Drawing from her own experiences as a Moroccan immigrant living in the States, in Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America Laila Lalami presents us with an impassioned and thoughtful social commentary. With piercing clarity, she touches upon Islamophobia, xenophobia, racism, and sexism. She reflects on the many flaws and conditions of citizenship, specifically American citizenship, and on the many ways, it fails people. I truly appreciated the way she discusses topical and oh so important social issues, and the lucidity of her arguments: from discussing the way citizenship is equated with whiteness, white privilege and white fragility, racial profiling, borders, racist rhetorics and the vilification of immigrants, inhumane legislations, the notion of ‘assimilation’, belonging, etc. Throughout this collection of essays, Lalami raises many thought-provoking points and makes many illuminating observations. While Lalami does discuss other people’s experiences, often providing statistics or citing specific incidents/events, her own personal experiences inform much of her writing, which makes it all the more affecting. I admired the way she would attempt to relate to the kind of people I personally would write off as c*nts while also fully acknowledging how frustrating a position she is often made to be in (that of educating bigoted people). While she does write about subjects that are ‘American’ specific, such as applying for citizenship in America, the issues underlying her essays should not concern exclusively an American readership. Although I did gain insight into processes I am not familiar with, throughout this collection Lalami delves into topics that will undoubtedly resonate with many readers outside of the States.
My only quibble is that some of her essays could have integrated a more intersectional approach. For instance, while Lalami does include ‘asides’ discussing gender inequality and #metoo, she barely acknowledges lgbtq+ related issues. Curiously enough this is another case where I find myself liking the non-fictional work of an author whose fiction I low-key did not get on with…I would definitely recommend this one and I am determined to read (and hopefully like) Lalami’s The Moor’s Account.
Blood Fest collects all of Malika Moustadraf’s short fiction. Set in contemporary-ish Morocco these stories explore fraught gender and family dynamics, highlighting the insidious nature of misogyny. Within these short stories, women are forced to marry men they don’t love, they are abused or mistreated by male relatives and struggle to retain freedom and independence in a patriarchal society. Many of these stories share a rather bleak outlook as they paint a depressingly realistic picture of domestic abuse and sexism. The men populating these stories are angry, confused, and guilty. They lash out against each other and the women around them. The results are not pretty and there are many upsetting scenes. We also read of how women themselves became perpetrators of misogyny, as mothers go on to police their daughters’ bodies, shaming them for the way they behave in a way they don’t/wouldn’t with their sons. There are also some lgbtq+ themes but these are only touched slightly and the author mostly interrogates heteronormative relationships. While I appreciated the issues Moustadraf explores within these narratives I found the stories unsatisfying. They have very choppy endings and are too short, lasting a few pages or so. The characters become devices through which the author can address and or exemplify a certain issue, and they often failed to convince me as ‘real’ people. There isn’t time dedicated to developing them and the stories consequently suffer from this lack. Also, I would like more variety in tone, subject, and style as many of these stories ended up blurring into each other. Still, I would not dissuade others from reading it and although it didn’t really work for me I found certain aspects of these stories to be thoughtprovoking. Additionally, despite its heavy topics this collection makes for a very quick read.
Previously to reading Thrity Umrigar’s Honor I’d read another novel with the same title and subject matter. Both books make for harrowing reads, however, whereas I found Elif Shafak’s more thoughtful tone to be more appropriate to the subject fitting, here, well, Umrigar’s undermines her social commentary by throwing into the mix a rushed romantic subplot, a series of blatant plot points and coincidences, an abundance of mawkish metaphors, and one too many cartoonish side characters.
