A Place for Us came across my desk and into my life suddenly and all at once. What I mean by that is that the book, the author, and the opportunity to interview her (!!) all came to Dallas in one big wave. Stay tuned for a second post with my interview of Fatima Farheen Mirza; read on for my review of her stunning book.
Readers, I ate this book up. In a day, I had laughed, cried, loved, cried and cried again at this beautiful portrayal of a Muslim-American family struggling with culture, love, religion, community, and family. We follow the story through shifting perspectives–from the mother Laila, to the daughter Hadiya, to the son Amar, and finally to the father, Rafiq–and view a lifetime in each of their eyes. The incredible thing is, I immediately and fully connected with and empathized with each and every one of them. Because I knew them. I had known them all my life in the shape of various uncles, aunts, cousins, friends, and family.
The book begins at Hadiya’s wedding; the appearance of her estranged brother Amar immediately creating tension among every member of the family. Drug use and short tempers are hinted at and then the book brings us into the past. The parents and siblings are young and we watch them grow. The book forces us to read on out of sheer curiosity–What led to Amar’s estrangement? A whodunnit of sorts. Something or someone must be the culprit.
We barrel ahead, tensing at every sign of adversity that little Amar faces, much like his parents, thinking, this is it. This is the catalyst to his fall, but he seems to come out of each one a little rougher but mostly ok. There are gaps & skips in Amar’s story and we feel the darkness that fills those empty spaces like we may sometimes feel a presence in our periphery–something we can’t quite place and when faced head-on, it disappears.
We switch perspectives. This time to Hadiya. I watch as the ‘perfect daughter’ persona I have unconsciously dressed her in unravels quietly. She remains an innocent and respectful daughter to her parents and in the eyes of her community, but as she grows and gives herself permission to become something more than what society has prescribed, she struggles with her own rebellions. Amar’s decline effects her deeply and she begins to reflect on her own memories critically, searching for the answer to a question–“What happened?”. Her guilt wraps tightly to a small betrayal from her childhood, a moment of petty jealousy, and rings it steadily like a gong whose vibrations reach into her every memory.
We switch to Laila, Amar’s mother, and closest confidant. We see glimpses of her life as a young girl in India blushing at the thought of the local ice cream man, a quick skim through her introduction to and marriage to Rafiq, and the quiet love that grows between them as they build their life together in America and witness the birth of their children. Then the worry sets in. We watch Hadiya and Amar grow up through Laila’s eyes. We see how sensitive Amar can be to the religious teachings she gives; how deeply he thinks about them. Hadiya’s loving and motherly nature comes naturally and from a young age. Laila does her best to support and protect her children every step of their development but despite her best efforts, we see Amar struggling. Laila’s intentions with her children are never anything but the best, so when she discovers a secret romance between Amar and the daughter of a highly respected family in their community, we hold our collective breath, waiting for her next move. Love is a complicated thing and we feel that acutely in her experience.
We only hear Rafiq’s views in the final act of the book. But, readers, it will rip your heart out. A retrospective letter to his estranged son, Rafiq’s perspective never shows us Rafiq’s life as a kid or a teenager. It begins as a father and ends as an old man, riddled with regrets and questions, perpetually replaying in his internal monologue.
Without ever letting us as readers force any one character into black-and-white, good-or-bad binaries, A Place For Us resists the reader’s urge to deal with the book’s uncomfortable or tragic situations by picking sides. It defies the pull of society to portray or place Muslims in a stereotype, an ‘Other’ category, or a box of any kind.
A Place For Us is shockingly honest. Moments throughout the book would suddenly resonate so strongly with my own internal thoughts that I would feel a visceral pang in my chest–an incredibly emotional feeling of belonging and relief to finally, finally be seen.