Those Who Came Before
By Nora Knoepflmacher
This short story is inspired by Mohsin Hamid’s novel Exit West. For Lana, the protagonist, taking her place in history means being the person who studies and gives a voice to the stories of those silenced.
Her process had begun slowly. One day, while locking up, Lana searched the library stationery closet for a paper clip. Defeated and frustrated, she shut the door, unable to find the small piece of metal to secure the stack of attendance sheets together. As she leaned against the closing door, her eyes darted toward the locked closet. It always felt strange that the closet was seemingly ignored by the library faculty. The head librarian hadn’t even mentioned its existence to Lana during her very thorough orientation. Lana jabbed each key on her keychain into the lock, convincing herself that this late-night scavenging was in desperate pursuit of a paper clip. The fourth and final key granted her access to the closet, and she obliged. A thin layer of dust coated the file cabinets that lined the narrow space. She pulled at one of the cabinets, surprised to feel it graze her leg and accept her invitation. What began as a harmless endeavour that night became a monthly, then weekly, and finally, daily ritual.
In the dark room, she discovered a collection from the past. Specifically sixty years ago—a past that not even her teacher Ms. Zee liked to discuss, a past that whispered Lana’s name. This past told the story of war, of chaos, and of uncertainty. The government censored any remaining trace of this past, attempting to free Lana’s country of the pain that once seeped through the sidewalk cracks. With each image, social-media archive, and newspaper clipping, Lana grew closer to the silenced secrets of her ancestors.
Lana wasn’t particularly fond of school, for she often felt out of place in one way or another. She began to notice this isolation and general social discomfort more as she grew older, departing from the yellow jubilance of youth that characterized her grade school years. She especially noticed the feeling now, in a classroom of chancellors’ children, secured by their inherited safety net of trust funds and workless lives. Sometimes, her peers could sense her lack of financial security, as if she were forced to wear a neon t-shirt every day adorned with the term “scholarship kid.” Some days, her lack of wealth was plastered across her body—her fellow students’ eyes lasering holes into her cardigan. But, other days, she felt like she could go hours without someone acknowledging her presence, as if she were submerged beneath an opaque haze.
History class was the only place in school where she did not contemplate other people’s perceptions. In class, she became consumed by the stories of the past that Ms. Zee shared. Sometimes, Lana felt as if she were the only student in the room who felt such overwhelming joy during Ms. Zee’s lectures, which led her to believe that perhaps the class wasn’t what she loved so passionately, but rather the study of history itself.
As a library assistant, she now devotes her weeks to the vast library that she once timidly walked through, dragging her fingers lightly across an endless row of dusty books. Now, she has found friendship in the librarians—at first demure, but then animated—carpeted floors, and red wood tables. She has grown accustomed to the decrepit computer system and faint kissing sounds of couples lingering in corners. She spends her breaks under the tickling warmth of the sunlit windows while dissecting collections of historical journals, textbooks, and sources armed with her gold pen. She craves the moments spent long after closing hours where she huddles over the cabinets’ contents. There, in the closet, she dedicates time to her self-designed project’s aim of preserving and amplifying the voices enclosed in her country’s history.
One image in particular brought her closer to this goal: a flimsy newspaper clipping with a blurred image of a man and woman. She discovered the photograph during one of her early explorations of the closet’s files, yet always returned to it. The pair in the photo sat unaware, huddled on a stoop under an apocalyptic sky. She would remove the clipped image from a stained manilla folder, holding its corners tightly with her thumb and index fingers. Lana would study each pixel, forming a bond with the scrap of paper and the lives enclosed within it.
In her notebook, she observed the bravery wrapped in the black folds of the woman’s robe or the man beside her, with his creased forehead, seeming to tell the story of a different place. Lana longed to understand these people, for they embodied lifetimes washed away by the fears of today. These people looked to Lana through the old photograph, requesting her assistance in ensuring that their story escaped from the borders of the tiny image, and she accepted.
Nora Knoepflmacher is a class of 2020 Girls Write Now mentee based in New York, NY.