But there were other moments where Samira’s worldview presented a pretty stark essentializing of her characters’ cultural identity that bothered me. I wanted a bit more complexity and nuance to balance the narrative’s funny, irreverent spirit.
I thought of Bushra Rehman’s novel Corona, which also features a rebellious Pakistani young woman from Queens and maintains a similar tone to Akhtar’s in some places. The novel opens in Corona, Queens and unfolds across a variety of very American locations in such a poetic, interesting way that rejects essentializing because the drama of Razia’s circumstances — rather than the burden of her ethnicity — is at the forefront of each scene.
I like that Akhtar sets her book in a drab, Southern suburb.
I love how books like Corona, G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen, and Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men utilize physical landscapes as a playground for exploring themes of identity, religion, and race. Similarly, I like that Akhtar sets her book in a drab, Southern suburb. Having spent my high school years in Virginia, I know the aesthetic and the people she describes. There’s a tremendous amount of possibility there for exploration.
Ankur Thakkar: You picked a great scene. Her mother’s description of their courtship in the rose gardens was so beautiful. Samira’s response was a really difficult moment for me, because if she doesn’t find her parents’ history important, should I?
Of course, I do find it important. I care about her father’s expertise in silky poetic seduction more than she does. Which is one of the ways I was conflicted about Samira as a character, like you.
Samira’s voice isn’t like any I’ve read before.
I agree that her voice isn’t like any I’ve read before, and it seems perfectly suited to unveil these observations unique to the diaspora, much like the “Our Planet!” line you mentioned. She’s funny throughout the novel. Like when she’s describing her tragic attempts to deflate the life raft in the PAC office, with the office’s owner standing there and pleading with her to leave already.
However, I wanted Samira to trust the reader more. She was eager to tell us exactly what she was feeling, why she was feeling that way, and why it mattered that she felt that way. Part of the joy of reading is allowing the narrator to lead you through a series of events, and to consider the implications through the events themselves, through shifts in tone, a revealing piece of dialogue, changing body language, etc. It seemed like a bulk of the interpretation was handed to the reader through Samira’s inner voice. I am not arguing for MFA-thumping minimalism, but for a little more breathing room. I wonder if you felt the same way.
I really like your point about the novel’s setting. Cary, NC, is certainly not an oft-mined locale for literature, and I agree that there was a lot of possibility of using the surrounding area and its inhabitants to help us learn about Samira’s family. I love that Samira’s mother led the charge in renovating an older house in exchange for their family’s move from New Jersey to North Carolina (a move that my family has in common with Samira’s). Their propensity for renovating and love for cats were also excellent details that made them seem human and real.
Come to think of it, we haven’t discussed the siblings that much. I’m curious to see what you thought about Khalid and Meena.
Simona Supekar: Ankur, that’s a great way of putting it — wanting Samira to trust her reader more. I agree and would’ve liked not to experience every single moment through the filter of her laser-focused narration. And — speaking of her siblings — I think your point about how she acts as the arbiter of everything in the narrative sheds some light on how I connected with her siblings.
Both Meena and Khalid, while again refreshing, new kinds of characters, feel as though they were painted in large, purposefully rebellious strokes. Not a whole lot of nuance to them. Khalid is a Halo-obsessed perpetually hungover “Bro” type who is marrying a white girl, and Meena is a sexually liberated young woman who gives BJs in backseats and has a secret that we discover toward the end of the novel. Like any siblings, secrets link them and I loved to see the maneuvering that they do to hide things from their parents.
But I also wanted glimpses of her siblings that existed outside of Samira’s emotional periphery. Kind of like that scene when Khalid is texting his fiancée how much he loves her, and Samira nearly falls out of her chair with surprise at this expression of emotion. Without giving too much away, the way Meena’s “secret” was handled in the novel is emblematic of how I generally felt that the pacing meandered. There were many opportunities for great narrative tension, conflict, and revelation, yet for me, the story petered out in places and never seemed to really build. It was as though coming home was a kind of cultural purgatory for Samira before going back to a bigger, more important life.
It was as though coming home was a kind of cultural purgatory for Samira…
I guess this brings me back to the complexity of the characters. Something Zadie Smith wrote in her essay “Speaking in Tongues” really stuck with me. In it, she compares President Obama’s ability to communicate in a variety of different vernaculars (in his book Dreams of My Father) to Pygmalion, exploring the complexity of the immigrant identity. She writes, “The tale he [Obama] tells is all about addition …. If it has a moral, it is that each man must be true to his selves, plural.” This, I believe is a subtext to Akhtar’s book, yet one that isn’t explored as explicitly as I would’ve liked.
Give me the moments of addition…the accumulation…the mess. Samira’s twenty-seven, so there should be flashbacks, I would think, to her teen years upon returning home. What was it like growing up in Cary? Was there at least one Desi guy in her past (other than her cousin, who wants to marry her) since her ex is a white guy? Where are the triggers and the neuroses and the self-reflective regressive high school bullshit that comes with coming home? I want all of the layers.
Excellent point about the renovating and the love of cats. Those tiny details distinguished the characters in more nuanced ways that I loved. And, btw “MFA-Thumping Minimalists” is totally going to be the name of my mid-life crisis band.
Ankur Thakkar: Simona, you’re spot-on about the pacing in this novel, and the sibling subplots definitely felt like opportunities that weren’t fully realized. Like you, I took issue with the way Meena’s secret is revealed, and how that coincides with the other surprise guest at the ceremony. I just don’t believe that Khalid would’ve allowed for that to happen, given his sister’s state of mind throughout the story. This was one of several times I caught myself wondering about the dynamic between these siblings. Perhaps flashback scenes, as you mentioned, would have illuminated the sometimes surprising ways the three of them interact in the novel’s present.
I really like that Zadie Smith essay you referenced, and agree that the novel could’ve used more of the code-switching complexity Smith wrote about. Your point about multiple selves reminds me, also, of this novel’s relationship to technology.
The author has a lot of fun with this generation’s big dirty secret: it isn’t what you know, but what you know how to Google. But technology in fiction is difficult. Technology evolves so quickly that its depiction in a novel published only a few years ago can feel outdated. Internet-stalking has gotten so much easier since 2011 (not that I know from experience). Also, the scene where Samira opens an email about horny housewives in her area and holds onto it for future diversion made me think: “Aww, but maybe there was once a time when that was a thing someone did.”
The novel’s ability to evoke our own memories speaks to its power.
You know, it’s funny. I think throughout our conversation we’re both on the verge of bringing in our own experiences, because the urge is so strong with a novel this close to home. While Welcome to Americastan isn’t without its flaws, I think its ability to evoke our own memories speaks to its power, and I’ve really enjoyed discussing it with you.
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Neelanjana Banerjee’s arts journalism has appeared in Colorlines, Fiction Writers Review, HTML Giant, Hyphen, New America Media and more. She is the managing editor of Kaya Press, an editor-at-large for the Los Angeles Review of Books, and teaches writing through Writing Workshops Los Angeles.
Simona Supekar has work in The Atlantic, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and The Huffington Post. She lives in Los Angeles and teaches in the English department at Pasadena City College. She was recently selected for a 2015 Hedgebrook writing residency.
Ankur Thakkar is a senior fiction editor for TriQuarterly Magazine and tells stories at Vine. He has work in Guernica and in the 2014 Twitter Fiction Festival. He lives in New York and has an MFA in fiction from Northwestern University. He is writing his first novel.