At first, I found Umrigar’s Honor to be a rather gripping read as it promised to be an unflinching story tackling honor killings, Islamophobia, discrimination, and misogyny. The novel switches between two perspectives: Smita, an Indian American journalist who left India at a young age after a traumatic experience, and Meena, a Hindu woman who married a Muslim man. Meena has survived an attack that her husband did not. Her brothers, alongside other men from their community, tried to burn her alive. Now Meena and her newborn live with her mother-in-law who is resentful of her, blaming her for her son’s horrific death. Smita is given this story after her colleague is hospitalized. Initially, Smita isn’t too keen on this as she’s very uneasy about returning to India. A friend of her colleague becomes her travel companion. While she’s initially reluctant about his presence she quickly discovers that travelling alone is inadvisable. Smita interviews Meena and learns the details of her vicious attack. She later on also interviews her brothers and a powerful man in their Hindu community. While they deny their involvement it is clear that they were not only responsible but have no remorse about having murdered their sister’s husband and disfigured her. Smita’s feelings towards India are repeatedly challenged by her companion who forces her not to dismiss a whole country on the basis of the actions of some. As Smita witnesses how Meena is treated by her mother-in-law and learns of how she was treated by her brothers, she becomes aware of her the privilege she carries being Indian American. Still, as a woman, she’s also exposed to the misogyny that is rampant in Meena’s community. Umrigar doesn’t paint Smita as a hero and I appreciated that sometimes, even when she’s trying to help someone, her actions do not have the desired consequences. In this way, I was reminded of The Far Field, another novel that is very much about privilege and guilt. I did find Meena’s chapters to be a bit…condescending of her? Her vocabulary also struck me as inconsistent. Her chapters are in English for our eyes only, in reality, she’s speaking a dialect of Marathi, right? So why do her chapters occasionally seem to play up that she’s not well-spoken? Only for then to use complex sentences or allegories that really stood out in comparison to the rest of her narration? I don’t know…it seemed to me that the author was going to great lengths to portray Meena as this ‘simple’ village girl and it kind of annoyed me. Smita also had her fair share of incongruities. For one, she claims to be good at her job yet she behaves really unprofessional. She tells off her companion, Mohan, for getting ‘emotional’ during one interview but she repeatedly does the same thing. She makes some really poor decisions and her line of questioning struck me ineffective. For the majority of the narrative, the author does demonstrate her knowledge and insight into her story’s various subject matters (honor killings, religious conflicts, cultural and class divides). However, I did find her execution soap-operasish. At times her language, as well as her imagery, struck me as hackneyed, for example, “Smita could see the awful, irregular geometry of Meena’s face as past and present, normalcy and deformity, beauty and monstrosity, collided.” I also found it a bit predictable that Smita’s ‘past’, which has made her feel so conflicted about India, echoes in some ways Meena’s situation. The pacing is fairly slow and I did not entirely understand why Meena’s chapters were even included given that, if anything, they made her relationship with her husband seem very rushed and random. The guy basically sees her once or twice while they are working and declares his undying love for her. His naivete about the fact that she’s Hindu and he is Muslim also struck me as a bit…unconvincing. I mean, he isn’t a child nor a hermit who is wholly unaware of his country’s political or social climate. While the hearing’s result did strike me as sadly believable, I did find that section of the narrative somewhat rushed and illogical. Smita’s decision not to do something seemed a clear choice on the author’s part to force her character to feel guilty and haunted, indebted to stay in India. Smita’s relationship with Mohan also rubbed me the wrong way. It seemed a bit insensitive to have it so soon after yet another horrific plot point. The whole finale was corny, extremely so, and I hated how illogical it all was. Even if you have the character point out how ‘crazy’ or ‘insane’ they are by believing that they have just been given a ‘sign’ from above, it still doesn’t make it believable to have that character uphold their lives because of that random sign. The secondary characters were very one-note, the majority of them are horrible, ignorant, or a combination of the two things. Most of the Indian female characters, with the exception of Meena, are really nasty to Smita for no good reason. I didn’t understand the point of her American colleague, Shannon, either. Her translator, Nandini, also served no purpose other than having scenes where Smita thinks her devotion to Shannon is’ weird’, and in a very childish manner wonders whether she’s in love with her. Grow up Smita, ffs. Sadly, while I appreciate that the author has tackled such important issues, I found her storytelling to be too…shall I say, ‘book-clubby’ for my taste. I did like that at the end she makes a point of stating how absurd it is that ‘honor’ killings are referred to as such when there is truly nothing honorable about them.
“She and Mona and I. The three of us: the Sinner, the Believer, the Confused.”
