JULY 12, 2019
FATIMA FARHEEN MIRZA’S book A Place for Us follows the experience of a devout Shia Muslim Indian family in Northern California, post-9/11. So much of the story can already be deduced from that premise: the trials and tribulations of a being a significantly marginalized, if not demonized minority attempting to coexist with those who label them “others.” The book erratically shifts through time, and Mirza does this with mastery. The narrative functions very much like memory, and we travel between significant moments, often returning to them with new details and a deeper understanding.
Mirza’s strongest point as an author is her ability to reveal the heart, the pain, and the suffering in the simple day-to-day experiences of family life. Amar, the youngest child and the son within this family, falls in love with Amira, the daughter of a respected and influential family within the Muslim community. The relationship between these two characters is deftly written, capturing both the catastrophic magnitude of their young love and the terror of that prohibited connection, as the two do not have permission to speak to one another, let alone pursue a romantic relationship. In fact, post–Fifty Shades of Grey, it is magnificent to read about attraction and desire through the lens of what is forbidden. That very prohibition magnifies the power of sexual attraction, so that when the two meet secretly in a hotel hallway during a wedding simply to talk, we read with bated breath. Likewise, Mirza beautifully writes the moment the mother attends a parent-teacher conference for her son Amar, and sees, through her son’s eyes, her own beauty. It is also her son who later goads her into rolling up the hem of her pants in order to step into a creek. It is an exquisite moment, this transgression of modesty, when the mother is lured by her son to experience the world more freely.
What is most intriguing in this book is the final section, where the father, who has been a stock character thus far, becomes human. What we see in the first three quarters of the book is the father rigidly adhering to the tenets of his faith and culture. He is angry, obtuse, overbearing. In essence, the very stereotype of the Muslim patriarch. The father is the crux of the family’s troubles: his commitment to religious rules stifles his daughters’ lives, and his emotional absence in both his children’s and his wife’s lives leads to the demise of the most vulnerable member of that family, his son. It is almost as though the final section of the book is the defendant’s plea before judgment. And Mirza does an excellent job of fully sketching out the nuances of his parental failures. This man, old now and a grandparent, looks back at all the events in the book, and pleads his case, speaks of his regrets, his misunderstandings, the way he was misunderstood, his guilt and his hopes. This final section of the book captures the utter heartache of parenting. And parenting, in this context, is a bit more difficult in that the home life does not correlate with the life outside of the home. In fact, the life within the home is at odds, constantly, with the morals of the world outside. While Mirza writes much of the book in close third-person perspective, the last part of the book shifts suddenly to first person, as told by the father, and perhaps it is this intimate voice that finally invites the reader to fully feel this world, to be a part of it, rather than a tourist passing through.
What slows down Mirza’s narrative, for the first three quarters of the book, is a pedantic listing of cultural markers. Mirza often muddies the story by becoming tour guide rather than storyteller. She will describe the food, when neither the pacing of the scene nor the plot of the story benefits from us knowing how to make mango lassi. The wedding scene, where much of the story’s climactic elements occur, is often slowed down by the step-by-step replay of Shia Muslim wedding rituals. These descriptions serve solely to introduce unacquainted readers to this culture. If you happen to be familiar with the culture, then even the “exotic” element is lost and you are left struggling to turn the page.
I do not blame Mirza alone for this decision. She is writing for an audience that has not been exposed to the world of devout Shia Muslims, and so that audience will have questions. However, is it the job of the author to also provide a travel guide within a work of literary fiction, at the expense of the story? Years ago, in Iran, I was helping a friend translate a poem by Bukowski into Farsi, and we could not find a word in our language for hominy. It doesn’t exist, not the word, not the food. Bukowski used it, none the less. He did not stop to ask himself if his audience is familiar with hominy. Likewise, do we need to know the details of the samosa and mint sauce to get at the human heart? Does that enrich our understanding of the characters? Junot Díaz in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao unapologetically writes entire paragraphs in Spanish. It is not his responsibility, as author, to translate for his audience if they are unfamiliar with the culture or the language. Díaz’s sole responsibility is to create a world for us to inhabit, to lose ourselves in. Certainly, our understanding of the story would be deeper if we could follow the Spanish dialogue and were familiar with the culture, but that is upon the reader.
Mirza’s book is difficult to read because she assumes the dominant culture as her audience and feels the urgency to explain to them her characters’ “otherness.” The story slows precisely because she describes the sights, the colorful costumes, the exotic foods, the mannerisms, as though she were writing about Martians. Perhaps if more books about Shia Muslim Americans were out there, Mirza could trust her reader to follow without stopping to constantly explain the external differences from the so-called Western “norm.” But as is, these digressions only hamper her talent and impede her ability to tell the story that matters.