Sheila Ngoc Pham reviews The House of Youssef by Yumna Kassab
The House of Youssef
by Yumna Kassab
Reviewed by SHEILA NGOC PHAM
“The two chairs: tea, coffee, fruit. They discuss the house, banking, they keep away from the future. The birds play in their bath. She thinks of karma and pain and suffering. There is a world beyond this yard and she knows little of it. Her son used to say to her, There is a whole world beyond this one if only you would reach for it.”—from ‘The Two Voices’ in The House of Youssef
Yumna Kassab’s debut, The House of Youssef, arrived on my doorstep without forewarning. So this is how I first encountered the author: through her words. Léa Antigny, Giramondo’s then-publicist, sent me the book because she thought I would appreciate it; even though Antigny only knew me through my writing. Later, she suggested to Kassab that I might be a good candidate to speak at the book’s launch. In retrospect, Antigny’s literary matchmaking feels inspired, how her writerly mind was able to see a connection between the two of us before we saw it for ourselves.
It was an honour to launch such an unusual and accomplished book, and the event marked the start of a lively literary friendship. Reading my launch speech more than a year later, my understanding of The House of Youssefis now coloured by knowing more about the author herself. In any case, my first impressions of the book largely stand, though it’s fair to say how I now see that Kassab’s best work lies ahead of her.
Revisiting the book now, I find myself once again appreciating the crisp prose; how the restraint on the page demonstrates a woman in command of her ideas. But what struck me most then, and perhaps even moreso now, is the enormous feat of imagination and empathy that Kassab has pulled off. She honours the experiences of migrants without necessarily chastising or valorising them. The House of Youssef expresses the questions raised by the first generation, and attempts to describe the struggles of their offspring to seek answers as they grow up in a different world. In such a scenario, there are no obvious ripostes, only fragments, scenes and moments stretching out over the years.
“The house, some say it was unlucky. You hear stories, they make you not want to live there. It is good they knocked it down and took out the foundations too. It is a hole now but soon they make it flat and put in concrete and then it will be something new.”—from ‘The House of Youssef’ in The House of Youssef.
The dialogue is sparse, often absent: “The silence, the mountain, the words that will never see the light of day”. Many of us know this silence intimately. Kassab’s book attempts to provide a shape to this mountain, though does not attempt to conquer it. Narrative coherence is what so many of us yearn for—a novel—but perhaps the reality is closer to the book itself: a series of short stories, a novella, and two monologues from elders. What the structure also reveals is something of the fragmentary nature of diaspora, how it feels to grow up in a displaced community; particularly as we find ourselves living in societies which have come to be characterised by at-times aggressive individualism. The children of exiles and other kinds of settlers embody grief in different ways. All of which brings the following passage from Edward Said to mind:
“Exile is…the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home. And while it is true that literature and history contain heroic, romantic, glorious, even triumphant episodes in an exile’s life, these are no more than efforts meant to overcome the crippling sorrow of estrangement. The achievements of exile are permanently undermined by the loss of something left behind forever.”
There is nothing heroic, romantic or glorious in Kassab’s stories; on the contrary, by focusing on the mundane her work depicts a community and its many complexities without apology. But that’s not to say that it’s not audacious, which is evident from how she dares to explore the shadows:
“Why a burning? Why not? A burning, a trampling, a stoning, a shooting.”
I recognised the insularity of the community depicted in The House of Youssef as being not dissimilar to what I had grown up with in another part of western Sydney. The specificity of place and culture is, in fact, what made it possible for me to relate in concrete ways. The stories were not a mirror; it’s more that I recognised the depth of feeling and emotional truths of the stories. In ‘Disgrace’, for example, a daughter is rejected by her parents for marrying ‘out’:
“She had always assumed there was time, that one day they would talk again, that her dad might be a grandfather to her kids. She had assumed that given enough time it would happen; they could be one big happy family.”
However, it seems important to state that being able to relate to these stories and characters in The House of Youssefis not the book’s key value. There is a strong emphasis nowadays about needing to see ourselves explicitly reflected in art—and how this mirroring needs to be external, with visible markers of our identity such as race described on the page. But this idea strikes me as being potentially solipsistic. While there is no doubt that representation is important as well as the need to enrich our national literature with stories from places like western Sydney, demanding representation at the cost of artistic sovereignty diminishes the power of artists and their works.
If you wanted to read The House of Youssef as a window into the lives of Lebanese Australians, you certainly could do that though. Kassab provides much-needed nuance, which has helped me to better understand what I have observed in the decades spent living in areas such as Lakemba and Bankstown. A little while ago I stopped by the Abu Youssef Fruit Market in Yagoona. It’s a short walk from home, though I only started visiting it because the pandemic forced me to spend more time in my neighbourhood. It was only on my last visit, however, that I finally noticed its name.
“Who is Abu Youssef?” I asked the handsome young man behind the counter. He’s the one who always calls me sister in a way that makes me want to learn more Arabic.
“He’s my oldest brother,” he said, while weighing the cheaper Chinese pinenuts I had chosen.
“So that means his son is named Youssef, right?”
I could tell he was impressed at my handle on Arabic titles, no doubt because of my outward appearance as an Asian woman. He went on to explain that the name Youssef has been passed down through every generation in his family. In turn, I tell him about my Lebanese friend who grew up around Parramatta and wrote a book called—The House of Youssef.
So I did not read this book to learn about a cultural group I feel are profoundly different to me. I have often felt a sense of kinship and even common struggle with the Lebanese I have lived alongside. It’s why I even visited Lebanon to see it for myself some years ago. Having been there made it easier for me to understand the narratives in the book that involved travelling back and forth.
“Why had she come to Lebanon? Everyone had an idea why she was visiting, everyone but her.”
At its heart, The House of Youssef is about the human condition. Understanding the similarities and differences between us is the only way multicultural societies can thrive and how we will ever truly accept each other. This is obvious but is worth restating nonetheless, in these times more than ever.
At some point, an unnamed narrator towards the end of the novella says, “Keep the plane in the air, keep the plane in the air, you can’t keep the plane in the air.” I paused after that sentence, thinking about the miracle of flight. How understanding the physics of flight does not necessarily make it easier to believe we are able to fly. Perhaps the truth is, sometimes we simply can’t stay afloat and we can’t keep the plane in the air—but we can create something meaningful from the wreckage.
The House of Youssef by Yumna Kassab has been listed for the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction, Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, NSW Premier’s Literary Awards (UTS Glenda Adams Award), Queensland Literary Awards and the Stella Prize.
SHEILA NGOC PHAM is a writer, editor and producer working in radio, print, online and film. She regularly writes for a wide range of literary and mainstream publications, and is a current judge for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. Sheila has held digital and editorial roles at the ABC and continues to produce radio documentaries and stories for ABC Radio National, most recently Tongue Tied and Fluent, a five-part series exploring multilingualism in Australia.