“[W]e talked incessantly about the gap between here and there. With each articulated difference, we flattened ourselves and let American define us. We were only ever what it was not.”
My initial reaction upon finishing American Fever was something in the realm of ‘underwhelmed’. Yet, as weeks passed by my opinion changed. Maybe it’s because my mother read this after I did and we ended up talking about certain scenes and characters in a way that made it all the more vivid in my mind. Or maybe I just needed time to reconcile myself with the tone and direction of the story. Suffice it to say that the review I am now writing will be a lot more positive than the one I’d planned to write. While I am sure that some readers will be able to tell that this is a first novel, I believe that American Fever makes for a very promising and confident debut. Not only does it resist the usual coming-of-age character arch, but the narrative retains a certain ambivalence that really adds depth and nuance to the story.
“The newness of America beckoned. Kelly and Amy appeared crisp, like newly tailored clothes, the fact of them being strangers suddenly inviting. Abbu’s tyranny, Ammi’s coldness, Faisal’s petty concerns— I would leave them all behind. Because I was sixteen, and I thought one did that, could do that— leave anything behind.”
The novel revolves around Hira, a 16-year-old Pakistani girl who in 2010 goes on a year-long exchange program, only to find herself in a small-town in Oregon. At first, Hira, a rather prickly and stubborn teen, is eager to leave her family behind and to refashion herself in America, the land of (supposed) opportunities. Hira buys into that tantalizing possibility of change offered by a new environment, but her ‘new’ life in rural Oregon is far from what she’d envisioned. First of all, there is the family she is staying with, Kelly and Amy, a single mother and her teen daughter. Kelly’s parenting is far from what Hira is accustomed to and she comes to resent what she perceives as a lack of care from Kelly. Because there seem to be no fixed mealtimes, and being used to food being prepared for her, Hira begins to lose weight. Additionally, Hira struggles to find places where she can buy halal meat. As Hira attempts to navigate Kelly’s ‘benign’ ignorance and Amy’s seeming disinterest, she also tries to familiarize herself with everyday American life. From their bathroom setups (after years in the uk i have returned to italy and boy did i miss bidets), to the way they interact with one another and so forth. At school, she is not necessarily ostracized but she mostly interacts with the only two other foreign students, Nicole, who is French, and Hamid, who is Omani. Hira and Hamid bond over their similar experiences with racism and islamophobia, although Hira soon finds out that they have quite different perspectives and attitudes when it comes to their peers and the notion of ‘fitting’ into American culture.
Hira is a character that is as sympathetic as she is aggravating. You feel for her sense of alienation, her longing for a different experience, and later on her homesickness. But she is also rather self-centered and entitled (at one point rebuking kelly for not cooking more). She is also an observer, someone who often seems at a remove from her surroundings, taking them in but not necessarily allowing herself to interact with them. Although her reflections on belonging, identity, and the notion of ‘assimilation’ are rendered with piercing clarity, a sense of ambivalence and unease permeates much of her narration. Concomitant to her initial desire to connect to others and America itself, is her unwillingness to ‘flatten’ herself or her culture to ‘fit’ in. Her self-divide is somewhat assuaged when she begins to fall for Ali, but, as the weeks go by Hira begins to feel increasingly unwell and, after she begins coughing up blood, is diagnosed with tuberculosis.
Dur e Aziz Amna’s American Fever will definitely appeal to fans of ambivalent narrators and stories following characters who leave one country for another, attempting perhaps to sever themselves from their past selves, like Charlotte Brontë and Jamaica Kincaid’s ‘Lucys’. Hira’s introspective quiet yet unyielding nature very much brought to mind Brontë and Jamaica’s novels, respectively Villette and Lucy. Stylistically and thematically American Fever shares quite a lot with those two novels. From the cool-tone of the prose, to Hira’s occasional wryness and the awkward, occasionally tense, dialogues.
Hira’s journey resists conforming to the usual coming-of-age arc. Her lack of growth brought to mind Selin from Batuman’s The Idiot. While it is questionable whether Hira has gained any maturity or a new outlook by the end of her narrative, she has not necessarily stayed the same Hira she was before going to Oregon. As much as she is misunderstood by others, she also makes assumptions about others, and all too often misreads other people. Yet Hira remains a deeply compelling narrator whose voice, frustrating as it may be, nevertheless held my attention. If you are liked releases such as Win Me Something & You Exist Too Much, and Days of Distraction you should consider adding this debut to your tbr.
