Q&A: “Masha’allah and Other Stories” author Mariah K. Young

Masha'allah book cover

Whether we love it or hate it, our work shapes who we are, and in Masha’allah and Other Stories, winner of the first James D. Houston award, debut author Mariah K. Young explores this idea through the stories of nine people on the fringes of life in East Oakland. Day laborers, dog breeders, bartenders, and growers invite us in as they negotiate the terms of their lives and dream of something better. Here, Young explains the thinking behind the stories and how her own experiences shaped the writing of Masha’allah.

Why title this collection Masha’allah?

I chose “Masha’allah” as the title of the collection because the phrase—an Arabic saying meaning “What God Wills”—perfectly laced the central themes of these stories about work together. All of the stories revolve around work, and all of my characters, regardless of where they come from or who they are, are all bound by the sense of what they think they can do with the opportunities before them. Sometimes they accept their fate, sometimes they resist it, but they all make choices to try and push for something better for themselves, their families, their futures. All of the stories are about labor and love, but they are ultimately about how people negotiate their options in life, and how they both make do and press for more. I felt the phrase “Masha’allah” summed up that sense of both acquiescing to a higher power, but also working around it or against it in the hopes of something better.

The East Bay Express mentions that Masha’allah started as an “investigative story on underground labor.” Taking yourself back to that time, when did you realize that the true stories were people’s narratives and not the stuff of media headlines?

I began working on these stories as a graduate student, and I fell in love with a handful of novels about working class life, and wanted to add to the limited offering of books that praised work for how it could shape and illuminate people’s lives. I’ve always been a library rat, and in the library I found a smattering of books on “underground labor,” and as I read sociology studies and economic texts about the black market in America, wading through data and scholarly interpretations of why people worked these “dead-end jobs,” I began imagining the people who comprised those statistics and percentages. I was less interested in the statistics as in how the costs and benefits of this kind of work expressed itself in people’s lives. I imagined the people who populated these spaces, and how ultimately they go home to their spouses and parents and their own children, and how their work colored their sense of who they are and what their prospects of the future could be. Putting faces and histories to the numbers became far more intriguing to me, so I started writing about the spaces where this illegal labor took place, and who was doing these jobs. That’s when the stories began to truly take shape.

All literary books have one truth or idea that they’re trying to convey to their readers. What idea do you hope readers of Masha’allah walk away with? Put a different way, what do you hope readers reflect on after reading your book?

I hope readers finish these stories and think about the way that their work and the work of others shapes our lives. I believe that what we do and where we live are inseparable from who we are. Our lives are shaped by what we do, but also by what we imagine our prospects to be. If we think our options are fixed, one can accept it, fight it, and also work against it to create something better, something more than what they have now. While the people and places in the collection have been called “on the margins,” they are absolutely present in our lives, every day. They clean our offices and make our sandwiches and serve us drinks at parties and build our homes; no matter what we do, our work shapes our lives and also touches others in sometimes profound ways.

Was there one story that captured your emotions most as a writer?

I love all of my characters, and I think that writing is in many ways like falling in love—I come to know them, I am enchanted by them, I am perplexed by them. I want my characters to win their battles, even when I realize that they might not. All of these stories have bits of my heart woven into them, and the characters are usually amalgams of folks I know who have been spun into whole new people with their own desires and destinies. They take on a life of their own, and I miss writing about them once the story is “finished.” I have a whole family lineage and story of Gardo, the protagonist of Prints, who is brought to the US by his parents and grows up constantly worrying about being caught by revealing that he is not a citizen. He has a whole life in my head, and I still think about him and write about him and the costs of having this secret, this sense of two-ness where he doesn’t fit into either of the worlds he supposedly belongs to. Gardo pulls at my heart because he treads this line between feeling visible and invisible, which fascinates me as a writer and as an American, since our sense of “Americanness” is steeped in where we come from; who are you if you cannot say where you come from? I also write about his sister Carina, and their parents, and the life that they all construct around these secrets. I am compelled by exploring how the secret shapes their lives, and how the surface story and the secret truth become harder to separate.

How did your personal experiences influence these stories?