Since I fell in love with Shafak’s The Forty Rules of Love back in 2016, I have made my way through her oeuvre, even her more ‘obscure’ titles such as the overlooked gem that is The Saint of Incipient Insanities. Three Daughters of Eve marks the sixth novel that I’ve read of hers and while it certainly showcases many of her wonderful trademarks—there is a touch of magical realism, a non-linear narrative, tension between past and present, East and West, Turkish politics, a nuanced exploration of faith and modern Muslim identity—it lacked that certain je ne sais quoi that made her other books such compelling reads.
The novel opens in Istanbul where Peri, a married and wealthy woman in her late thirties, is mugged while on the way to a fancy dinner party. Following an altercation with the robber, Peri finds herself thinking back to her time at Oxford University and the part that she played in a ‘scandal’ there. Chapters detailing Peri’s time at this party are interested with ones delving into her childhood and teenage years in the 1980s and 1990s to her time at Oxford. Once at Oxford Peri meets and becomes close to two other girls: Shirin, a free-spirited British-Iranian girl who is bisexual and kind of counterculture, and Mona, who is a Muslim Egyptian American feminist. Peri grows increasingly intrigued by Professor Azur, who teaches divinity and is idolised by many students because and in spite of his ‘allegedly’ unconventional teaching methods. One of the novel’s main preoccupation is that of reconciliation: Peri grew up in a divided household. While her mother was a staunch believer, her father was more of a sceptic. Peri felt torn between their different temperaments and beliefs. At Oxford Peri is still uncertain about her own relationship to her faith, so her fascination with Professor Azur is somewhat understandable. While I liked those early sections focusing on Peri’s childhood I do wish that the narrative could have reached her time at Oxford more quickly. By the time we get to her first interaction with Professor Azur we are about 60% into the novel. And this drawn-out build-up to his character does him no favours. When ‘we’ meet him I was underwhelmed. He was not particularly charming or controversial, and the few scenes he was in gave me a rather limited glimpse of his character. To be honest, I found most of the novel’s central characters to be somewhat clichéd. Peri was not particularly sympathetic, her main characteristic is that of being in a perpetual state of confusion, Shirin was the classical rebel, her bisexuality another sign of her subversive nature, while Mona is the classic studious and kind girl. In the scenes set in the present, during the dinner party, Shafak lampoons the Turkish upper-class, emphasizing their shallowness and pettiness. We don’t learn much about Peri’s husband nor of Peri’s life. Her daughter is the typical annoying angsty teenager who is all the rage in ‘adult’ novels.
Still, while I never warmed to Peri or her story, I still found Shafak’s prose to be lovely and I always appreciate her dynamic portrayal of Istanbul. While I did find the novel’s forays into theological debates relatively interesting these did not quite make up for the two-dimensional characters. I think sticking to the one perspective limited the story and I for one would have much preferred it if the story could have also followed Shirin and Mona, rather than solely focusing on Peri. I also felt somewhat cheated by the supposed friendship between Shirin, Mona, and Peri…as Shafak barely scratches the surface of their relationship. Lastly, the whole ‘scandal’ was painfully obvious (I mean, I had an idea of what it would be from reading the summary but I hoped Shafak would not be so predictable). To be honest, I think that The Saint of Incipient Insanities was a lot more successful in its portrayal of the highs and lows of a disparate group of multicultural university students.
We Are All Birds of Uganda is a debut novel that inspired rather conflicting feelings in me. At first, I enjoyed Hafsa Zayyan’s ability to render her protagonist’s environment. I was not surprised to discover that Zayyan is like her protagonist Sameer a lawyer based in London. Zayyan captures the stressful atmosphere of Sameer’s office, the toll played by his long hours, the benefits of his high wage (he can afford a studio apartment in London), the ambition driving him. Things take a downturn when Sameer, who is possibly in his late twenties, begins to work under Chris. In spite of having been recognized as one of the most promising lawyers of his practice and that he will be part of the team to set up a new office in Singapore, Chris treats him like poorly. Chris takes issue with Sameer fasting on Ramadan and seems to go out of his way to bully Sameer. When Sameer’s colleague, and until then friend, also begins to make remarks about ‘tokenism’ (implying that Sameer only got the Singapore gig because he is South Asian) Sameer feels justly alienated. When someone close to him is the victim of a racially motivated attack Sammer feels all the more lost. In spite of his success as a lawyer his own family refuse to cheer him on his career, wanting him instead to work for the family business. A confused Sameer makes a spur of the moment decision and flies to Uganda, the country his own father and grandfather were forced to flee during the 1970s expulsion of Asians from Uganda. Between Sameer’s chapters are excerpts from letters written by his grandfather to his deceased first wife.
