By Dur e Aziz Amna
I have been a fan of Dur e Aziz Amna’s work since reading her 2019 Bodley Head/Financial Times Essay Prize-winning ‘Your Tongue is Still Yours’ and, more recently, her essay in The New York Times titled ‘Writing Into and Out of My Long-Distance Grief’, about mourning her uncle who died during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.
When I read her, it struck me clearly that I was reading a truly talented new voice from Pakistan, one that didn’t mimic what came before it, but stood out in its own unique way of seeing the world.
Amna’s debut novel, American Fever, is no different. The book is a fictionalisation of her own experience of the year she spent in Oregon as part of a student exchange programme, aimed at bringing in students from Muslim majority countries to the United States.
Thus, while originality may not be what you would expect from a tale about a Pakistani girl who goes to America for the first time, the novelty lies in the author’s unique way of looking at things. Hers is a voice that had me hooked from the beginning.
A debut novel is an unfailingly honest coming-of-age story which examines adolescence, family, home and religion, all the while filled with insight and plenty of humour
In this coming-of-age story — that examines adolescence, family, home and religion, all the while filled with insight and plenty of humour — teenager Hira from Pindi travels to rural Oregon for a year-long student exchange programme. “At 16, I was tired of limits, aghast that life could be so small. Tired of the same girls I had known all my life, girls who called their periods their ‘visitors’… who didn’t know, didn’t desire to know, how powerful and clever and beautiful they were, who had already decided on the low, petty ceilings of their limits.”
What I love most about Hira is her unfailing honesty and refusal to sugarcoat either Pakistan or America. No one is free from her whip-smart, sometimes harsh, judgement; not her own parents and friends, not the white community she lives with, nor the Pakistani diaspora she meets. In Hira, Amna portrays the perfect combination of arrogance and confusion that is the hallmark of intelligent teenagers.
It’s not a typical immigrant story, though, because Hira is visiting and it is clear that she intends to go back. For this reason, Hira’s examination of rural Oregon seems almost anthropological. This is one of many reversals of stereotypical tropes that one witnesses in the book because, usually, the anthropologist is a white person in a brown world.
Another reversal is how the story highlights class. Hira is not rich, but she comes from a comfortable life of privilege in a house with staff to cook and clean for her. When she arrives in Oregon, one of the first things she notices is how poor the community there is. “Why had I been placed in the Chichawatni of America?” she asks. “Americans didn’t even acknowledge class, thought of it as a quaint concept from other parts of the world, like yoga or turmeric.”
Her host mother, Kelly, is a kind and well-meaning woman. As a single working parent to a teenage daughter, Kelly doesn’t have time to put together meals, so Hira must cook her own. Thus, while her friends, who have been placed in wealthy suburban communities around big cities on the East coast, pack on the pounds, Hira becomes skinnier.
And this leads to the greatest irony of all: her malnourishment in America. A country believed to be the land of plenty leads to a tuberculosis diagnosis, the unexpected consequences of which dominate the novel’s second half.
Amna’s greatest skill as a writer is in complicating our expectations and emotions about what we are reading. Even though Hira often sees the world in black-and-white — as many teenagers tend to do — the narrative is told from the point of view of an older Hira.
It is in this interaction between teenage Hira, who is living out the events in the novel’s timeline, and the older Hira, who is narrating the story in retrospect, and the resulting confusion and contradictions, that the strength of the novel lies.
I found myself wanting to know more about older Hira. Where did she end up? Where is she writing from? But that is never revealed. In an interview with the Canada-based Brown History Podcast, Amna says this was intentional, “because the book is so much about the ambiguity of home and leaving home and whether you can ever return, giving a clear answer takes away from the reader’s imagination.”
Hira is also irritated by her host mother’s certainty in the way Kelly describes her own mother’s immigration from Hamburg, Germany, to the US. “My mother tells me that the first time she returned to Hamburg, she cried every morning for California … She is much happier here,” Kelly says. Hira sees this as a neat narrative that mothers often create for their children, “flimsy accounts of a one-way movement they then begin to internalise.”
She muses: “A lie told often enough becomes the truth. And perhaps these accounts are not lies, but simply omissions that elide over how home is forever that other place, the first one to drive you to despair … It is the sole landscape of dreams, the only place that will ever convince you that its failings, its bounties, its excesses and caresses are all your own. After all, where does it end and you begin?”
The writing in American Fever is completely engrossing and ended my reading slump. Amna’s prose moves along quickly and Hira’s appraisal of the people and places she encounters is sharp and untarnished by tact. At times, her wit and judgement land like the crack of a whip and leave you both laughing and uncomfortable.
The parts set in America are funny and acutely observed, for instance, when she befriends a fellow exchange student from Oman. Unlike Hira, this person chooses to deal with his classmates’ racism with humour: “If only they knew the biggest terrorist in Oman is my mother.”
However, the scenes I love most are Hira’s descriptions of her life at home, in Pindi and in Multan, vividly described down to the bars of Imperial Leather soap in the bathrooms.
A particularly poignant scene has Hira sitting in the rain, drinking chai with her family on her last day in Pakistan: “I was missing a moment that had not yet passed, and knew, as one sometimes does, that I would cling forever to that scene beneath the tree.
“There we are, sitting with teacups so old they are no longer white, in a yard that smells of sated earth and fried coriander. What of tomorrow? Perhaps if you imagine a moment long enough, it begins to exist outside of time. The chai is always pouring. The tree never dies. It is raining forever.”
The nuance with which Amna describes Hira’s relationship with her parents also stands out. She skilfully sketches the complicated love that exists between parents and children, especially between the kind of Pakistani parents who must balance their love for their children with firmly ingrained expectations of how their children must be, and fear for how factors beyond their control will shape them.
The one thing I was expecting from the novel that didn’t come was some kind of climax, some point of arrival for everything that was being described. Perhaps, like the ambiguity around where Hira ends up, this is intentional, too.
Perhaps the point is that some people don’t really change. Instead, they return from their journeys the same as they always were. Maybe this literary trope is another American tradition that Hira rejects: that of a heroine leaving home and returning transformed by her experiences, or not returning at all.
In Amna’s words: “Perhaps you leave to find out what doesn’t change, the discontent and itch are constant. You move only to discover, amidst the waiting and the hoping, and the dashing of that hope, that there is only one place the boat will dock. Wherever you go, there you are.”
The reviewer is founder of The Writing Room and talks about books on Instagram @thewritingroom.co
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 11th, 2022