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Love is Make-Believe: the Flash Fiction of Riham Adly

We’ve become used, in the West at least, to dividing literature into two broad categories, Poetry and Prose. We define the first as ‘literary work in which the expression of feelings and ideas is given intensity by the use of distinctive style and rhythm’ and, more figuratively,a quality of beauty and intensity of emotion regarded as characteristic of poems’ or ‘something regarded as comparable to poetry in its beauty’. The word ‘poetry’ comes from the medieval Latin poetria, from Latin poeta ‘poet’ and in early use sometimes referred to creative literature in general. Conventions lead us to expect depths of meaning from poetry, a web of laterally connected images; the significance of poetry, we have come to anticipate, is to due with metaphors and ‘sideways’ linkages, associations not normally made logically.

Prose, on the other hand, is defined as ‘written or spoken language in its ordinary form, without metrical structure’. The word comes via Old French from Latin prosa (oratio) ‘straightforward (discourse’), and is the feminine of prosus, earlier prorsus ‘direct’. From prose, we have come to expect linear forms, narrative, logic, ‘this happens then that happens’ (or ‘this happens because that happens’). We tell stories through prose, says our conventional minds: we convey meaning through poetry.

These two categories most closely approach each other in what we call ‘literary fiction’. This is storytelling which is broadly understood to also have lateral significance: a narrative of ‘this happened then this happened’, but with meanings connected together non-linearly through images, metaphors and other literary devices.

Now, if we take literary fiction and reduce it in length, compacting its images and squeezing together its significances, we have Riham Adly’s work.

There’s something of the pioneer about Adly: her collection Love is Make-Believe is both bold and rich; she stretches the relatively new form of flash fiction in the direction of poetry. Like poetry, the connections are often unpredictable, even violent; chronic pain and the lack of stability are recurring motifs. Characters are not the archetypal figures we have come to expect from narrative fiction, but voices split and torn and blended together in unexpected ways — think more of an orchestra than a set of individuals. Gloom and darkness gain a beauty of their own.

But there’s a sacrifice to be made: do not expect simple narrative logic or the shapes of the short story as you may have grown used to. Her collection of 61 flash fiction stories display an impressive command not only of language but of the human heart — and also of poetic moulding.

Culture, loss, pain, dysfunction, family, tradition, religion, and more — a tapestry of colour and depth, told in the genres of gritty realism, fantasy, science fiction and everything in between — this whole collection is driven by a passion and energy which comes from suffering: not just a physical or mental pain, but an awareness of the remote existence of unearthly and unattainable beauty.

Some have likened the stories to fever dreams, and there’s some truth in that: reality as we know it, with its comfortable narrative expectations and logical clarity, has to be left behind. This is why these pieces of flash fiction are much more like narrative poems than anything else. If the reader approaches them as poetry, they will, I think, reveal more of their depths.

Here's what a few others have said about it:

Love is Make-Believe is a rich compendium for Riham Adly's widely published, award-winning flash fiction and is not to be missed. This is a writer of vast range and imaginative powers. Her stories, most of which are set in Egypt, are evocative and compelling, sometimes violent, and all brilliantly written. Though they are brief, you'll want to take these stories in slowly. Immerse yourself in the lives of women and families rendered so intelligently and compassionately within, then keep this collection close at hand so you may re-enter the worlds Adly has so masterfully created. —Kathy Fish, author of Wild Life: Collected Works

In Love is Make-Believe, Riham Adly has given us gems of flash and micro stories that crystallize the pursuit of love and safety while battling the unpredictability of chronic pain and the lack of stable relationships. Adly’s characters connect and break apart through attempts to staunch the pain of living, to use hope as sustenance to survive another day. But these stories move from gloom and darkness to beautiful images of characters taking agency, making mistakes, sure, but reckoning with these new lives just beyond the horizons. There’s so much to love in these unique and specific points of view and with writing that sings of disaster, but also of a gentler future. This book welcomes the reader in as a new family member, a cousin perhaps, with coffee in hand, ready to listen to the lives that surround us, that makes us who we are and who we shall be if we could only connect. Give Adly a few hours of your time and she’ll spin tales you’re unlikely to forget.” —Tommy Dean, author of Hollows

