One Story: What Is Behind – Tomiko Breland

3 out of 5

I’m not a topical person.  I don’t feel bad about this, and I’ll do my best to not launch into a rant that attempts to justify it (be… because I don’t feel bad about it, right?).  What I also have to try to do is to not judge topical subject matter simply based on its topicality.  Meaning: I might be disinterested in the subject matter, but if I’m choosing to review it, I feel I should be approaching it with as little of that type of bias as possible (acknowledging that some bias will always remain, and other, subjective bias is required to review things at all).

In the case of What Is Behind, this concept gets fudged a bit, as the relevance – Syrian refugees – isn’t really clarified until the end, but you pretty much suspect it’s going to be something like that.  So for a reader like me, it’s a battle between questioning the effectiveness of what I’m reading – as an experience; as a method of communicating the author’s intent – while waiting for the agenda shoe to drop, which, yes, is a loaded alternate term for topicality, so so much for my anti-bias.

But: Based on the reading experience alone, I had a moment that’s pleasantly not uncommon for One Story entries, wherein I felt swept up by the text, and suddenly not caring that it dealt with a subject or genre that wasn’t usually to my taste.  That’s obviously a good thing!  Tomiko Breland’s story is a flash of an integral minute of time detailing several Syrians’ escape attempt from a sniper-guarded town  to, at the very least, the edge of a field, and hopefully passage, thereafter, to America.  There’s a ticking clock in the left hand page gutter, sequenced alongside various characters thoughts as they scramble beneath gunfire, their narrations suddenly cut short when…

It’s terrifyingly effective.  But, brashly, the effectiveness dwindles.  The idea, I assume, is to keep us invested by ping-ponging from character to character so that we can piece together the whole puzzle of what’s happening to whom, but the narrative structure ends up being too repetitive, even at a short nineteen pages, to offer much surprise or shock once you get the gist.  This, unfortunately, also makes that eventual agenda reveal underwhelming.

What Is Behind does a good job of approaching a big, heavy topic accessibly, and spinning it in a way that effectively causes us to empathize with the dreadful plight of those whose experiences it highlights.  It adheres to its structure a bit too rigidly, though, possibly robbing it of a deeper impact.