In Review: Banthology, edited by Sarah Cleave

Good stories help us to make sense of the world.

In January 2017, independent British publisher Comma Press announced that in 2018 they would only be publishing authors from ‘banned nations’. This was a response to President Trump’s directive to block entry to citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries for ninety days. Whilst continuing to generate hate and divide people, Trump’s announcement did give rise to some positive news. Organisations around the world stood up to fight for the rights of the citizens of these countries. In a show of solidarity, Asymptote’s Spring 2017 issue featured writing from authors in many of the countries affected. And now, a new title from Comma Press, Banthology: Stories from Unwanted Nations, has just been published in this spirit.

Published in the UK on January 25 ( and on March 27 in the US publication with Deep Vellum) and edited by Sarah Cleave, this collection features seven stories from authors from the banned nations. In the introduction, Cleave eloquently explains the reasoning behind this publication:

Good stories help us to make sense of the world. They invite us to discover what it’s like to be someone else, someone arbitrarily defined as ‘other’ by the new context they find themselves in; they can also help us to explore the uglier moments of history; times of conflict, oppression or censorship.

With this in mind, seven authors took on the task of exploring themes of travel, exile and restrictions on movement. The authors—Rania Mamoun (Sudan), Zaher Omareen (Syria), Fereshteh Molavi (Iran), Najwa Binshatwan (Libya), Ubah Cristina Ali Farah (Somalia), Anoud (Iraq) and Wajdi al-Ahdal (Yemen)—all came at this from very different angles. Some surreal, some traumatic, some hopeful; this collection demonstrates the nuanced and difficult situation in which the ban has placed them.

The collection opens with Mamoun’s ‘Birds of Paradise’, in my opinion potentially the most affecting of the anthology. Set in an airport, the protagonist is stuck in limbo, unable to board a plane but also unable to return home to her abusive brother. The story plays with the idea of freedom, and what it is that actually holds us back—is it the constraints of society, or is it our own fear of the unknown? Like a lot of the stories, ‘Birds of Paradise’ is told in the first person, and this allows the reader to experience the pain of the protagonist’s indecision and the hopelessness of her future.

The second story is certainly much more uplifting. Again told in the first person, ‘The Beginner’s Guide to Smuggling’ by Omareen is amusing and a nice contrast to the previous work. The tale tells of a refugee’s journey from Syria to Sweden. Omareen cleverly juxtaposes the protagonist’s individual situation with the reality that there are hundreds more like him; whilst speaking to Abu Kalimera, the man responsible for providing him with a fake passport, he tells of how ‘there were ten mobile phones in front of him, all ringing and falling silent in chorus.’ The bleakness of this fact is balanced by the protagonist’s successful entry into Scandinavia and his optimism for the future. This idea of the individual versus the masses is something that is felt in many of the stories in the collection and is certainly an important aspect of the conversation around the travel ban. In contrast to Trump’s fictions of a heaving mass of ‘other’, this anthology helps the reader to see the individual in every story.

This sentiment is nicely encapsulated in ‘Return Ticket’ by Binshatwan:

They never think about the outcome of their actions or understand how they affect us. But I suppose the real disaster would be if they did know and truly understood, and still did nothing to change.

Firmly entrenched in the sci-fi genre, ‘Return Ticket’ is told through a conversation between a grandma and her grandson. They live in Schrödinger, a village/planet that can move through time and space and that visits America twice a week. A satire of America, the protagonist talks of the walls around the country and how they grow so tall that only the ‘snuffed out torch of the Statue of Liberty’ can be seen. America is not the only thing to come under fire in this work, however. The hypocrisies and inconsistencies of various regimes are noted and ridiculed in Binshatwan’s story. In one airport the protagonist is asked to remove her hijab, in the next she is called a kafira (infidel) for not wearing one. The only place free from this ridiculous reality is Schrödinger. This story is explicit in its reference to the travel ban. The use of satire speaks strongly to the reader, as do the themes of travel, exile and restrictions on movement. ‘Return Ticket’ is my favourite story in the collection and, more than any of the others, it captures what this anthology is trying to achieve.

‘Jujube’, the story from Ali Farah, is heartbreaking, particularly in the emotionally detached way in which the protagonist describes her experiences. In contrast to the previous story, it doesn’t make light of the travel ban. It speaks of the horrors that people have experienced, and calls for compassion from the reader. Starting with her as a young girl, the story tells of her childhood with her mother who uses the fruit of the jujube tree to treat illnesses in the village. Cleverly broken up with ‘Interpreter’s notes’ from an asylum trial, we learn that the protagonist lost her mother and sister and then became the nanny to a family who then left her for America. The text plunges us into her traumatic experience, and yet it feels like the protagonist has distanced herself from her past, particularly through her vivid imagination. With its mix of the surreal and the human element, ‘Jujube’ is an incredibly touching piece of work.

In ‘Storyteller’, Anoud does an excellent job of examining the protagonist’s breakdown, as well as the callous way in which Westerners can glamorise war and violence. We meet Jamela in an Indian takeaway in East London where she is regaling the staff with stories of her life. This is the first story in the collection where we learn the protagonist’s name and yet, if anything, it makes us feel more distant from her. Through the eyes of the restaurant workers and then the police, she is seen as a number and not much more. It is the only story to explicitly reference Donald Trump, a jolting reminder that similar stories are occurring right now around the world.

Overall, the anthology is an impressive undertaking. Whilst some of the stories didn’t hold their own, as a collection the themes of identity, movement, and freedom are quite strong. I would have liked to have seen different forms; a lot of the writers in the collection are also poets and playwrights, so an exploration of the themes using one of these genres would have definitely added an extra dimension beyond a strict sense of narrative time. However, the way in which certain ideas come up again and again—the namelessness of the protagonists or the use of youth and naivety—gives the book a unity, and makes it a much-needed corrective for our troubled times.

Cassie Lawrence hails from the North of England and now lives and works in London. After three years working in PR for arts and culture, she is now Editorial Assistant for Quarto, working on a range of illustrated non-fiction titles. In her spare time she is studying Mandarin and enjoys reading literature from all over the world. She can be found on Twitter: @CassieLawrence3.


Read more: