Sibling relationships are portrayed in fiction in many different ways. Classic works have given us enduring sibling archetypes drawing inspiration from sources such as: the Biblical Joseph and his brothers; the Oedipal siblings of Antigone; the two pairs of twins in Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors; the five Bennett sisters from Pride and Prejudice; the Tulliver brother and sister in The Mill on the Floss; the eponymous brothers in The Brothers Karamazov; the Prozorov sisters of Three Sisters; the four March sisters of Little Women; the Pevensie siblings of C S Lewis’s Narnia books; the Trask brothers (in turn, based on Cain and Abel from the Old Testament of the Christian Bible) of East of Eden; the Finch brother and sister pair in To Kill a Mockingbird, the Plantagenet sisters of We Have Always Lived in the Castle.
During more recent times, we’ve had even more dysfunctional types like: the Dollanganger siblings in The Flowers in the Attic; the Binewski siblings of Geek Love; the Lisbon sisters in The Virgin Suicides; the Starks and Lannisters from The Game of Thrones series; the sisters of the Booker-longlisted (at the time of writing) My Sister, the Serial Killer.
Whatever the plot lines of a work of fiction, if it features siblings as important characters, various rich themes are mined. After all, siblings tend to be, along with parents, among our earliest emotional, intellectual, even spiritual influences. Lifelong behavioral patterns develop and stick because of these foremost socializing approaches. We do not get to choose our siblings as we do our friends, yet, of course, the former bonds are stronger. Shared DNA, origins, and culture ensure that sibling ties are almost always complex, complicated, loving, tense, profound, bewildering, and often, inexplicable even amongst themselves.
Blood does not always run thicker than water, but when it does, it carries along deep-rooted intricacies related to parental favoritism, power struggles, hierarchies, jealousies, rivalries, betrayals, resentments, possessiveness, duty, vendetta, loyalties, unspoken pacts, and more. The invisible skeins that keep siblings tethered to each other throughout their lives — often making them the longest-lasting family connections — can be either stifling or sheltering or, more realistically, both at the same time.
As with all intimate relationships, things are always dynamic, in flux, and evolving between siblings. Yet, most of our adult identities are still driven by the label or role we were given in relation to our siblings — the “good one” or the “pretty one” or the “clever one” or the “athletic one” or the “nurturing one”. Further, some studies have shown that the nature of adult sibling relationships significantly affect one’s well-being — mood, health, morale, stress, depression, loneliness, life satisfaction — in midlife and beyond. (” Your Adult Siblings May Hold the Secret to a Long, Happy Life“, Robin Marantz Henig, NPR, 26 Nov 2015.) Naturally, all of this is fertile terrain for fiction writers.
In the short story form, siblings have featured regularly — from early fairy-tales like “Hansel and Gretel” to recent award-winning stories like Lidudumalingani’s “Memories We Lost”. Given the need for brevity, these stories typically jump straight to the heart of the siblings’ conflicts from the get-go. That said, as with all short stories, we don’t need complete character arcs to comprehend what’s going on. What we get is that event or moment of experience between siblings from which we can look back into or look forward to their entire relationship. In so doing, we can infer the mostly-submerged iceberg of the characters’ past dramas and potential future traumas. As Sarah Hall once said in an interview with The Telegraph, “‘I don’t want only female readers or young readers'” (Siân Ranscombe, 12 Jun 2015):
With short stories, you want the story to reverberate in a big way, so you’re alluding to things that go beyond what you’ve just written about. A lot of readers aren’t reading to feel the disquiet that short stories can deliver because most people read for comfort or consolation. There’s this trend of wanting everything to be tied up in the end, but life isn’t like that. Short stories are a reminder that, actually, you may never get to the bottom of something. You might end up staring over a precipice.
This month’s sibling stories are by Martha Bátiz, K Anis Ahmed, Jenny Zhang, Lidudumalingani, and Kseniya Melnik. While there are certainly wonderful classics by writers like D H Lawrence, Flannery O’Connor, et al, these contemporary writers have explored finer and deeper nuances of sibling relationships using singular narrative styles and voices.
“Maria Times Seven”, by Martha Bátiz (Words Without Borders)
Here is a beautifully-told story about a mother and her seven daughters, all of whom have the ability to experience each others’ physical sensations and emotions simultaneously. This leads to certain curious incidents and consequences. It was translated from the original Spanish by its Mexican author, Martha Bátiz.
With captivating magical realism and vivid imagery, Bátiz has painted a world that readers will want to step into, walk around, and live inside for a bit.
