The editors of The Djinn Falls in Love (2017) chose not to standardize spellings across their wide-ranging new “djinnthology.” In one story, you might find a world populated by djinn, while in another jinn appear, or jinnis, or even a genie.
Just so, there is no collection-wide agreement on what sort of creature a “djinn” might be. Some authors are interested in the djinn of Qur’anic tradition, free-willed beings created “from the smokeless flame of fire,” who lead lives parallel to us clay-made humans. Other contributors seem to take their inspiration from A Thousand and One Nights or even the Disney version of Aladdin, where djinn are creatures who live shut up in lamps until forced, by humans, to grant wishes.
The collection includes an excerpt from Neil Gaiman’s American Gods which scoffs at the idea that djinn can grant wishes, focusing on a magical night of djinn-human love in New York City. Sophia al-Maria’s “The Righteous Guide of Arabsat,” set in contemporary Saudi Arabia, is perhaps the collection’s biggest outlier. In her story, djinn never appear outside the protagonist’s imagination, and we suspect they only exist as an excuse to abuse his wife.
The collection’s best stories—of which there are many—aren’t interested in djinn as a site of the exotic, wish-granting imaginary. Instead, they employ djinn in tales that move sideways to explore cruelty or loss, adolescence or injustice.
Editors Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin suggest, in their introduction, that empathy for the Other is one of the central motifs of the collection. Yet more interesting are the stories that explore the limits of empathy. Sami Shah’s vivid, compelling “Reap” is a portrait of contemporary American life that appears through the gaze of American drone operators. The small team spends most of their time in a cramped container, working in shifts as they watch a small Yemeni neighborhood, waiting for their orders to strike—and hoping, when the order comes, the neighborhood children won’t be home.
As the tiny team of analysts and pilots sit watching, they are disengaged from the rest of their chain of command. Several feel empathy for these Yemeni “characters,” who they have given names. When one of the neighborhood children disappears, the small military team is concerned, although they also feel powerless. Later, when the child seems to be returned by a powerful djinn who takes revenge on her behalf, the US Army drone crew are rapt, unwilling to leave the container. But although empathy can compel their attention, it isn’t enough to influence their actions. Empathetic or not, they remain stuck in their part of the chain of command.
Not all the characters in this collection are stuck. In some stories, the examinations of the border between human and djinn becomes a chance to talk about transformation. In al-Maria’s story, we have a wedding (and, perhaps, a funeral). In Catherina Faris King’s “Queen of Sheba” it’s Christmas Eve, 1953, and young Juanita is about to learn about a different sort of border crossing. Kuzhali Manickavel’s moving “How We Remember You” is about border between childhood and adulthood, human and magic, desire and cruelty. EJ Swift’s “The Jinn Hunter’s Apprentice” is set in a future where a team might be able to travel to the edges of the universe and colonize a new reality, if only their ship can be cleared of jinn.
Swift’s story is one of the most inventive: It isn’t afraid to leap multiple borders and leave us, in the end, with a mystery. Here, a lemur-toting jinn hunter—who introduces herself as the scheduled hunter’s apprentice—interviews members of a space crew affected by a jinn infestation. Ultimately, this “apprentice” hunter exorcises the creature of flame. Swift sets her story in a future where Muslim women have agency and a leading role, but without the cringey aftertaste of the author who waves the feminist flag on behalf of underdog Muslim women, as Claire North’s “Hurrem and the Djinn” seems to do.
The collection features a number of best-selling and multi-award-winning authors. Beyond Gaiman, there is Kamila Shamsie with “The Congregation,” a gentle, moving story about brotherhood between worlds; Jamal Mahjoub’s “Duende 2077,” a noir murder mystery in a dystopic future; and Nnedi Okorafor, whose “History” has nothing to do with djinn, but that hardly matters. The titular History is a Beyoncé-like performer, and the story shows off the explosive party of Okorafor’s creativity.
The stories also move around the world, ranging from Singapore to Bangladesh, Pakistan to the US, the UK to Saudi Arabia and beyond. Unfortunately, only one work is a translation, the poem by Hermes from which the collection takes its name, translated by Robin Moger. The story about an exorcism set in Meknes, Morocco—Helene Wecker’s “Majnun”—makes one wish the editors had swapped in a translated story by Moroccan writer Muhammad Zafzaf instead. There is also story where the “Arab desert” seems to exist only as a backdrop for the explorer, where we find “sand for days, sand and sun and not a beach in fucking sight.”
But by and large, the authors stay away from the exotic-for-the-exotic’s-sake and give both an impressive creative range and a winking, biting sense of humor.
More djinn stories at Bookwitty.