Review: In the Empty Places: Short Stories and Art

In the Empty PlacesWe Were Going to Have to Overthrow God

If you’re a fan of short stories this book is for you. If you’re not yet a fan, the artistry, validity and urgency of the short fiction in ‘In the Empty Places’ makes it a good place to start. In addition to its creative charms the book also helps fund the Bantuan Coffee Foundation, whose important work alleviates the damage done “by those who engage in the commercial sexual exploitation of children.”

Despite the repugnance of the forces this book fights, none of the eighteen stories resort to blatant moralising or propaganda. In fact, with the inclusion of six pieces of visual art there is considerable beauty to be found in this neat volume. While this paradox alone provides some reflection on the nature of human moral character – what unites the book, its contents and its aims, is the concept of ‘displacement’; both in the everyday sense of the word and when used as a term in post-colonial and cultural criticism to convey the dislocating experience of migration..

Contributors from all around the globe lend this book an eclectic internationalist flavour, though there is a strong contingent from Glasgow University’s creative writing programme and from Scotland, including Chiew-Siah Tei, Rodge Glass, Kirsty Logan, Anneliese Mackintosh, Suhayl Saadi and Toni Davidson. Other highlights include the first English translation of ‘Roots of an Immigrant Child in London’, an evocative tale of childhood and identity by Naema Tahir, a British-Dutch writer of Pakistani origin. Simon Sylvester’s ‘All the Ebb Tide Dragons’ broods wonderfully on the displaced lives of migrant Chinese cockle pickers working in Morecambe Bay, where “the rain falls in freezing rods, the sky a sweeping sheet, wind blasting at the hair and head and jacket.”

Displacement has both geo-political and psychological impact, it is to the latter that Anneliese Mackintosh directs ‘Life is Beautiful’. Intimate and confessional, the first person narrative reveals the sad brutality that can exist between women and men,

“Staccato is hiccups of emotion. Lust. Terror. Bile. It is false starts and minor setbacks. It is the first screw and the accidental addiction to painkillers, to tarot readings from strangers, to faking your angels and chanting things you don’t understand. It is sticking rusty drawing pins into the soles of your feet. It is frustration. It is exposure. Jump.”

Set in South Africa, Kushinga L. Kambarama’s ‘Coffee and Sympathy’ examines the bonds of place and the trauma of being removed from the safety of what is familiar,

“Life on the farm, though we lived in the smallest and oldest hut in the compound, was sweet, until the rumours of land invasions surfaced.”

There are also flashes of light and humour, of finding strength whilst “duelling with fate” in the pieces by Flora Qian, Rodrigo Hasbin, Tendai Huchu and Tomi Müller. In Chris Beckett’s slice of sci-fi ‘Judgement’ we are all displaced into computer code yet the characters find the courage and itelligence required to resolve to “overthrow God.” Perhaps as difficult and worthy an ambition as the aims of the Bantuan Coffee Foundation itself.

Overall, a very good read in a very good cause. And brimming with surprises.



In the Empty Places: Short Stories & Art ed. Iain Maloney and Lorena Sosa

Bantuan Coffee Foundation, RRP €5.00–€15.00, 240pp