To say Riham Adly's flash fiction has the magnetic quality of a driving past a vehicle accident we cannot help but gape at would be trite, if not also true...which is to say, the entire world needs to look very carefully at this author's words, and take heed. Where there is pain; there is beauty. There is also rage, righteousness, and reckoning. Adly captures all this and more in a matter of paragraphs, as she renders all-too-real narratives on the page. If only stakes, obstacles, and obsessions such as these had been commonplace on the syllabi of my upbringing, it might not have taken me so long to open my heart. —Katey Schultz, author of Flashes of War and Still Come Home

Love is Make-Believe is a collection of 61 flash fiction stories from a master story-teller. Riham Adly has an impressive command of language that reaches deep into the reader’s mind and heart. Each story stands alone, some set in the past, present or future, others encompassing ancient and modern times, Adly’s country Egypt, and other countries, cultural expectations and identity crises. All are connected by a deep sense of loss, pain, family dysfunction and betrayal as the female characters strive to find a place for themselves in their world. — Sandra Arnold author of Soul Etchings and The Ash, the Well and the Bluebell

In this bold collection, author Riham Adly uses the concision and focus of flash fiction to illuminate the incongruities of being a woman in modern Egypt and in the modern world. These stories may be brief, but they cut deep, highlighting the pressures created by society, family, tradition, religion and self-expectation. Broken into six unique sections, each with its own flavour and tone, Love is Make Believe contains stories that range from gritty realism to science fiction. The author is not afraid to mix elements of fantasy, surrealism, legend and myth. The result is a book that is both inventive and varied, but also held together by strong thematic threads, threads that often create a sense of yearning for something other, for escape and release. This is a book written with clear passion, drive and energy - and an occasional spoonful of humour - that will be enjoyed both by regular flash fiction readers and those new to the form. - KM Elkes, author of All That Is Between Us

Riham Adly’s Love is Make-Believe is a collection of flash fiction that digs beneath the surface of the ordinariness of everyday interactions and expose the fragile and often fraught relationships between family members. In these stories we find women caught between two different expectations: the public and the private, the modern and traditional; protagonists that carefully tread the line between polar opposites. Stories that take you to far places, focussing closely into the glances, the gestures, and the unspoken conversations that take place when no one is watching. Adly skilfully stitches together fragments of instants that float by in the memory of the protagonist, brief flashbacks of difficult times that rise to the surface of her consciousness only to float down again into the darker recesses where reside the darker, more difficult and faceless memories. Her writing makes the emotional intensity of the protagonists’ experiences palpable, bringing them right to the surface of the text. This is a writer who doesn’t shy away from the realities of physical and emotional abuse and faces them head-on. Adly’s stories are not for the faint-hearted, but those diligent readers who persist through her darkness will find their efforts rewarded. — EmpowerHerVoice

In Riham Adly's Love is Make-Believe the barest of outlines allows the reader to enter through a doorway Adly creates with letters posted like street signs at the corner of each page. You guess at the beginning of each sentence and if you’re lucky you’ll have an image – an idea – by the time, withered like a willow tree by the loss of another few moments, you get to the end of the sentence you’re reading. Adly’s imagery is distilled and her metaphors speak loudly but the sense of each story is masked by a kind of silence we inhabit when we talk to family members. —Fevers Of The Mind

Riham Adly’s Love is Make Believe is a fever dream of the female experience. Dimension-hopping mothers, daughters, partners and wives, dreaming up a haze of fantastical escapes. Their unforgiving familial and romantic worlds offer only betrayal and abandonment, and the worldly bonds severed must find their attachments in mystical realms. What Riham does best could be called “a soft rebellion” of both societal conventions and literary narratives. The power of her fanciful protagonists lies in a childlike vulnerability, their elaborate cobweb dreams offer a riot against brute tradition and cruelty, and a disruption mirrored in the lucid structures of her stories. Flavoured with fairytales and folklore, Riham’s bubble gum creations are spoken in a voice stark and visceral, evoking the Plath-esque bite - a voice so often hijacked by a subconscious wit in an attempt to explain, often unexplainable frailty, loss and abuse. Here, shape-shifting women collectively yearn for a release that rarely comes, a sweetness following bitter aftertastes, peace that is elusive and love that is only make-believe. — Bending Genres

Through flash and microfiction, through the fantastic and the ordinary, through the voices of unheard women, these texts will make you embrace duality, cross the mirror. They stories of love and hate with raw, complicated relationships and characters, so real that they might even seem make-believe. — Lorena Escudero - Microfiction in Cambridge

Grab a paperback or Kindle version here.


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