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I took a lot of the places in the collection from my own working life. Many of my jobs have been under the table work—I’ve been a bartender and waitress, a caterer, and as a kid in Hawaii I cleaned houses and apartments, and was a runner at construction sites. In those jobs and in the characters I wrote about, there was always a sense of satisfaction in one’s work, but the amount of energy and love that went into that labor was often unnoticed. Our labors were usually only acknowledged when something went wrong; our labors were always part of the background, and the meticulousness that characters like Jack and Chinta and Sena put into their work was taken for granted and rarely acknowledged. As I began thinking and writing about these spaces and the people who worked these jobs, what struck me was that I was always precariously on call: I could get a phone call to be at an event in an hour, or one saying I wasn’t needed that day. I worked these jobs for extra money—I was a student who needed money for gas and bills and textbooks—but I usually worked alongside people who needed those gigs to feed their kids and keep the lights on. Many of the people I worked with (and I guess I felt this way too) went to work with hope that a gig would run long, or that the host might leave us a nice tip, or that a wind of fate would push a few extra dollars our way. As I wrote these stories and thought about the people I’d worked with and the places we’d work, I drew on that feeling that a day’s work could be a windfall, while losing that day’s work meant anything from a vague sense of disappointment to more scrambling, more anxiety, more worry about how the bill will get paid or how gas will be put in the car. Though the work I did was often seen as menial, the stakes for the worker were always high: their hopes ride on those wages because a night’s work could make their life a little easier, or in its absence, a lot more difficult.

How did the book turn out compared to your intentions?

I came up with the concept for this collection based on a prompt in a writing class, where we had to write pitch letters for a novel. I had no idea what to write for it, so I started looking at all of my writing, and realized that my stories were all about people who worked under the table in some way. I initially wrote some essays about underground labor and Oakland’s history, but the stories were the real heart of the book, and I felt that I could say more with fiction than by trying to tie them deliberately to the real world. Now, I can’t imagine the book any other way.

What has been the most fascinating or unexpected aspect of the publishing process?

I had always heard horror stories from my friends and colleagues with published pieces, who talk about unresponsive or mean editors, or having their manuscripts gutted in the process of publication. That has not been my experience at all: everyone at Heyday has been supportive of my work, and when I wanted to change portions or revise them, Gayle and others were reassuring to me, in that they believed in the book as it was. That has been the most surprising and uplifting part of this whole process: to have a house not only believe in the work, but believe in me as well.

This may be the dreaded “What are your plans after graduation?” question, but: Any new projects or ideas buzzing around in your head?

I usually write about what’s in front of me, so I’ve been writing sudden fiction pieces about Los Angeles, and they are beginning to be told by an array of voices which all know each other and argue, so I may have a novel in stories on my hands. I’ve always loved the confines of a short story—all you’ve got is twenty pages, so work it out and get right to the point—but lately the characters demand more space, more pages to be fully realized. So I’m letting my characters boss me around and I have been giving them more room on the page. Also, for years I’ve been working on a story about an Oakland family who ran and then lost a machine shop over the span of several generations. The story was originally going to be included in Masha’allah, but it was getting too big for the collection. It’s the story that always calls me from the drawer of rough drafts, and I think I’m ready to finally finish it.

Dream event or experience connected to Masha’allah. Go.

One of my dreams has already happened: I had the opportunity to meet my literary hero, Maxine Hong Kingston, who inspired me to write when I was just a teenage sprout. Having the opportunity to not only meet her, but to talk with her and have her say such lovely things about my work is swoon-worthy, a top-five moment.

Dream big, so, Pulitzer! O. Henry prize! Visiting professor and then (an offer of) tenure at Iowa’s workshop (which I can graciously turn down, because I don’t have it in me to live in Iowa)! Oprah’s book club! Barack Obama reading the collection on Air Force One!

Any last thoughts about Masha’allah?

Honestly, this whole process has been a dream come true. It has been inspiring and terrifying and wonderful to see the book come to fruition. To have Heyday believe in my work and to have readers respond so positively to the stories has been overwhelming. It makes me eager to write more.