Welcome back to The Aerogram Book Club, where Book Club editor Neelanjana Banerjee brings together writers and thinkers to discuss South Asian books of significance every other month. Join in with your thoughts in the comments after reading the discussion with Simona Supekar and Ankur Thakkar.
Jabeen Akhtar’s debut novel Welcome to Americastan is a comedic story about a Pakistani American girl named Samira (“Sam”) who returns to her parents’ home in Cary, North Carolina, after a series of unfortunate events forces her to leave her life in Washington, DC. The book navigates through Samira’s tenuous relationship with her parents due to cultural differences, touching on what it means to be a South Asian American in post-9/11 America.
Published in 2011 by Penguin Books India, Welcome to Americastan has been described as “fresh and original” and “quirky.” Akhtar, a former government employee who spent years writing environmental regulations, wrote an incendiary essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books entitled “Why Am I Brown? South Asian Fiction and Pandering to Western Audiences.”
Simona Supekar: I read Welcome to Americastan with the shadow of Akhtar’s LARB essay hovering in the back of my mind. As a result, it was hard not to forge comparisons between the type of book Akhtar clamors for in her piece and the one that she actually wrote.
There is so much great fodder for discussion in that essay — though there were points I didn’t quite agree with — but I’d like to start with her statement about how because of the publishing industry’s hegemonic exotification of South Asian literature, readers “see nothing of the real India, or the real Pakistan … reflected in these novels, which are designed for a primarily white reading public.” At the heart of this comment (and the essay overall) are very poignant questions about representation, fetishization, and authenticity that, as South Asian writers, we cannot ignore.
I agree that for some time, it seemed that the majority of mainstream books being published about South Asia were of a particular strain and, like Jeet Thayil (who Akhtar quotes in her essay), when I decided to begin my own novel, I swore I wouldn’t include a single mango, marriage, or spice within its pages. (I broke this — but vanilla’s from Mexico…so there.) But what happens when we begin to define our fiction through the lens of the “gatekeepers”? And, more importantly — what is the “real India” or “the real Pakistan”? Or “the South Asian novel,” for that matter?
What is the ‘real India” or “the real Pakistan”? Or “the South Asian novel,” for that matter?
Ankur, I’m curious how you reacted to her concern for “The South Asian Novel”? These concepts of authenticity always feel reductive to me and as an artist I suppose I’m less concerned with creating a “real” anything and more interested in engaging my reader in a journey that has some sort of relevance and depth.
Which, I guess, is a nice segue to Akhtar’s book. Akhtar expresses some frustration with South Asian novels that “predicate their narrative tension solely on the fact that a brown person is in a white country,” but I found her book itself to be largely predicated upon that exact premise. And I was OK with that.
In the novel, Samira’s “Pakistani-ness” is at the forefront of so much — for example, her relationship with her parents, the reason she lost her job, and the interactions she has with random people in the community. This surprised me; based on her sentiments, I would’ve thought that her novel would be more concerned with the quotidian experiences of a twenty-something woman in America rather than a sort of hackneyed presentation of fobby parents that just don’t “get her.”
The book rang true for me in so many places.
I do have to say that I probably have had more than half of the EXACT same conversations with my parents that Samira does and really appreciated how the book rang true for me in so many places. I loved that she created a pretty unlikeable and impulsive character — a combination that reminded me of the unnamed protagonist in Sara Levine’s Treasure Island!!!, which, in many ways, is a very similar book. I just wish that Samira’s parents were written less as caricatures and — without giving too much away — that we saw more transformation in Samira throughout the course of the novel.
Very curious to hear your take on all this, Ankur!
Ankur Thakkar: I also read this novel against the author’s LARB essay, and wonder if that’s a fair way to read a work of fiction. Without dwelling on this too much, since you’ve described the tension so well, I couldn’t help but feel that the author wrote that essay as a refutation of parts of her own novel. Which is actually plausible, given the three years that passed between the novel and essay’s publication. I’m not sure about you, but I have stories I wrote two years ago that feel completely foreign to me, like another writer’s work.