American Fever presents its readers with a piercing interrogation of otherness and belonging that doubles as a quiet yet poignant meditation on adolescence, identity, and family. The narrative has a quiet almost slice-of-life feel that may bore readers who are looking for more plot-driven storytelling. But, if you are looking for a nuanced character study, look no further.
My rating: ★ ★ ★ ½ stars
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Some quotes to give you the vibe of this novel:
“There’s a strain of story this could fall into. The foreigner trying to fit in, hindered by accent and Fahrenheit and the Imperial system. The intelligent immigrant turned hapless by America. The outsider on the periphery of America. The entranced documenter of America. The truth— I was bloody bored. It is hard to overstate how much of an abstraction a new country remains to the foreigner, and for how long. America was a concept, and I was there to testify to it. It was metaphor, and not the thing itself. Nothing I did there had any material weight; nothing sated, nothing seeped.”
“History is what happens in other places. America transcends it.”
“Culture is so flattening when described for the outsider.”
“One of the things I miss least about adolescence is the stupefying entitlement it sanctions.”
“It’s important to note that the entire time I was in America, I peddled in one stereotype or another, taking succor in their confirmation . Americans were rural and ignorant, or they were urban and slightly less ignorant.”
“Why move if you do not wish for places to change you? But perhaps you leave to find out what doesn’t change, the discontent and itch that are constant. You move only to discover, amidst the waiting and the hoping, and the dashing of that hope, that there is only one place the boat will dock. Wherever you go, there you are.”
“Sometimes, while talking to Kelly, I stumbled around a sentence, unmoored by language. Even after the conversation had moved on, I remained unsteady, like I was riding a bike that had narrowly escaped a hedge.”
“That entire year, Hamid and I treated parts of our identity like my tuna sandwiches— packed in little boxes, to be retrieved only during these lunches.”
“Children are prone to exaggerating the cruelty of others, but there are times when one realizes the magnitude of someone’s unfairness only in adulthood.”
“For years after, this was the tightrope that mattered —either confirm a stereotype to smug Americans like Mrs Sinclair or defend norms that had troubled me all my life. Then I realized two things. One, that my parents had raised me a snob, and universal legibility was not necessary, or even desirable , to me. Two, that I found no pleasure in translating culture, in working towards a greater understanding between one pack of duffers and another.”
“To her, I was only an object of casual interest, an add-on to her daily life. And I didn’t help matters. Some people walk into friendships with open arms, and it’ll come as no surprise that I’m not one of those people. With Amy, too, I withheld. I kept a scale in my hands, always careful to be fair with her, but rarely kind.”
“What grated on me was Mrs Sinclair’s insistent knowledge— nothing more dangerous than an American who thinks she knows the world. Kelly sometimes asked naïve questions about Pakistan, but they were curious and sincere, conscious of the place of unknowing they came from. This hag, on the other hand, was chewing up random facts gleaned over a telephone and throwing them at me as expertise.”
“My daughter is a brave girl,” he had said, his own voice cracking, because that was and will always be the central myth of our family. It is brave to leave.
“I knew the game. Culture and tradition looked best on a woman’s body.”
“In the coming days, it would strike me as an oddity, even a lack of imagination , how often my points of reference flitted to that other continent. I would tell myself to be more present, that not everything was a slanted version of that thing I remembered from home. I took it to be a frustrating sign of my newness in America, and not for what it was— the forever condition of anyone living away from the city, town, street she had known to be the world.”
“Did she still not know how it worked? He was a father. She was a mother. His errors and cruelties I would forget, or at least learn not to hold against him.”
“It is the sole landscape of dreams, the only place that will ever convince you that its failings, its bounties, its excesses, and caresses are all your own. After all, where does it end and you begin?”
“[B]ut above all the knowledge that we were all in it together— that giddy, intractable project of not being an adult.”
“One of the exquisite delusions of adolescence— the self-chosen life. In time, many of us realize how lofty an accomplishment it would be, to be only as terrible as our parents.”
“It pained me each time, because we are taught that independent women are heartless women, and who ever wanted that in a mother? It also thrilled the part of me that would take after her.”