Friday, January 20, 2012

A novel about growing up Muslim in Wisconsin

by Salman Hameed

English writers of Pakistani descent are becoming more and more prominent. A recent issue of Granta, for example, was dedicated to these writers (see: Granta - and a flock of new Pakistani writers). Uzma Aslan Khan even mixed in the fossil riches of Pakistan with the debate over evolution in her novel The Geometry of God. Now we have another one about growing up Pakistani-Muslim in Wisconsin: American Dervish by Ayad Akhtar. It brings up issues of identity in a different way. Ayad's own parents are both from Pakistan and also secular humanists. Ayad grew up fascinated by religion and he searched for his own path. In many ways, this is more a quintessential American story - but with a Pakistani flavor (and some Wisconsin cheese). It is these variations of the expression of religion (or non-religion) that I find fascinating. This looks like an interesting read.

In any case, here is a Fresh Air interview with Ayad Akhtar. Terry Gross seems to be flummoxed by the fact that his parents are from Pakistan and yet they are not religious. Does not compute. But then she talks more about his own religious practices and how it merges with his theater training (he is also and actor).

Here is also a review of American Dervish from NYT:

What a pleasure to encounter a first novel as self-assured and effortlessly told as Ayad Akhtar’s “American Dervish.” Mr. Akhtar, a first-generation Pakistani-American, has written an immensely entertaining coming-of-age story set during the early 1980s among the Pakistanis in the author’s hometown, Milwaukee. 
Hayat Shah, an impressionable adolescent and the only child of a well-to-do, secular family, finds his comfortable existence upended by the arrival of his mother’s childhood friend Mina Ali and her son Imran, who have fled a life of abuse and repression in Pakistan. Mina, a strikingly beautiful woman and a fan of Henry Miller and F. Scott Fitzgerald, captivates Hayat by schooling him in her liberal interpretations of the Koran; she inspires the boy’s spiritual awakening at a time that coincides uneasily with his sexual awakening, particularly after Hayat observes Mina fall in love with a well-meaning but deeply na├»ve Jewish radiologist named Nathan Wolfsohn, who works alongside Hayat’s father. 
Mr. Akhtar’s astute observations of the clashes between old world and new, between secular and sacred, among immigrants might seem familiar to readers of both contemporary and classic literature. Strong thematic affinities and plot parallels exist between this work and more than a handful of others — “The Namesake,” by Jhumpa Lahiri; “Love Marriage,” by V. V. Ganeshananthan; and Pauls Toutonghi’s “Red Weather,” a 2006 comedy about Latvians in Milwaukee, spring to mind. At times Mr. Akhtar seems also to be putting a modern Muslim spin on earlier stories of Jewish assimilation; his yearning and conflicted young hero suggests a PG-13 version of a Philip Roth character or a more repressed version of Eugene Jerome, Neil Simon’s alter ego in “Brighton Beach Memoirs.” 
But what distinguishes Mr. Akhtar’s novel is its generosity and its willingness to embrace the contradictions of its memorably idiosyncratic characters and the society they inhabit. The family patriarch, Naveed Shah, is an accomplished and street-smart doctor and a devoted father, despite his penchants for rage, alcohol and philandering. Hayat’s mother, Muneer, is a philo-Semitic Freudian psychologist who nevertheless warns her son against ever getting involved with a white woman. Mina, even though she loves Western literature and culture, particularly the TV show “Dallas” and its star Linda Gray, jettisons love in favor of faith. Like the “dervish” of Mr. Akhtar’s title — an ascetic who, according to Mina, “gives up everything for Allah” — she ultimately succumbs to an emotionally impoverished existence.
Read the full review here.      


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