All My Rage
By Sabaa Tahir
Razorbill, US
ISBN: 978-0593202340
384pp.

Death, defiance and self-destructive behaviour are only a few of the numerous themes that Pakistani American writer Sabaa Tahir delves into in her most recent novel All My Rage, which recently won the United States’s National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.

The story follows childhood friends Salahuddin and Noor, who are pulled apart for the same reason they were thrown together in the first place: their identities. Raised in America, the teenagers are subjected to discrimination from their peers because of their beliefs, background and the colour of their skin.

The potent formula of judgement, comprising jealousy, ruthlessness and comparison, is a form of exclusion designed to keep out people whose physical, emotional and mental states do not align with a singular ideology defining ‘proper’ human behaviour.

Salahuddin and Noor have their own personal traumas and are blind to the possibility of them being the solution to each other’s problems, making their story a vivid and thought-provoking interpretation of how surviving in a world rigged against you means choosing between yourself and the people you care about.

A poignant novel presents a fresh take on the socio-political facets of life for brown youth in America and explores discrimination, mental health, grief, sense of obligation and the dynamics of difference

Whereas many stories often end with the death of an integral character, All My Rage begins with one. Salahuddin’s mother suffers from an advanced kidney disease and can’t afford treatment because of her husband’s alcoholism and the dwindling state of her business. Her eventual death drives the tone of the rest of the story.

Grieving death is an accepted norm, but grieving life is an unconventional idea that the writer portrays magnificently. Having lost her parents and being raised by a spiteful uncle, Noor mourns the life she could have had by keeping a tight grip on the physical manifestations of her identity, carrying her personal belongings with her everywhere and hoping that college will be her escape.

Through Noor’s paranoia and trauma from her uncle’s physical and emotional abuse, the author describes grief as an animal; it stalks us, attacks us, mauls and consumes us. Coping mechanisms are only effective to an extent.

Another important topic examined is dependency and a sense of obligation. Feeling indebted to someone leads us to believe they have the right to treat us as they see fit. We allow them to take their anger out on us, blame us, perhaps even do away with us entirely. The writer’s artful handling of such a sensitive matter is truly admirable, as, instead of colouring the strained relationship between Salahuddin and his father with violence, she considers the cause and consequences of living with a detached father by narrating the past and present side-by-side.

Discrimination, mental health and psychological abuse are some of today’s most widely debated topics. Tahir puts her own twist on them by using circumstance to delve into the experience of people forced into surviving the worst that the world has to offer. She explores the idea of how the threat of someone considered ‘different’ — maybe because they’re better than us — can bring out the worst in people, especially in an environment riddled with prejudice and competition.

She also explores how the desire to change our situation can often be far stronger than learning how to cope with it, because we think it’s easier to run away from a problem rather than deal with it head on.

This is a misconception, because the only way to get out is to get through and this is especially applicable to circumstances over which we have no or little control. Salahuddin and Noor come to a joint realisation of this while analysing a poem: “Loss can be good. It can save you. The more you lose, the better you get at it. The better you get, the less it hurts.”

In making a point to show, not tell, the author gives details which seem minute and ordinary at first glance, but later become a core part of the plot. She shows how necessity leads to the loosening of morals, which leads to waywardness, which leads to consequences — easier to accept for one who has nothing left to fight for, but particularly unbearable when they befall someone close to us.

Taking precedence in the novel is the rawness of reality. The sad truth is that, once someone leaves us, we must move on. Keeping reminders doesn’t bring them back, or make their loss any less bearable. It only makes our own lives harder.

This becomes apparent with Salahuddin’s narration of his inner turmoil: “Above, the sky is murky from all the dust the wind’s stirred up, and I search the haze for even a single star. But there’s nothing, so I give up and go in to the father I don’t know how to talk to and the pictures I don’t know how to look at and the bills I don’t know how to pay.”

Aided by the fact that there is no distinct hero in her book, Tahir indirectly addresses the concept that perfection is a delusion. A ‘hero’ is often depicted as flawless, but Salahuddin does not conform to this standard characterisation. His actions sharply contrast his morals and his character development is heavily based on guilt.

Noor is no paragon either, and the author makes it clear that, as individuals, both Noor and Salahuddin are deeply flawed, as is their friendship and mutual admiration for one another.

The novel is a good example of how modern Pakistani Anglophone literature has progressed over the years. It uses the absence of intimacy in the lives of two lonely and distraught adolescents to make apparent the basic human need for it. It presents a fresh take on the socio-political facets of life as a struggling brown youth in America, and touches upon oppression and persecution via a character who vehemently turns against the environment in which they were raised.

The palpable tension, passion and suspense lead to a web of intense intrigue. Yet, even as the characters’ lives spiral out of control, shattering like a mirror crashing to the ground, the story unravels step by step in a perfectly planned manner. By harnessing despair, fear and poignancy, Tahir portrays the perils of being young, helpless and coloured. Despite that, there’s always a spark of hope in the seemingly endless dark of misery, and that might be the book’s most compelling aspect.

People paint themselves in different shades of sceptical, but it is always those sentenced to a tough life who are found guilty. Tahir’s use of a range of characters coming from different backgrounds and in varying circumstances aptly highlights the unfairness of life, while also showing how each of us can make it a little better for another.

In doing so, she raises an important question: is being different more significant than being human?

The reviewer is a published writer and a contributor to Dawn. She can be reached at zaynarahman10@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 4th, 2022

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