One of my favorite things about reading fiction is that it allows us to study contradictions within people: how we appear to someone who doesn’t know us well can be very different from who we actually are. This disconnect between our public and private selves is a veritable playground for fiction writers to explore, and Ru Freeman—author of the novels A Disobedient Girl and On Sal Mal Lane—expertly depicts the dance between who we appear to be and what’s below the surface in her new story collection, Sleeping Alone.
These eleven stories cover vast terrain—physically: spanning Maine to Dublin, and Sri Lanka to Philadelphia; emotionally: grief, loneliness, fear, regret, and hope; and circumstantially: the characters vary in age, ethnicity, gender, and in the conditions of their lives. Threading the stories together is an examination of privilege—who has it and how it often needs to be negotiated. These characters must all confront changes, some resulting from their own choices, and other times from situations they find themselves in.
The collection opens with “The Wake,” where we meet Sylvia, a girl whose mother is a devoted member of a cult. The story opens with an italicized paragraph that begins, “What is truth?,” a question that orients the entire collection in its scrutiny of that division of self—the inner and outer. After a note about the cult leader convincing his followers to raise a dead man to life, the narrative switches to a close third point of view:
“The cult, which is what her father called it, and which term she herself feared it deserved, met every week now and only in the Swastika bedroom that she shared with her brother; which is why the corpse also had to lie there.”
It’s a compelling story (how can one about a cult involving an attempt to raise the dead not be?), with the tension ramping up when Sylvia and her brother hatch a scheme to try to get a man and their mom to stop having sex in their bedroom, which may or may not be responsible for said death. Their secret is kept, as is their guilt. As the introduction to the collection, it establishes the book’s central question—what is the toll of feeling foreign, be that in a country, a family, or to oneself?
Perhaps the most harrowing story is the one that shares the collection’s title. We meet Sameera, an immigrant from an unnamed country in the Middle East, involved with a white Middle Eastern studies professor. Fed up with him and his friends and colleagues’ unconscious biases about her country and their inability to truly see her, she launches a series of nonlethal acts to punish them, such as suggesting false remedies of turmeric and milk for their minor ailments. Sameera’s voice is strong and often funny: “I pay with my new Mastercard. Price of cream in my Dunkin’ Donuts coffee? Bloating. Price of pork? Diarrhea. Feeling of bliss doing either? Priceless.” But also, her confessions are unsettling. She tells the reader they won’t understand, “you who are not me”:
“…They frightened me just as much as I, or an imaginary version of me, frightened other people… Yes, there is a price for demanding a pound of my flesh, cut close to the heart, to flavor your palate.”
Sameera’s actions culminate into a final devastating act. And while the reader may disagree with what she does, and may even be horrified by it, the narrative dance we’re taken on into her perspective and history means we do understand, us who aren’t her.
Closing the collection is “Fault Lines,” which weaves three women together: a mother who is mistaken for her white-presenting children’s nanny at their suburban school, their nanny who wishes to go back to school but is limited by social circumstances, and another domestic worker who needs sick days to care for her own children. The interweaving of these three women’s lives makes apparent the struggles of raising children as a parent with brown skin, regardless of class—and the limitations of privilege.
And while the stories do wrestle with issues of privilege and class, that’s not their focus. Rather, the underlying current binding these stories together is the way they highlight the emotional price we pay when there is a disconnect between our public and private selves. It’s not a comfortable read, but it is a searing one. While Freeman’s prose has many virtues—she’s masterful on a line level and utilizes effective narrative techniques in each story—it’s her ability to highlight how lonely it is to not truly be seen that makes Sleeping Alone so remarkable.
Sleeping Alone: Stories
By Ru Freeman
Published June 7, 2022
Rachel León is a writer, editor, and social worker. She serves as Daily Editor for Chicago Review of Books and Fiction Editor for Arcturus. Her work has appeared in Electric Literature, Los Angeles Review of Books, the Ploughshares blog, Fiction Writers Review, The Rupture, Necessary Fiction, Split Lip Magazine, and elsewhere.