Struggling with Identity | Literacy

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Before I started reading Dur e Aziz Amna’s first novel, I assumed the title should be taken as a positive reference to America. A fever, after all, can make things clearer for the person who contracts it. Fevers can lead to insight, even the narrator says so at one point. I didn’t think of an American fever like the Chinese or South African strains of Covid-19, where the name of the country supposedly adds a glint of fear to the disease. Oriental fevers are putrid but an American fever must be good, I thought.

At some point in the novel, the protagonist, Hira Amjad, contracts tuberculosis and there is much discussion about whether Pakistan or America is to blame for the disease. The book jacket will guide you through the series of encounters and experiences a young Pakistani exchange student in America has over the course of the novel: a first kiss, American country life, distant heartbreak, a culture shock, dietary challenges and a moral and spiritual crisis.

And yes, there is something feverish about storytelling, about the way the narrator guides us from moment to moment at times and through summarized accounts of significant experiences at others. At Homer Odyssey, Ulysses, who himself is on a long journey away from his home in Ithaca through foreign soil, says again and again: Is this happening to me or is this a dream? It may be the fate of anyone who leaves their homeland to wonder if what is happening to them is real or a fever dream.

But don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing vague or imprecise about the sensory details here. The storytelling is infused with the kind of realism that celebrates small anecdotes from Hira’s life. The American model wears a flag-print bikini on the full page of the 1999 Guinness Book of World Records. The girls’ school Hira attends in Rawalpindi, where the school uniform becomes a marker of privilege as well as patriarchal control. The Rawalpindi where Hira grew up, the country house in Multan where she granny lives, the Karachi she visits briefly as part of an orientation organized by her exchange program. The language here is calibrated and cautious. At the same time, it is the voice, this inexplicable and mysterious artisanal element that is constantly abused and fetishized in fiction workshops, which really takes hold of you, an authentic voice. Page after page, the voice drives this novel forward.

What I like best about this novel is that it favors the Pakistani perspective, without ever trying to translate it, over the American gaze. In fact, most of the novel seems to be at war with the American way of seeing things. A sports war, certainly. When I started reading the novel, I was afraid it might veer – like many novels by Pakistanis about their experiences abroad – into an arc where a self is forged to align or appease Western values ​​or ways of looking at things. What a pleasure it was to see here the peculiar and mundane minutiae of Pakistani life privileged at every encounter. That’s not to say that this fiction is an exercise in watering down the realities of Pakistan and what it means to be a Pakistani. But wherever Hira goes, Pakistan seems to go with him. It’s a living, breathing, complex self that she grapples with, not a watered-down version of the Pakistani served up, so it’s acceptable to a Western audience. Here is a novel written by a sympathizer, someone whose allegiances lie with her people, who is willing to continue watching them unwaveringly despite all other promptings – one of ours.

This is a novel where the protagonist leaves her homeland and forever mourns all she left behind. The grief begins to affect all aspects of his life.

An iteration of this sensibility and framing can be seen in the depiction of the murder of Osama bin Laden. Near the end of the novel, the protagonist returns home after completing her exchange program early and receives the news via text message from her friends. Amna resists the urge to make the OBL murder more important than it is to the sixteen-year-old Pakistani high school student. Hira almost ignores the event, in this scene. No heavy-handed and misguided attempt is made to make the event transformative for Hira.

In fact, most of the novel’s drama takes place between the three women sharing the confined domestic spaces of Hira’s foster family residence in Lakeview, Oregon: Hira triggers the smoke detector while frying Parathait is for her sehri, Hira asks her foster mother, Kelly, to take her to the emergency room the day after Kelly’s wedding. Kelly and her daughter, Amy, are layered as characters, their stories slowly developing against the backdrop of Hira’s ongoing spiritual crisis. The tension between Hira and Kelly is artfully expanded as the narrative progresses and becomes a fierce undercurrent at times, then turns into moments of comic relief at others. There’s a lot of humor in the novel full of cultural misunderstandings and unintended microaggressions. Kelly is the well-meaning liberal American, an Obama supporter in a conservative town, a former hippie, who now finds solace in the church. When Kelly tells Hira that she can’t be expected to cook meals for the girls, Hira wonders why Kelly signed up to host a Pakistani student. This question becomes a recurring one: at another point, Hira wonders why Kelly didn’t bother to learn even basic things about Pakistani culture before Hira’s arrival. But Kelly is not Mrs Jellyby, the famous caricature of Dickens who engages in telescopic philanthropy. There are times in the novel where the reader sympathizes with Kelly as she struggles to care for two teenage girls.

When I teach creative writing to undergraduates, I tell them that most love stories follow a few familiar arcs. A protagonist separated from his beloved by circumstances sees her face everywhere. The trees, the food, the people they meet, the stories they hear, the voices and songs of the new place all evoke their loved one. This is not a novel that tries to understand America in a new way, or where the protagonist travels to a foreign land and discovers how backward his own country is or how he can assimilate to the new. It is a novel where the protagonist leaves his homeland and forever mourns all he left behind. The grief begins to affect all aspects of their lives.

When I finished reading the novel, I was filled with gratitude to have found this brilliant voice from our country early in her career. I look forward to following his writing journey in the years to come. I am also teaching him fiction in my classes this year. Dur e Aziz Amna is a writer every Pakistani should read. American fever combines the classic elements of coming-of-age stories with a layered, intelligent discourse on identity and individuality. The prose is constructed in that steely, fast-paced way that you’d think Amna had been writing novels all her life. It is one of the rare beginnings where one feels, as Saul Bellow said about Roth, that the writer is not a beginner but already a virtuoso.

American fever

By Dur e Aziz Amna

Publisher: Arcade (Simon and

Schuster)

Pages: 288


The Examiner holds an MFA from Purdue University and a Ph.D. from Florida State University. He can be contacted on Twitter @MunibAhmadKhan


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