“Night Terror,” the first story in the short story collection Double Dutch by Laura Trunkey begins with the following passage: “He was speaking Arabic in his sleep. Her son — who could barely manage three words in a row in English — had an incredible fluency in a language she recognised only from television news clips.”
The story focuses on the mother’s reaction to this strange phenomenon as she grows to believe that Jasper, her “problem child” is not only a “terror” (as in the terrible twos) but the literal reincarnation of an Arab terrorist. That’s not my terrible pun — there is in fact a sentence in this story where Nicole, the mother, says: “‘Jasper’s a terror–‘ Nicole clamped her mouth shut before the third syllable escaped.”
As one reviewer puts it:
“Night Terror” focuses on a single mom whose infant unaccountably speaks Arabic in his sleep. From there (this being Trunkey’s world) it’s a small step for her to suspect that the child is a reincarnated Arab and former terrorist.
As the story unfolds, Nicole’s issues turn out to be more about postnatal depression, and not connecting with your “problem child,” than anything to do with Arabic or Arabness. The device of the infant speaking Arabic at night is merely that — a disconcerting way to represent the mother’s sense of disconnection from her child (and a good hook for the short story). After all, what could be more alienating, more other, than your child speaking Arabic?
Here’s Nicole, reflecting on how she sees her son now he has spoken Arabic:
…once the Arabic began, she could not stand to be near him at night. Certainly he still looked the same, but what she saw was different: his skin turned darker and turtle-rough, his eyebrows thick, a sneer on his lips.
Despite this description, (“turtle-rough”?), Nicole doesn’t think of herself as a racist of course: “the only reason she couldn’t claim any ethnic friends was that she had no friends to claim, period.”
The story’s resolution ultimately comes about via a Saudi Arabian exchange student translating a tape of the presumed “Arabic hate speech” (the actual Arab never makes an appearance in the story, only Jasper-the-reincarnated-Arab). What Nicole assumes to be hate speech, it turns out, is in fact not so hateful.
I won’t spoil the ending, but it is quite something.
The device of the child speaking Arabic in his sleep reminds me of Robert Westall’s Gulf (1992), which I read when I was eleven or so. In this story, the protagonist’s brother too begins talking in a strange and harsh language in his sleep. And then Figgis, aka Andy, begins to call himself “Latif.”
Both Trunkey and Westall use this notion of the child speaking Arabic at night, and thereby turning into an unfathomable and terrifying “other” — only in Westall’s case it is used to bring home the realities of the Gulf war, and Latif is not a terrorist, but as it turns out, a 13 year old Iraqi soldier:
Westall mordantly contrasts not only the fearful but proud Latif’s view of the war with the impersonal, nearly bloodless version seen on TV, but also each side’s affirmations of legitimacy and different perspectives on the war’s causes.
On one hand, Trunkey’s story, which is about motherhood, finally undoes the association of Arabic with violence, whereas in Westall’s case, even the “explanation” for the unfathomable alien gibberish remains tied to violence and the horrors of war.
On the other hand, while Trunkey’s “Night Terror” explores postnatal depression with sensitivity and empathy, the Arabic seems merely tacked onto this otherwise touching story — the equivalent of Nicole undertaking a spiritual journey through some foreign land in order to come to “know herself” better as a mother. The conclusion, especially, seems trivalising, and somewhat unconvincing. In this sense, Westall did it better.