle from earlier is forgiven. His words spark a desire in her, they rekindle the memory of an unforgettable high school chemistry experiment she once observed. A pile of the dangerous but innocuous white powder of that mercury compound (thio-something: was it called?) was ignited, and burned with a blue flame at the tip to emerge in the shapeshifting form of a large, winding, pyrotechnical snake, while the students gasped in awe. It even had a fantastical name to boot: the Pharaoh’s Serpent. All evening, Zuleikha smolders, she slithers, and she debates. It’s about taking the initiative, which until now she hasn’t, even though they have been amorous often enough in the way newlyweds are, or are supposed to be. But he’s been the one leading, always. It’s about her putting an exclamation point at the end of a remarkable evening he started with a simple word that says so much. She wants to show how he has touched her with his appreciation for her one true gift, which is indubitably not her culinary prowess. It’s about the way these poignant moments always resolve themselves in her favorite movies.

When the pregnancy is confirmed a few weeks later, she knows with all the confidence in the world that the baby had to have been conceived that night, and on no other.

Suman Mallick
received his MFA from Portland State University and is the assistant managing editor of the quarterly literary magazine Under the Gum Tree. He lives in Texas.


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