If I were to skim through the pages of Alligator with no prior knowledge that every story was written by the same person, I would think each one written by someone different. Dima Alzayat’s prose changes with each story, allowing the theme of the story to guide. She tackles race, violence, childhood, and ritual. Although fictional, every story pulls from scenarios we may see on the cover of newspapers or as a hashtag on social media, as well as from actual moments in history. Alzayat uses historical moments such as the disappearance of Etan Patz in New York City to illustrate how children spent the months after looking for places to play and an intern in pre-#MeToo Hollywood to depict the sacrifices and betrayal of oneself that must be endured to succeed in a male-dominated field.
Throughout the stories, Alzayat asks thought-provoking questions of the reader. In ‘Daughters of Manat’ after a roommate is physically assaulted by a date which results in a trial that sees the abuser get off with community service because the district attorney and judge could not figure out what to call the crime asking, “Had he inflicted serious bodily injury?” Alzayat responds with “What are the benchmarks of injury? Was it a matter of simple or aggravated battery? Domestic battery demanded an intimate relationship. What constituted intimacy?” How many dates must two people go on to constitute a relationship or any level of intimacy? If you’ve slept together and your partner physically abuses you, does that fall under the criteria for intimacy that affords the victim a resolve? The question of when will those in charge deal proper punishments recurs throughout the book.
In ‘Only Those Who Struggle Succeed’ Hollywood before #MeToo acts as the backdrop. The behavior portrayed is now something that is out in the open and the public is aware of it. Alzayat delves into a time before women in Hollywood began to come forth with their stories of sexual harassment at the hands of powerful men. The men portrayed in the story are the heads of companies that can make or break a career—particularly that of a young girl trying to jump start her career. The story does a wonderful job of showing how the men in charge manipulate the intern into accepting their behavior as something that is normal and is key to moving up in their company. The intern follows the rules and works incredibly hard even when it is evident that no matter how good she is at her job, only her personal relationship with the boss will dictate her future. Whilst reading the story I found the behavior of these men, even the assistant who tried to help the intern move up in the company, reprehensible. To me, it’s as if there is an unwritten and unspoken rulebook of how you are meant to act and what you are meant to put up with in order to succeed. And if you can not or will not, you should move on and find another career. The fact that the intern’s experience isn’t an isolated incident really reiterates the question, how many more women are out there that have not spoken up about sexual harassment and assault within their company? How many have accepted it because of fear of having their lives and future turned upside down? And how many men have sat idly by while this occurred?
“She was apprehensive, of course, about what had occurred, or not occurred, the night of the Christmas party, her primary concern focused on keeping what had taken place, or nearly taken place, private, as she was aware it would take from her the opportunity to succeed at the company, and perhaps within the industry, if it was discovered.”
Like many women who have been propositioned by powerful men, the question of how badly do I want this question comes up. Is it worth it to sacrifice who I am for who I want to be? The men in charge exploit the ambition that women have when they’re trying to succeed in a new career. They know they have the upper hand and therefore and afford to leverage and bribe newcomers. In a field where only so many succeed but so many are attempting to claw their way to the top, it is too easy for those in charge to manipulate the ones struggling.
Whilst a lot of the stories center around women as they navigate through the decisions they make in their life, one story that stands out is ‘Disappearance.’ Alzayat utilizes the disappearance of Etan Patz in New York City as a starting off point for a story about children trying to find a place to play because they are not allowed to play outdoors. The story explores childhood and sibling relationships. There’s a sense of nostalgia in the story that reminds the reader of the summer days of childhood when outdoor activities were limited or not an option due to weather or parental intervention. After Patz’s disappearance, the fears of parents throughout New York City were heightened and as a result many kids were told to remain indoors. They had to use their imagination and come up with inventive games, but those games could only hold their attention for so long. And many children, having the knowledge that a child disappeared still wanted to venture outdoors. The story focuses on the children’s point of view during this time—innocence, the curiosity of the outside world, the boredom of being young and cooped up, and of carrying around that fear that they would be the next victims. The reader gets a glimpse into how children living in New York City felt after the disappearance.
The title story, ‘Alligator,’ tackles intergenerational trauma, American assimilation, and racial violence that begins with the true story of an immigrant couple from Syria who were lynched in a small town in Florida in 1929. The way this story is written is by far the most unique in the collection told through social media posts, newspaper clippings, and testimonials. Because so much of the story is steeped in history it makes the reprehensible words and actions more shocking. Given the history of the family being victims of racial violence and trauma, it is offensive and enlightening how the children of the victims went on to marry partners that partake in behavior that echoes that of their parents' killers. After their parents' murders, the children were taken in by family and as a result of not having their parents around and a deliberate choice by their guardians to separate themselves from their culture and assimilate, they became what they should have feared. This separation erased their Syrian identity. Alzayat writes of what it means and feels like to be Syrian in the United States and the attempts of assimilation from personal experience.
Every story in Alzayat’s collection feels startling and heartbreaking. And they should because they’re real. Although some of the characters in these stories are fictional, their experiences are real. What they’ve felt is real. There are women attempting to gain independence, there are families who were once Syrian but have now lost their name, there are young women being used and manipulated. Like the real life individuals these stories take are based on, these stories beg to be read and the characters listened to.
Alligator and Other Stories
By Dima Alzayat
206 pages. 2020.