Reviewer Elliott Colla summarizes the collection:
”She writes of Kuwait on every page here, but it is as much an object of desire—or a dream—than that actual city-state that was taken away one day in August 1990. Similarly, these stories are testament to the fact that when Kuwait was returned to its inhabitants, it was broken. Al-Nakib endeavors to put the city back together again, but she also knows well that while literature can console, it cannot replace.”
This collection won the Edinburgh International Book Festival’s First Book Award in 2014, the first short story collection to win the award. The narratives are all set against the backdrop of socio-political events in the Middle East, including the invasion of Kuwait, civil war in Lebanon, and Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But their focus is primarily on the ordinary lives of people living through these events and their everyday concerns—adolescent love, marital infidelity, parent-child relationships, life-threatening illnesses, and coping with change.
Al-Nakib says the stories in The Hidden Light of Objects are not strictly autobiographical, but do include “autobiographical elements.” In an interview with the Kuwait Times, she explains:
“This is not an autobiographical collection, although aspects of my life and my experiences inevitably find their way into my writing. On the one hand, it’s impossible to escape the historical traces that make us who and what we are and that shape our perspectives on the world. On the other hand, fiction allows us to flee the confines of these determining factors. Fiction makes things up, it invents worlds, experiments with settings and characters and episodes as far away from ourselves as could be. Fiction creates bridges between far-flung people and places and times. It allows us to connect in ways that might never be possible otherwise (as a result of geographical or temporal or linguistic limits). I hope this is something my stories will do for readers.”
Numéro Cinq Reviewer Natalia Sarkissian elaborates on the autobiographical nature of these stories and their power to recreate place:
"Perhaps the strongest element the author shares with her characters is the overwhelming desire to recreate and re-imagine the place where she grew up: a brave, cosmopolitan, outward-looking land that existed not so long ago. The author and these stories—her objects—are a pathway to locate the glimmer, the light, the truth of what was and what still may be. These stories are our ticket there and her way home.”
Importance of Objects
In “Amerika’s Box” a young Kuwaiti girl collects American objects (a McDonald’s cheeseburger wrapper, a baseball card, a miniature Empire State Building, among other things) in a handmade box that represent the land for which she is named and for which she yearns.
In “Echo Twins” 18-year-old Mish’al and Mishari are finally allowed to see the contents of the locked box left by their unknown father to be opened only after their mother’s death:
“At midnight, in the white light of a moon turning waves into plains of snow, the twins carefully unwrapped their legacy. The muslin, brown from years of wind storms and rain, disintegrated to dust between their fingers. The tin was rusted, the lock no longer locked. The brothers caught their breath as they removed from the box a heavy object not immediately clear in the shadows along the shore. Mish‘al held it up to the moon.” (p. 52)
The mother in the title story passes her time imprisoned in a windowless cell in Iraq by remembering familiar objects from home: “Naming them, sorting them into categories, telling their histories, and trying to remember where they would be in my house…. A litany of objects. My home for a decade." (pp. 226-227) Meanwhile, her children in Kuwait “wrap themselves in the familiarity of her things” (a string of pearls, a Betty Crocker cookbook, her father’s books that smell of India) in an attempt not to dwell on what she may be enduring in prison but to keep her memory always present.
“Amerika’s Box” is the best story in this collection. It makes a powerful statement against war and its destructive capacity to change attitudes and destroy dreams.
Following the liberation of Kuwait in 1991, Ahmed and Fatma decide to change the name of their youngest child and only daughter to Amerika “to commemorate their nation’s gratitude to America.” Although Amerika doesn’t exactly know what America is at the age of five, she knows it must be something special by the way other Kuwaitis exuberantly respond to her name. Watching satellite television, she begins to piece together images of the country for which she is named—baseball, cowboys, Halloween, Nancy Drew, tornadoes, etc. She becomes convinced that people who live in a country that stretches "from sea to shining sea" are happier than Kuwaitis.
Amerika begins a collection of 25 objects (among them a Tootsie Roll wrapper, Elvis pin, Abraham Lincoln penny, Winnie the Pooh Sticker and most importantly, a long list of American idioms) that represent her adopted land. While other Kuwaiti adolescents dawn headscarves and dream of children and marriage, Amerika refuses to cover her “rich, mahogany waves” and dreams of “travel and ambition, optimism and go-getting, mountain climbing and paragliding” (p. 207). While other students are discouraged from reading anything other than the Qur’an, she immerses herself in Harriet the Spy, Sheila the Great, and Nancy Drew books that “allow her to imagine new worlds in words.” (p. 203)
But when the twin towers of World Trade Center topple in 2006, Kuwaiti attitudes toward the United States take a dramatic reversal. Instead of inspiring optimism, Amerika’s name now “triggers fury and furrowed brows.” Amerika finds her American dreams quickly beginning to turn into a “half-knit sweater unraveling.”
"Playing With Bombs" is also a powerful, heartbreaking story of the intensity of young love destroyed when the protagonist is coerced into a suicide bomb plot that goes awry. Interestingly, the story is narrated from the viewpoint of the 15-year-old Minr after his tragic death. He begins his narrative with this compelling thought:
“Death is not what they promised. No one-way ticket to paradise. No special dispensation for martyrs. No houris. Those houris were supposed to be awesome. I looked all over for them after the blast. Nothing.” (p. 83)
And ends it with equally sorrowful regret over the futility of his youth wasted on violence:
“Life is moist encounters in a back alley at midnight, not boys listing guns, playing with bombs. No promises of heaven and houris. Enough. We want to see and hear everything, to dance until the sun rises with a girl in a silver dress. We want to gallop full speed ahead, the sheriffs of youth and glory. Not this darkness, this weight on my chest. Not this ending, not for us.” (p. 100)