Fruitvale, 98th Avenue, East Oakland, Tortilla Flats, the shipyards and docks: These are the micro-worlds that the characters in Mariah K. Young's new book, Masha'allah and Other Stories, inhabit — "those places where, as you're driving along, you see slivers of people's lives," Young said. The short stories in Masha'allah revolve around undocumented immigrants and hustlers in Oakland — regular people just trying to scrape together a living, making it one day at a time. "I always think of Oakland as a moving city," said the San Leandro-born author, who was the recipient of the very first James D. Houston award for fiction that captures an engagement with life and literary exploration of California and the West.
And it's easy to see why. These are exquisite shorts. Like the one with the sweet pit-bull puppy from the Central Valley that just escaped an unknown (most likely unhappy) fate in Oakland, and goes back to the farm with conflicted Della, daughter of the illegal breeder. Or the immigrant husbands — the day laborer, the cook, the document forger — struggling every day to make enough money to send back home to their families, with the hope of all being reunited one day and becoming citizens of these United States. Then there's young Dylan, under the weary eye of his ma, watching the horse-drawn carriage processional honoring the fallen, deified, neighborhood hustler. These aren't just stereotypes: They're characters that jump off the page and into your consciousness. Will Dylan choose a straight path? Does Chinta live to see another day doing hair after-hours in the unoccupied house she cleans for her sister's real estate company? Will Sully's niece Cherise, of the titular story "Masha'allah," realize her dream of becoming an Arabic translator? Who chopped down enterprising Art's prime marijuana crop, mother plants and all?
The setup of the stories draws you in, but in the end it's the characters you fall in love with and root for. Young, who started the project as an investigative story on underground labor, quickly realized that the heart of her subject lay not in the media stories — e.g., Filipino immigrant sent back home, black teenage boy sells drugs, Latino men wait at Home Depot for work — but in the families behind the stories — "the reasons people were living this life, were trying to come up in this way." And she always ended up coming back to the people. Like Eddie, aka Edgardo Villanueva Junior, aka Edgar, aka Michael Eduardo, who relies on a different identity to pass through school, get a driver's license, and apply to college. "To the assistant vice principal, I am Mr. Vil-la-nu-va," he says. "On the street, I am Eddie ... In the malls, I am Suspect ... In the end, I always am."
The East Bay has been receiving quite a bit of literary attention lately. Michael Chabon recently released Telegraph Avenue, his ode to all of the unique hipster/gangster characters inhabiting Oakland and Berkeley. Young, who celebrates the publication of her book at Diesel (5433 College Ave., Oakland) on Sunday, October 28, takes up the refrain and adds her own angle, breathing new life into characters and situations you thought you knew. Local writers are putting the "there" back where it belongs. 3 p.m., free. 510-653-9965 or DieselBookstore.com
Editor's Note: The original version of this story erroneously stated that author Mariah K. Young was born in Alameda; she was, in fact, born in San Leandro. This version has been corrected.