Once reunited with her seven Marías, Doña Toña didn’t know which one to console first. María couldn’t stop crying for her lost love, and the others suffered along with her. The tears were so copious that the floor of the house began to flood. Doña Toña gave up on the idea of using absorbent towels and had to bring out her cups and jars first, then a couple of rusty buckets to gather up the water. The more María remembered Juan, the greater the distress she felt, and the more they all wept. Doña Toña finally emptied all her liquor, sauce, and vinegar bottles so she could fill them with tears. In a few days the whole town knew what was happening in the house and, motivated more by curiosity than by compassion, the village women showed up with more containers to contain the tears, which flowed without end.
“The Poetry Audition”, by K. Anis Ahmed (Joyland Magazine)
Ahmed’s collection, Goodnight Mr Kissinger and Other Stories (University Press Limited, Bangladesh, 2012), is set in Dhaka, Bangladesh. This story is about two brothers and how their early sibling rivalry evolves into a fast friendship, then becomes something else at a pivotal coming-of-age moment.
Ahmed describes a milieu that may be physically set in a different world but the brotherly dynamics that unfold are universally and achingly familiar.
Bahram and Jamshed were dressed alike as children because their father believed it to be the best way of preventing sibling rivalry. Rather than make them better friends though, their identical wardrobes led to some petty confusion. The brothers often wore each other’s clothes by mistake. In family photographs of the time Bahram appeared scowling in shorts that hung down to his knees, while Jamshed smiled bravely in collars that nearly choked him.
“The Evolution of My Brother”, by Jenny Zhang (Rookie Magazine)
This is from Zhang’s debut collection Sour Heart (Lenny, 2018.) Like most of the other stories in the book, this is also a coming-of-age story about an older sister and her younger brother. Zhang writes with a unique, assured voice that alternates between world-weary and self-exploring.
As children of Chinese-American immigrants, these siblings are also dealing with the usual socio-cultural code conflicts. As the story weaves through various phases of their lives and their up-down relationship, there are several heartbreakingly tender moments. Zhang presents them with a detached coolness but the love between this sibling pair shines bright throughout.
We were alone most afternoons. On one of them, we searched my room for candles—the kind that smell like cinnamon, or mint, or are dressed up pretty with seashells, and are exchanged as Christmas presents between two friends who, in fact, aren’t very good friends at all. We found one that I liked: white with Columbian coffee beans clustered around the bottom.
“Eat it,” I said.
“No,” my brother said, furrowing his eyebrows, turning away.
“Memories We Lost”, by Lidudumalingani (2016 Caine Prize Winner) (SquareSpace)
This is a many-layered story about mental illness (schizophrenia), sisterly love, community stigma, rural healthcare, ignorant superstition, grief, and more. The narrator is entrusted with the care of her younger sister, whose illness goes from bad to worse as family and community try different alternatives to make her better. Eventually, the narrator has to take control of the situation and try to save her sister.
The lost memories are as much those of the ill sister as they are those that never happened between the two sisters because of how the illness is mishandled.
There was never a forewarning that this thing was coming. It came out of nowhere, as ghosts do, and it would disappear as it had come. Every time it left, I stretched my arms out in all directions, mumbled two short prayers, one to God and another to the ancestors, and then waited on my terrified sister to embrace me. The embraces, I remember, were always tight and long, as if she hoped the moment would last forever.
“The Unmailed Letter”, by Kseniya Melnik (Granta Magazine)
Here’s another pair of sisters. The narrator is writing a letter to her younger sister and recounts moments and events throughout their lives — from the time the younger was still in the womb and caused confusion and fear in the narrator’s existence. As the two sisters grow up in their Siberian town, emigrate to the United States, and come of age, their relationship evolves to more of a love-hate one.
In the end, though, the narrator’s love for her younger sister shines through as the younger lies, helpless again, in her arms.
There was once a time when I loved you. It lasted about four minutes.
At all other times I hated you. I was already suspicious of you before you were even born. You were Mama’s then, eating her up from the inside like a little cancer. She became yellow. She lost chunkfuls of hair. Her teeth softened to chewed-up chewing gum. She sat in that deep blue bathtub in our old apartment, crying and scratching her elbows raw. Papa brought her batteries of canned peaches, the only thing she could hold down. It was you, wasn’t it, who nagged her for those peaches day and night? You didn’t care that they were impossible to find in our small Siberian town. You didn’t even technically live there yet, you were outside of history. You wanted what you wanted.
Each of these stories shows how, even when siblings know so much about each other, there is much room for pain through misunderstanding, misinterpretation, and the unknown. With most of our other relationships — friends, partners/spouses, coworkers, etc. — there’s some conscious act on our part to form them in the first place. With family members, whether parents or siblings, we are born to them without any say of our own. Perhaps that’s why these familial bonds can feel even more oppressive when dysfunctional.
Siblings may be close or distant, friends or enemies, partners or rivals, challengers or supporters. But no matter how far they’ve traveled and how much time has elapsed, they are, forever, parts that connect to each other like the pieces of a puzzle.