I actually enjoyed the first section of this novel, when the story is focused on Sameer and his life in London. I liked the dynamic he has with his two friends and his experiences at the office felt realistic and believable. I wish that his relationship with his immediate family (particularly his father) had been explored more. As the child of immigrants, Sameer feels not only the pressure to make his family proud but he also wants to fit in with his British peers. The clash between personal freedom and familial obligations was interesting. Alas, his story takes a downward turn when he makes the sudden and kind of out of character choice to go to Uganda. Here the story turns into one that would have been better suited to a movie. Clichè after clichè. Sameer falls in love (of course) with a woman his parents will never approve of (of course). Maybe I would have believed in their romance more if he hadn’t been so rushed. He sees her…and that’s that. The beauty of insta-love! She’s not like other women, he actually doesn’t want to jump in her pants, he loves talking with her, she’s smart, empathetic, and kind (which begs the question, why ever would she go for Sameer?). We even have a scene where she is wearing white and gets wet and he sees her nipples andio mio! Really? The thing is, as much as I loved the author’s description of Uganda (from its culture to its landscapes) her storyline lost all of its initial originality and authenticity. Sameer’s behavior towards and thoughts about women made my skin crawl. The guy is a creep. And that the narrative has to compound his feelings about this woman by making him decline the flirtations of another one..? And of course, this other girl is portrayed as promiscuous and a flirt. He thinks about fucking her but his feelings for the woman he loves are so pure that he decides not to. Wow. How noble.
The grandfather’s chapters were a wasted opportunity. They gave us information about Uganda and the 1970s expulsion of Asians but this information could have been imparted differently. Later on, Sameer comes across his grandfather’s letters and learns more about Ugandan history, so why not insert here those facts that appeared in the grandfather’s chapters? He certainly did not necessitate so many chapters! I never believed in his voice, and couldn’t really visualize him or his relationship with the other characters. His letters were there only for us to be able to learn more about Uganda, which I appreciate but as I said I think this information could have been presented to us in a different way. I understand that family sagas have to have two timelines, but here one of the timelines was limited by its format (that of a letter to a dead person). Also, the grandfather seems to recount a few months and at times years in the span of one letter…which didn’t really make sense. Does he write a letter to his dead wife every couple of years? Filling her in with all that happened since his last letter? And why would he give her information she would have already known?
The more I read the more my enthusiasm for this novel died out. I ended up hating Sameer and the predictable storyline. The relationship between parents/son and brother/sister were sadly undeveloped, sidetracked in favor of a clichèd romance. All in all, I am quite disappointed by this one. The ending too was really grating (it reminded me of The Saint of Incipient Insanities and The Secret of the Grain) and made me want to scream: what was the point of it all?!
Are You Enjoying? reads very much like a debut. While I appreciated the themes Mira Sethi explored in these seven stories, the writing definitely detracted from my overall reading experiences. As collections of short stories go this is a rather forgettable and conventional one.
