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Torn by Sahar Mustafah Flyleaf Literary Journal Chicago Issue #3

"Torn" by Sahar Mustafah

Issue #3 / March 2014

Illusrated by Mark Para


Available Formats:

PRINT ($2.00)








SAHAR MUSTAFAH is a writer, editor, and teacher from Chicago. Her work has appeared in Word Riot, Hair Trigger 35, Mizna, New Scriptor, Chicago Literati, and Dinarzad’s Children: An Anthology of Contemporary Arab American Literature (2004). Her short story “Shisha Love” won the 2012 Guild Literary Complex Fiction Award and was nominated for a 2013 Pushcart Prize; her short story “Perfect Genes” earned 3rd Place in the 2013 Gold Circle Awards from Columbia University Scholastic Press Association for collegiate magazines. She received her MFA in fiction writing from Columbia College Chicago and is the co-founder and editor of Bird’s Thumb, a literary journal.




"We sat cross-legged on my bed, the globe wobbling between us on its plastic stand, and you turned it until a part of Asia and all of Australia faced me. You pressed your palm against Africa and teased a corner of South America until you peeled it off, taking most of the Atlantic Ocean with you. I held my breath, worried you were going to tear it away from the rest of the world—much too easily—and ball it up and throw it into my wastebasket.


But you let it hang there, and when I slowly spun the world I pushed my fingers through the hole as though, at nine years old, I might feel water and seaweed and a shoal of fish and maybe the rough dorsal ridges of a whale.


You were ten then, older and wiser, and said if I could actually reach in and touch the core of the earth my entire hand would instantly melt from red-hot magma. I pulled out my fingers and carefully lifted the thin paper and pressed it into its proper place, but it wouldn’t stick.



Q&A By Jim Markus:

What interests you most about short-form fiction?

I suppose it more truly reflects the human experience...our daily lives are made up of these episodes that don't necessarily contribute to a larger meaning of our existence, but on that day, in those hours, something truly profound has occurred because it has moved us somehow. I think we sometimes take those experiences for granted. A good short story invites us to experience it within this critically contained space and time.   


And though it surely is not an easy form, it is most instantly gratifying to me as a writer. I can see through a beginning, middle, and end more easily.


That's a great point. Short fiction can often inspire appreciation for unrecognized beauty. Do you think memoirs offer the same benefit?

Absolutely. I've always loved memoirs—well-written ones!—that read like actual stories. I've never minded embellishments so long as the truth is preserved. Dorothy Allison speaks to that in "Two or Three Things I Know For Sure."


Which authors influenced your writing most during your time studying at Columbia? Who else should we be reading?

I gleaned a lot about craft from Bonnie Jo Campbell, Richard Price, Eugene Cross, and Italo Calvino.


As for other authors, I have a boundless affinity and deep admiration for Jhumpa Lahiri's short fiction collections which, in my view, are unrivaled by her novels. Almost a decade ago, she was significant in revealing how underrepresented minority women writers are and that my voice as a Palestinian American writer is relevant. She also taught me that regardless of gender and race, I still need to be a good writer. I am also a huge fan of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Junot Diaz, Ha Jin, Laila Lalami, and Hanan Al Shaykh.


Lahiri's The Namesake inspired a film by the same name. This expansion into visual media (in addition to her incredible contributions to the literary scene) helped expose new audiences to her short fiction. Aside from the illustrations in Flyleaf, would you consider pairing your short stories with other forms of media like film, photography, or other visual arts?

That would be an incredible collaboration! That's how my featured story "Torn" came to be. I was commissioned to write a piece based on a photography exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Photography last summer. I deliberately worked without background information on the photographer or his subject matter. It was an invaluable experience in terms of the visual event becoming a story. It was solely my interpretation and speculation beyond the frames of the photographs; of course, some elements were obvious, yet I created a life around the individual in the photos. I suppose this is what happens more often than I realize: I glimpse objects, people, places etc. and am inspired to write.


To actually see one of my stories in film would be remarkable. It would be interesting to see what kinds of choices a director/screenwriter makes with my work. I tend to be less critical nowadays of books-turned-film because I've come to appreciate the medium of film on its own merits. It's like the reverse experience I described above—a director/screenwriter reads a story or novel then is inspired to produce a film; a writer sees/hears something then is inspired to compose a story or novel.  


Flyleaf Journal is founded on the ability to share stories in the most traditional ways, handing it to friends or dropping it in the mail to anywhere. What are your thoughts on the evolving marketplace for short fiction today? 

I think the marketplace is very amenable to showcasing the short story and perpetuating its necessity. Certainly, digital media has its limitations. Physically sharing a story is a gesture of our humanity, as corny as that sounds. I still very much enjoy receiving print journals of short fiction and particularly One Story, which mails a single story every several weeks. It's the best gift; I pass my copies along to peers and friends when I'm finished reading them. However, as budgets are very tight or non-existent (as it is with Bird's Thumb) the short story can still find its way through digital media. I'm not sure why there is an argument for or against—it's ultimately a matter of resources.


The idea of sharing a short story with friends appeals to me. It's like a book club for very small books. Do you think there's a culture associated with readers of short stories?

Literary magazines and online journals are proof of that culture. They are still thriving; more evidence is in the creation of Flyleaf Journal and my online journal Bird's Thumb!


There will always be an audience of readers who appreciate the short story as much as there will always be an audience who appreciates longer works. I think publishers don't always have faith in short fiction collections, but, in my view, it's a complete disregard and oversight of what readers enjoy. Just look at one of the finalists for the 2013 National Book Award—George Saunders for his short story collection Tenth of December.


I think there's a culture of sharing stories in general, particularly in an oral/audio setting. Story-collectives like This American Life, 2nd Story Chicago and the Moth Radio Hour have revealed the power of our personal narratives. These are mostly "real" stories, but they include literary elements of the short story to make them accessible and universal.


It would be wonderful for more venues to celebrate short fiction pieces beyond the typical author speaking engagements. In Chicago, programs like "Two-Cookie Minimum" and "Reading Under the Influence" are forging an oral culture of short stories.

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Bird’s Thumb can be found online at The premier issue debuts in February 2014.

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