Now I’m going to totally ignore what I wrote above and discuss the novel in light of the essay, but I just wanted to express how uncomfortable it makes me. In the essay, Akhtar wrote: “Writers should rid themselves of the burden of presenting their culture to the world.” Besides being inherently tweetable, I think it’s the essay’s central idea. And so it was striking to discover how this cultural transmission happens in the novel.
Akhtar wrote: “Writers should rid themselves of the burden of presenting their culture to the world.”
Samira’s parents deliver several long, expository monologues about their history and about the role of the post-9/11 Pakistani-American to Samira in a way that suggests they’re really addressing a hypothetical Western audience. And most times, Samira’s response was a glib retort or an eye-roll. Do you think that she doesn’t care? Or that she’s heard these speeches so often that they don’t matter to her? What message does that send the reader?
The idea of presenting one’s culture is also quite literally manifested in this novel in Samira’s new “job” at PAC-PAC (a Pakistani-American Council Political Action Committee, led by Samira’s father). Her father charges her with writing the organization’s mission statement and she treats it with a similar disdainful nonchalance. Because Samira is a former legislative aide, you might expect her to go about this kind of work differently.
These examples may just be the writer ridding herself of the burden of cultural presentation by trivializing the entire project, but I think it comes at the expense of her main character’s development.
Authenticity troubles me as well, Simona. These attempts to define ‘realness,’ to me, are both necessary and necessarily reductive. However I do agree with you that narrative’s ultimate goal is to lead us on a journey. The best stories lead to a kind of authentic truth that no other art form can provide. The story is the thing, and writers need to trust their stories to reveal these truths through the narrative rather than aiming for the stands and trying to tackle the big questions head-on. I’m thinking of Lena Dunham’s famous line, when her character is striving to be “at least a voice of her generation” rather than “the voice.”
In that spirit, I’m curious to delve a little deeper into the characters, the plot, and other mechanics that created this fictionalized universe. Let’s dig into some craft.
Simona Supekar: That’s a great point about the time between the essay and the novel; I wonder if the essay is also largely a response to her experience getting Welcome to Americastan published — because it was not published in America, but in India.
So…moving on to the craft…I’d like to address your comment about how there are moments in the book where Samira’s parents share memories of Pakistan with her, and her typical response is one of indifference bordering on disdain. These moments locate the narrative in a historical context, and, for me, give the novel a distinctly diasporic feel that elevates the novel because they offer opportunities for Samira to transform.
I enjoyed those moments, and, like I mentioned in my last response, was disappointed when I felt like the transformation didn’t happen. Take, for instance, the passage where Samira’s mother gets drunk on punch that she serves to unsuspecting (Muslim, non-drinking) guests and confides in Samira. I loved that scene:
Your father and I would picnic in the rose gardens with our friends. We would recite poetry. Oh, if you only knew Urdu! The most beautiful poetry in the world is in Urdu. Did you know we almost named you Shamah? Hai hai! From the most beautiful poem in the world. Your father would hold my hand when he read it to me. ‘Shamah herang main jalti hai sahar honetak.’ The flame will burn no matter what until the dawn of light.
Samira’s response is a terse: Mom, I said, Maybe we should start cleaning up. Sure, Samira was stoned at the time, but this was one of several other tender scenes in the novel where we get little interior or exterior response from Samira to these glimpses of depth. To (not) answer your question, I’m not exactly sure why this is.
I have conflicted feelings about Samira’s character. At times I really enjoyed her sort of middling persona and unceremonious humor, finding it to be refreshing and of a rare kind that I have yet to see in any book by a South Asian author that I’ve read. Like this line:
I looked down at my shirt. A burqa with an eye grill would get me more wolf whistles on a Kabul street corner than my oversized T-shirt with fluorescent green aliens that said “Our Planet!”