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Uncle Sharif’s Life in Music by Kazim Ali

Allen Ginsberg told me once that if you want to know what a book is about, simply open it at the middle and look down. I didn’t do this with Kazim Ali’s new book, Uncle Sharif’s Life in Music, until I’d finished reading it. When I did, there was the story Photograph so what Allen had said made perfect sense. If you were in a bookstore, and couldn’t afford to buy Uncle Sharif’s Life in Music, but wanted to read a little bit, I’d tell you to read Photograph. I feel a personal connection to it, and the other short stories by Kazim Ali too, his earliest writings, poetry and prose that are often exciting, earnest, experimental, striving figuring out how to say what they want to say, and they take you along for the ride.

When I first saw the colorful childlike cover, I was sure the book was about a boy with sugar coated dried fruits and halwa, and that is how it starts, a happy home, a family you love that comes to play games, your cousins, and your aunts and uncles. And all of it on the edge of Niagara Falls. The abyss is there, but nobody falls. Bodies do start falling in the second story; childhood is over, no fairy tale now but bisexual porno, drugs, alcohol and fervent “looking for love” genitals, bodies and choices interchangeable. Going from Uncle Sharif’s Life in Music to the compelling Screwdriver is a shock, difficult to adjust to like life, sometimes, itself.

I was raised a Methodist (if one can actually be raised that) who spoke with a Pennsylvania Dutch accent that I chose to eradicate in early adolescence because I didn’t want to be what was called a Dumb Dutchman. Kazim Ali, I know, was the son of Pakistani immigrants, Shia Muslims. We can’t choose our parents; either romance or some other arrangement brought them together. We had no choice in the matter. Kismet. We are surely partly them. Kazim and I were also born gay—no choice in that either—The choice comes in choosing to be who you are no matter what the culture or the family or the clergy say.

Four stories stick in my head, and if you were in a bookstore wanting to read one, I’d suggest Uncle Sharif’s Life in Music or Screwdriver whose characters appear in other stories bouncing off each other like atoms making the wrong choices throughout (making choices is what this book’s about). I found Photograph sadly enjoyable and it actually made me happy at the end. The last story, Fool’s Errand, gives the book its equilibrium because the family at the end could be the family at the beginning, older and perhaps wiser, but that might be up for debate. In Fool’s Errand, each chapter bears the title of a tarot card, and the main character, around whom all the others revolve, has gone to Barcelona, an amateur astronomer who wants the best advantage to watch a confluence of planets and stars above him in the dark heavens unaware of those around not looking at the stars but him. With all of its cards, stars, choices, and coincidences, Fool’s Errand might hit you over the head, but I had fun reading it.

At the Sibling Rivalry Press reading at the Bryant Park Reading Room in July, Kazim Ali read his most recent work, unpublished poems. Perhaps there is an equilibrium in this post as well with the first and the last of his writing present, a little bit of Kismet, readers and writers brought together for whatever reason.

Sibling Rivalry Press is a great little press out of Little Rock, Arkansas that showcases LGBTQ authors who are worth supporting whenever possible. You can check out Sibling Rivalry Press here:


Kazim Ali

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