The setting (Pakistan) and ideas behind each story had potential, for example, in the first one, ‘Mini Apple’, a TV presenter has a ‘dalliance’ with an American woman, who works at the American embassy. While their dynamic had that certain something, the storyline doesn’t do much with it. The second one has very strong #metoo vibes as we follow an aspiring actress who has just landed a good role and catches the attention of the film’s tyrannical director. In another story Sethi writes of a young student who finds purpose after he joins an extremist group. Many of these stories examine topical and interesting topics but Sethi’s execution left much to be desired. The last story in particular, which happens to be the one this collection is titled after, struck me as being a rather lacklustre and superficial take on a toxic relationship. Much of the phrases (“if you look closely, most women have restless eyes”) and imagery in these stories was clichéd (“he spat on the ground: a spray of blood soured in the dust”). The dialogue was clunky so much so that it made the characters seem unrealistic. We have a young man who works in the film industry say that after he uploaded a photo of himself without a shirt “lots of ‘like’ came. Then I was relaxed.” and “So many comments coming on my page”. Something about the way he phrased this didn’t really ‘flow’ (I am aware that others can and will think differently). In another story we get the director characters telling an actress that he “groom” her (surely he would use another word). And then later one we get a story in which a man says the following thing: “Your butt, it’s not a Kardashian yoga ball. It’s just a cute bubble”….what the feck is that even supposed to mean? I also abhorred most of the author’s descriptions, which struck me as either ‘trying’ or nonsensical: “Sex with Asher was liquid, hard, dissolving” , “The gray in Asher’s hair became a mischievous afterthought, like a snaggletooth on a beautiful woman” , “my face flushes red, flushes blue” (what is she, an ambulance?) , “her legs were smooth, as if rubbed with light”, “mopping kabab crumbs from his mouth with the coarse pink tissue wrapped around a bottle of Pepsi” (this unnecessary detail detracted from the actual scene), a “whistle” bounces from someone’s nose, “a brief dip in her wrist sprang into a mound of arm” (wtf?), and last but not least, “her collarbones were so deep they could rock a baby to sleep” (I assume here the collarbones are actually prominent given that the woman in discussion was skinny….).
Anyhow, just because this didn’t work for me does not mean you should not give it a try. I recommend you check out some more positive reviews before making up you mind.
DISCLAIMER: having just come across a 5-star review that says negative reviews should not remark on how this book doesn’t really explore Amir’s faith and/or heritage I felt the need to better articulate my thoughts about this book: 1) I’m not saying this book doesn’t have great Muslim rep because I found it unbelievable that a Muslim mc wouldn’t be thinking about his faith/heritage 24/7 or because the mc is a non-practicing Muslim 2) I do think that this book could have delved deeper into Amir’s relationship to his faith/heritage. Throughout the course of this novel Amir states that being gay is incompatible with being Muslim…and that’s it. He merely reiterates ‘Muslims don’t like gay people’…that strikes me (I am being entirely subjective) as somewhat simplistic. 3) the novel opens with his family being detained at an airport. The author states that he wanted to ‘subvert’ this type of situation but I am not sure he succeeded. Scenes from this ‘interrogation’ are interspersed throughout the novel, and it felt extremely gimmicky and insensitive (treating a serious situation in a very superficial and unconvincing way). 4) I’m not a Muslim so I recommend you read reviews from Muslim users. If you are thinking of reading this book I suggest you check out more positive reviews.
What I can comment on however is Ahmadi’s depiction of Italy and Italians (yes, I’m Italian)…which truly irritated me. Maybe non-Italian readers will be able to overlook the stereotypes in this novel…personally I’m tired of books that portray Italy as a quirky land of Vespas and pasta. Fun fact: Italians don’t just eat pizza and pasta (I know, mind-blowing). Also, why do we always get this quaint image of Italian women hanging their laundry? The Italian characters left much to be desired. There is this Italian couple (the only two Italian guys who actually make more than two or three appearances), possibly in their late twenties, and they are not monogamous. Cool for them, right? Except that they are actually deeply unhappy and they (view spoiler) Then we have a cute Italian guy from Puglia who plays a rather irrelevant role (I guess he’s there so we can have a kiss scene in the Sistine Chapel?). Another Italian character is a guy who works at a bar/restaurant and speaks in a “It’s-a Me, Mario” accent (his supposed all-caps texts to his daughter? Ridiculous).
