Amna grew up in one of the biggest cities in Pakistan, Rawalpindi, and now lives in Newark, New Jersey. In her 2019 essay “Your Tongue Is Still Yours,” which won the Financial Times/Bodley Head Essay Prize, Amna writes: “Language is a viable carry-on. Unlike festivals or elections, it can go with you wherever you go. I have brined myself in Urdu for enough years that it will not wash away, even in America.” In American Fever, she uses language to communicate more than the words say: the English prose sparkles with Urdu and Hindi words, as Amna conveys the pathos of the very young and newly alone Hira. The story casts a delicious spell, the reader torn between wanting to finish the book in one go and reading more slowly, more deeply.
As the story opens, Hira, heedless of class and cultural differences, is ready to depart to the United States on a scholarship. But her thoughts convey a sense of guilt: “[W]e were young and hungry in a place full of young and hungry people, so anytime one of us did do fine — like when I got the US scholarship — it felt like a betrayal.” As an upwardly mobile Indian woman in my early thirties, I too have at times felt this searing sense of betrayal: it is often painfully lonely to be the one who always wants more. And this is what Amna’s novel is essentially about.
American Fever sketches an authentically detailed snapshot of a Pakistani girl’s life in a rural American town, powerfully capturing the experience of being a young, confused desi in “the States.” Familial pressures, cultural stereotypes, and the challenges involved in climbing the social ladder are given a fresh dramatic weight. Amna renders keenly and vividly the pressures and sense of flux confronting a first-generation South Asian woman in the United States. In its treatment of this theme, American Fever is reminiscent of Sarah Thankam Mathews’s All This Could Be Different (another debut novel released this August) and could also be a distant cousin of Jhumpa Lahiri’s fiction.
Before moving to the United States, Hira is a sincere student who wants to be challenged because the exams in her school feel “insultingly easy.” She is driven by a strange yearning, a restlessness to explore the unknown. Easily dissatisfied, Hira is on edge with her Rawalpindi friends: hesitant, holding herself back, unable to fully understand them or herself. Her sense of isolation and loneliness is compounded with introversion. Sometimes, even she doesn’t fully comprehend why she is the odd one out.
When she announces that she’ll be leaving for the United States on a scholarship, her friends are quick to mock her. “It must be very expensive for your parents,” one quips. “I’m surprised they can afford it.” Instead of offering a stinging riposte, Hira merely says, meekly, “It’s fully funded.” It is almost as if she is ashamed of leaving her friends, her family, her country. She wants to do better, to aim higher, but she fears being thought of as too ambitious, overzealous, perhaps even thankless. Hira’s guilt, then, is not unfounded. Though she knows that she will miss her friends, Hira is nonetheless “eager to leave them all behind.”
In her new land, Hira is always bargaining her way through unexpected friction but also discovering a fresh sense of belonging. She goes from being eager to leave “Pindi” to understanding the “gaping wideness of such distance, the impossibility of returning home on a whim.” As she experiences a range of new things, she has to keep telling herself to stop relating them to her Pakistani past, “that not everything was a slanted version of that thing I remembered from home.”
Soon she befriends Hamid, a Muslim exchange student, while periodically chatting with her parents on the phone. When Ali, a family friend living in New York, becomes friends with her on Facebook, she feels an emotional rush but disguises her romantic frisson in the bond of friendship. A surprisingly blunt attitude is Hira’s general demeanor, which often antagonizes her American friends. Her sometimes immature revolts are part and parcel of an understandable urge to assert a sense of identity in a foreign land.
Hira is just beginning to adjust to the challenges of this new place when she is diagnosed with tuberculosis. On mandatory isolation, she finds herself alone all over again. Her heart aches for home, but she’s also equally torn at the prospect of not being in the United States. Amna’s empathic writing captures Hira’s aching search for a soulful home, with vivid descriptions of the beauty of the Pacific Northwest.
American Fever firmly puts Amna on the literary map as a sharp young voice to look out for. Its striking cast of characters, both Pakistani and American, stand out in their pugnacious individuality, and its potent themes are woven through the story with genuine subtlety. Though it shows that first-generation immigrants may never be fully free to chase their dreams, there will always be some, like Hira, who never forget where they came from, and why they left. The book is a quiet triumph.
Anandi Mishra is an essayist and critic who has worked as a reporter for The Times of India and The Hindu. She lives in Delhi and writes about it in her newsletter Scurf. Her essays and reviews have appeared in The Atlantic, Public Books, Electric Literature, LitHub, Virginia Quarterly Review, Popula, The Brooklyn Rail, and Al Jazeera, among others. She tweets at @anandi010.