Front of a building with white walls and brown window frames.

True Fiction
by Sohrab Homi Fracis
Stephen F. Austin University Press, 2022
96 pages
Reviewed by D.E. Lee

What makes a story true? Must it reflect physical or psychological realities, or can stories defy normative expectations and still remain true? Sohrab Homi Fracis’s latest collection of short stories, True Fiction, winner of the 2023 International Books Awards in the category of short fiction, takes an unflinching look at these questions and, providing no specific answer, makes us wonder, along with Pervez, a recurring character, “what the future might hold” for fiction.

Sohrab Homi Fracis, whose prior story collection, Ticket to Minto, won the prestigious Iowa Short Fiction Award, delivers potent prose in a clean and clear style that moves the stories along with insight and humor, creating a playground for investigation of his subject. For example, in “True Fiction,” the titular story, Pervez tells his friend Arun of a recent failed romance, but he tells us that he’s told Arun the story with “less detail.” What story did Arun hear? What was left out? Did we get a different story than Arun? Which was the true story? Arun accuses Pervez of “muddling” facts in his storytelling, further casting doubt on the story’s veracity. Pervez counters that he tells “stories that are emotionally, not factually, true.” So, after all, maybe both are true. The narrator, of course, may only be letting us know that, in fact, we’re getting a longer, detailed version of what, in real time, would be untenable. Fracis is not being sly. “True Fiction” is written with open possibilities about the facts, while the emotional truth remains available.

“Open Mic,” the first story, is written in a realist style and sets a course for the collection. The characters are losing their grunge-hipster locale to gentrification; all characters are in transition, losing or discovering their “voice,” an especially striking change for a displaced accountant from genocide-torn Rwanda, who’d imagined the open-mic night at Coffee & Spice would be his “refuge from the world.” A perceptive reader might wonder if the open-mic venue prefaces a search for the alternatives beyond realism, displacing it like the grunge-hipster neighborhood. As Pervez observes, “Direction is a topic on many a night here.”

The following story, “All Right, Now, Cupid,” is an immediate distortion of realism. The narrator fills out an online questionnaire meant to evoke responses from potential mates. The narrator is savvy enough to recognize, when responding to the prompt for “the most private thing I’m willing to admit” for a public audience of complete unknowns, the inherent irony in the question: “It’s so private, I’ll just put it online.” Woven into the narrator’s revelations, often through references to celebrities (“It’s my Charles Bukowski story”), his life is divided into acts, as if it were a play, in his attempt to gain love, something he’d seen in real life: a caring, older woman helping a blind man in a true act of love. Fracis seems to be pointing out that we may all be blinded by façade, and it is only in our tangible, unspectacular actions with real people where we might find something resembling, as Pervez called it, “emotional truth.”

The next three stories are direct explorations of whether emotional truth can be found in clearly unrealistic—yet, simultaneously, true—fictional tales. Steven Miller transforms into a woman in “Steven.” In an alt-world story, “The Straight,” Wnf competes against other flats for access to the rounds. And the fragmented “Family Tree” compresses an expansive generational tale into tight, measured flakes worthy of ample reflection. The emotional truth in “Steven” is the final exchange between Steven and his spouse, as he leaves her working at her desk, while he goes to the hormone doctor “to be measured,” calling into play, in this story about gender, the well-known phrase, “the measure of a man.” In the most fascinating story, “The Straight,” we are invited to imagine every possible love story in a world stripped of its evocative symbols. Wnf vies for Mlp’s attention and finds himself in fierce competition with Gxh that results in a fight with “sharps,” where mistakes mean death and success life, yet for all the strange descriptions of the alt-world, it’s clear that no matter what something looks like, if we are human, we can find the humanity within. The fragments in “Family Tree” create its own form: deep roots, weathering storms, firmly grounded. It’s the compression within the form allowing both transitions and transformations with the firm structures that gives the tree its durability. What strikes the reader about the emotional truth of this story is that while it begins in one place, the root, the tree itself flourishes, branching ever outward, so that the one source grows farther and farther apart with the passage of time. Fracis’s brilliance, here, is co-opting compression to describe expansion, where both co-exist as realities.

The final two stories of the collection return us to the roots of storytelling: the fairy tale and the myth or legend. “A Coming” tells of a plain fairy who sacrifices her immortality for the salvation of the other fairies who, through their pride, have lost it. The fairy tale, probably the first formal story a child ever hears, is a lie that a child very likely believes to be true: a whopper of an introduction to the nature of fiction. Finally, “The Legend of Rostam and Sohrab” presents a tale that can resonate deeply within an individual or an entire culture or country and serve it long after its “truth” or truth-value has lost its authority—or has it? A storyteller (“singer”) tells shepherds of the tragic story of Persian and Turkish warriors, well-meant deception, frustration, and a climactic battle between worthy—if unknowingly familial—adversaries. With masterful precision and control, Fracis has enlivened and updated an ancient tale with intense, dramatic action, without sentimentality, and infused it with spectacular verve that is nail-bitingly engaging, with a truly sorrowful outcome. This story raises the titular question of Fracis’s collection: what is true fiction? Did this ever happen? Does emotional impact affect us more than startling fact? A story is known to be true by the reaction it engenders. The content may be irrelevant. What never happened may be true, “emotionally true,” as Pervez would put it, or truth, having happened, may be rendered false or truer than literal truth, and this, perhaps, is the truth in fiction.

In his collection, True Fiction, Fracis has taken us from realism to the legends of old, and though we may never know the literal truth, the emotional truth is unequivocal: humans react to what makes sense, what appears to be the truth, regardless of actual truth, and this is the distinction this volume has merited.