By Kasim Ali
4th Estate, UK
British writer Kasim Ali’s Good Intentions was one of the most eagerly awaited novels of 2022, published earlier this year in the United Kingdom. Ali is part of that refreshing change where more novels by young men of colour are emerging, openly exploring issues of race, romance and mental health — a welcome departure from how male writers rarely explore their vulnerabilities.
Good Intentions is a very sensitively and well-written novel about vulnerability and victimhood. The parlance is straightforward to showcase the familiar experiences many may have had, such as dealing with different expectations, prejudices held knowingly or unknowingly and family loyalty, to name a few. It reveals how broad racism can be, regardless of colour or creed. This aspect is explored through the lens of an interracial relationship.
The story revolves around 25-year-old Nur, an online journalist and aspiring writer who leaves his hometown initially for studies, and then for work. He is originally from Birmingham and is of Pakistani heritage — a commonality that he shares with the author.
Nur’s character is portrayed as pleasant and caring, a people-pleaser who suffers from panic attacks, not least when he thinks about introducing his Sudanese girlfriend Yasmina and her family to his parents. Despite the fact that Nur considers her the one he wants to spend the rest of his life with — and is currently living with her — he is frozen with fear at the mere thought of telling his family about Yasmina.
A movingly written and honest novel about how filial ties and embedded prejudice can jeopardise an interracial relationship
Through Nur and Yasmina’s relationship, Ali sheds light on the anti-Blackness rampant in the UK’s South Asian community that not many care to discuss or admit. Generally, with regards to their children’s life partners of a different ethnicity, Muslim South Asian parents tend to place emphasis on religion. However, the colour of the skin is just as important a criteria.
Good Intentions shows how Nur’s almost obsessive dread of being seen with Yasmina in his hometown stems from the fact that his mother had expressed disgust when she once saw her son in the company of a black girl at school. His anxiety about disclosing his relationship with a dark-skinned Sudanese girl reveals the hypocrisy existing within the South Asian Muslim community.
The story starts at the end, which may lead readers into thinking they know the ending. Yet the clever storytelling doesn’t deter the reader’s curiosity to find out what transpired earlier. It begins with Nur on New Year’s Eve 2018, when he finally musters up the courage to tell his family about Yasmina, having hidden his relationship from them for four years.
This is in contrast to Yasmina, whose Sudanese Muslim parents have already accepted Nur — and the fact that Yasmina is living with him — ever since the couple graduated from university. Yasmina’s frustration and anger at Nur’s hesitancy makes him reflect. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a minority, you still live and operate within a centuries-old hierarchy,” he concludes.
This nuance of racism is highlighted with an incident that takes place in 2016. Nur invites Yasmina to his hometown of Birmingham, but is immediately engulfed in paranoia that a family member might spot him, thus ruining his image of a good son. This fear reflects in his changed behaviour towards Yasmina, who angrily questions him: “Paranoid that someone might see your Black girlfriend?” Nur is forced to admit his racism, in that he had “never considered the nuances of racism, how insidious it is, how it operates across the spectrum, rearing different heads to different people.”
The story moves back and forth episodically between two timelines, one set in 2014 and the other during 2019. Split timelines can sometimes be cumbersome and confusing for the reader to flit across, but Ali deploys this method masterfully. If anything, it helps the reader recognise the significant moments when Nur could have made an alternative choice, that might have sent him on a completely different trajectory in life.
As the story progresses, Nur’s character starts to develop more complex aspects when he is shown to have mental health issues. He has self-harmed in the past and has regular feelings of loneliness despite his romantic relationships and his other close friendships. A friend accuses him of being “self-involved” and unable to see beyond his insecurities despite his “good intentions.” The book’s running theme is Nur’s perpetual fear of his family’s — especially his parents’ — reaction because, although Yasmina is Muslim just like him, he is convinced his parents will react in a racist manner towards her because she is black.
In many immigrant households, there still exists a yawning inter-generational chasm between parents and their children which, in this story, Nur seems to recognise. Certainly this can be the case with many families regardless of their heritage, but the disconnect is sometimes more pronounced in immigrant families. And it is this disconnect that readers, especially those in Nur’s camp, can empathise with.
“If you had the option of not being white, of being brown or Black or whatever, you wouldn’t want to do it … Because at the end of the day, your fresh-snow-white skin means that you get to walk around without having some white woman cross the street to get away from you, clutching her bag a little tighter because she thinks you’re going to rob her, without having a security guard follow you through a shop because he thinks you’re going to steal something, or being searched at the airport because you look like this.” — Excerpt from the book
Good Intentions is written with immense honesty that endears readers to the characters, makes us trust them and have strong and impassioned opinions about them. The author’s realistic depiction of Nur, in particular, skilfully shows different aspects of the character’s personality. On the one hand, he is helplessly trapped in a hopeless situation; on the other, his overdeveloped persecution complex tends to take over.
I attended a book club for this novel, with the author present. The attendance was impressive, as were the generally enthusiastic views centred on the book’s main characters, although it was very clear that the audience was divided into two opposing camps. One was very understanding of Nur’s dilemma, the other frustrated by his inertia and empathetic towards Yasmina, and both harboured strong sentiments in equal measure.
Both camps had definitive views and this illustrated how thought-provoking a novel Good Intentions is. Notwithstanding spoilers for those who hadn’t finished reading the book, or hadn’t read it all at that stage, the animated discussion spoke volumes about a debut that came so obviously from a place of genuine fondness for its characters.
Further making Good Intentions a very intimate tale is the fact that Ali doesn’t bring into the story the seismic social and political changes occurring in Britain during the book’s time periods. Instead, the characters engage in regular, everyday conversations that the author incorporates effortlessly into the narrative. It is almost as if the interactions are playing out in front of the reader’s eyes in real time.
Of late, many writers and publishers have ensured that words belonging to a language other than English are not italicised, to show inclusivity and to prevent ‘othering’ another language. Such is the case here, too. The Urdu words Ali includes in the text are not italicised and both languages are used seamlessly. For dialogues, in particular, this maintains the flow, which adds to the organic and realistic nature of the conversations.
Good Intentions may be described as a story geared more towards younger readers, as the protagonists are 20-something, but the themes are universal and relatable for people of all ages to enjoy. The title both defines and questions the main protagonist’s actual intentions and the book’s themes deal with many aspects of modern life, such as self-identity, colourism and intersectionality.
It’s a movingly written romance about how filial loyalty/ ties and concepts of race may complicate or jeopardise romance, even when everyone’s intentions are well-meaning.
The reviewer is a freelance journalist.
She tweets @SadiaKhan10
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 20th, 2022