Tuesday 12 September 2023

Book Review: American Fever

I first heard of Dur e Aziz Amna when her essay 'Your Tongue is Still Yours' won a prize from The Financial Times (FT). I ended up subscribing to the FT for a few months because I wanted to read the whole thing and there was a paywall. It felt poignant because the day I started reading it, I was at a Christmas party in a small Texas town, with no other brown people in attendance. The essay interrogated and mused upon what happens to our ancestral language when we move abroad, a topic close to my heart. I grew up in a Punjabi household where Punjabi was reserved for speaking with house help and among my parents and relatives but never with the children. I learned Punjabi when I went off to boarding school, hundreds of miles away from my home. I remember being taught English throughout my school years, with extra coaching during summer and winter holidays. When someone in the US or elsewhere asks me how do I know English so well, it is hard to explain to them that it is as much my language as it is theirs. 

When I read on Twitter that Dur e Aziz Amna's novel was arriving a certain date, I bookmarked it in anticipation and bought a paperback as soon as it was available. It remained on my bedside table for a few months as I read it intermittently. I started off at a faster pace but there were so many resonances with my own experience that my mind would race and I would find it hard to sleep (I read the book almost exclusively before sleep), so I slowed down. Roughly, it is the story of a teenager from Rawalpindi, Pakistan, who arrives in the United States as an exchange student for a school year. My experience was visiting the United States for the first time as an exchange visitor when I was 26 and I only stayed for a month, so not exactly the same. 'Hira' ends up in Eugene, Oregon while I traveled with my peers to major cities. Here's my review and some related thought while reading the book.

The opening sequence is dramatic, with our protagonist coughing up blood and being taken to the hospital by their host mother. While the author doesn’t describe at the outset as to what caused this illness, any medical student can tell that she was referring to having Tuberculosis (TB) which is very common in Pakistan and not so common in the United States. There’s the innocence of being an adolescent girl in Pakistan (Hira) , grinding between a changing body and the ‘modesty’ culture, even mention of the infamous ‘route’ in Rawalpindi, which meant all traffic coming to a halt to give way to a senior politician or general.

I was familiar with what happens when you get a chance to spend time in the US on a fully funded scholarship. I had seen and heard some of my peers getting envious. I had felt the hesitance in my parents, I had even heard the same words as the protagonist, “will we lose you?” but not from my parents but by my then-fiancee who called me the night before departure, in tears. I couldn’t fathom why she was saying that or why she was crying and thought of it as an overreaction at the time (the “engagement” didn’t last, but that’s a story for another time).  

I am also, eerily familiar with the protagonist’s actions to Islamize herself (instead of doing the hijab, I almost joined the Tablighi jamaat and was very active in the mosque) as a way to distinguish yourself and gain some clout in the school. During the program orientation, the protagonist learns about doing chores in the U.S. I faced a similar cultural shock when I had to first do chores in a shared apartment and eventually it became part of life.

I am also familiar with the complex interplay between Hira’s parents and how they treated her, her mother acting as the voice of her father. There is subtle humor in there, some of it from Hira, some from her parents or other characters, often spontaneous.

The TB diagnosis is hinted at, while she is still in Pakistan, but not fleshed out. From the description, it sounds like she got latent TB, which is quite common in Pakistan. I highly object to her line “flying emirates wasn’t ideal, British airlines would have been better” based on recent experience on both. I could empathize with her feelings when she arrives at her host parent’s house, “the gaping wideness of such distance, the impossibility of returning home on a whim”. I felt that when I first went to boarding school, hundreds of miles away from home, as a 13-year-old.

Reading the book reminded me of my fresh-off-the-boat days as well, when I impulsively compared everything to ‘back home’. I never had to be in a locker-room in the US (or elsewhere) so I didn’t know the feeling of shame when people change clothes in front of you. During my boarding school days, we didn’t have a lot of places to do that so many of us will fold a towel around our waist before stripping down. Maybe not on my initial visits but since moving here, I have definitely met Americans who  “could talk so much, and without such little reciprocation required”.

The sneaky wine-discovery scene made me laugh out loud. Hira exclaims to her host sister, who had snuck some boxed red wine, “its not sweet”! My first wine tasting was in Turkey on a vineyard and I had similar feelings. And the “how is your English so good” comments still continue, more than six years since I moved here. I rarely answer those anymore, having tried in earnest at times, using sarcasm at other times. Hira’s little posse of exchange students at the high school and their amazement/disdain at the Americans reminded me of being in Texas for a visitor position at a cancer hospital. I met some Chinese exchange students there and we gathered more ‘foreigners’, having lunch together and all the translated gossip.

There’s a bit about Hira opining that while there are no simple words like ‘I love you’ in Urdu to express love, “there are so many words, so many proofs — just no quotidian three-word ellipsis..”. While I agree that there are no direct comparisons, I personally think the idea of ‘romance’ in Urdu, specially in Urdu poetry (but also prose) is frequently what we now call ‘toxic’. But that’s another debate for another time. 

Overall, the story flows well and the prose is easy to digest. The affect was bland. I did not like the book as much as Amna's previous work. Maybe because the book did not meet the high expectations set by the anticipation for the book. There will inevitably be rave reviews in "western" newspapers and magazines about the book, and I don't envy that. Good for her.


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