The story is very rushed. Amir is blackmailed, skips his graduation day, and flies to Rome. Here he manages to get an apartment, even if he’s never been to Rome before nor does he speak Italian. Lucky for him he comes across a group of ‘friends’: some are American, some Italian, most are gay. They invite him out, make him feel more comfortable with his sexuality. He manages to make some ‘illegal’ money by writing Wiki articles, he avoids his parents’ phone calls, and he tries not think about returning to America. Although he’s eighteen, he acts like a young teen, which made some of his encounters with his new ‘friends’ a bit problematic. More disappointing still is the fact that none of these gay couples are actually happy (as most of them seem to resent their partner and/or their friends). What kind of message are the readers supposed to get? Amir has ‘fun’ sort of. He drinks out and goes to parties. But then we ‘realise’ that they are either cruel, uncaring, unforgiving, and/or liars. While a certain positive review calls my review out on this, saying that characters should be allowed to be imperfect, I think they missed the point I was trying to make. I’m all for flawed characters but they have to be somewhat realistic. The characters here don’t ‘change’ or ‘learn’ from their mistakes. They are and remain one-dimensional (we have the closeted jock, the smart younger sister, the ‘motherly’ mother, the distant father). I had the impression that Ahmadi skipped a lot of scenes, so that we had these jumpy transitions in which ‘time passed’ and ‘stuff happened’. The ending felt anticlimactic, angsty for the sake of being angsty (of course we have to have a big fight between our ‘friends’). The interrogation scene predictably amounted to nothing. The writing, the characterisation, the way Italy is portrayed, all leave a lot to be desired (once again: this is my personal opinion).
A Pure Heart’s portrayal of sisterhood is tepid at best.
The needlessly expository narration, the clichéd character dynamics, and the meandering storyline didn’t really grab me at all.
This novel reminded me a lot of The Other Americans and many other titles that seemed aimed at an American audience…so we have these two sisters who don’t get along: one is usually very religious and perceived by the others as conservative; the other one is usually pursuing some sort of academic study, she is thought as ‘unconventional’, she is far more spirited/animated than her sister, and she usually ends up falling in love or marring an American guy.
Maybe I could have looked past the predictability of the story if said story had been told in an engaging or emotionally charged manner…but that wasn’t the case. Here we have very flat storytelling, which provides very little nuance, and attempts to create atmosphere by describing each movement its various characters make (they sit up, they walk here, they walk there, they move their hands, the use their hands to lift objects, their legs move…) and resulting in a slog of a narrative.
There is this one scene in which perhaps the author wanted to juxtapose the tension between a group characters by over-describing all of their actions during their dinner together:
➜ “Rose pulled her hand back. She got up to carry the turkey to the countertop and, after washing her hands, started pulling pieces of meat off its carcass.”
➜ “Ingrid walked up to the cabinet, stretched to reach the box of Ziploc bags.”
➜ “Ingrid asked, taking the plates from Mark and rinsing them before putting them in the dishwasher.”
➜ “Rose glanced at Mark, who was slowly wiping the table, now cleared of plates, with a wet washcloth, his hand going from side to side, again and again, […] Mark wiped the table with a dry cloth, now rubbing it in spots, scraping at it with his thumbnail, making sure every crumb was gone, every inch was glistening,”.
Soon I was tired of reading phrases such as these:
➜ “She did not lift her eyes from her noodles, stabbing them with the fork, turning it to wrap them around its prongs.”
➜ “she opened the fridge, pulled out a cup of fruit yogurt, and ate it standing by the window.”
The non-linearity of the story also served very little purpose. Looking at past events didn’t really provide us with a more in-depth portrayal of the various characters, but rather it made their shallow characterisation all the more glaring. We have the American nice-ish husband who is bland and in spite of his fixation on Egypt he will never quite understand his wife or her country; his douchebag male friend who is the stereotype of the inconsiderate bro-dude American; the eccentric Polish landlady… The story would have benefited from having a narrower scope, giving us an insight into the psychology of the two sisters. This story could have easily been told in a more conventionally linear timeline, giving us time to familiarise ourselves with the two sisters, to see their bond shift and change over the course of their youth.
The last part of book includes the story of a character that should have either been the entire focus of this narrative or merely a ‘backstage’ figure…perhaps the author should have trusted her readers more as she didn’t quite need to cram in a hurried narrative of a hard-working young man who ends up doing an unthinkable act of violence after he experiences hardship after hardship. What could have been an interesting story of sisterhood and belonging ended up becoming a rather trite, and occasionally tacky, narrative that strives to be aesthetic and topical…