“Three Pakistani American teenagers go on a road trip from New Jersey to New Orleans, each of them struggling with their own personal demons along the way.”
Mariam is the title character, a serious and thoughtful college age teenager who was raised by a progressive no-nonsense single mother. She knows practically nothing about her father who abandoned their family, and a recent romantic breakup spurs her to find him.
Ghaz is the beauty of the group, and a vibrant sassy flirt. An underwear modeling stint has earned her the wrath of her conservative emotionally abusive parents, and she escapes house arrest to join the trip.
Umar is perhaps the most (the only?) devout believer among them, a stylish snarky gay boy who is afraid to come out, fearing the backlash from his well-regarded family and their community. His car is their ticket out, and a huge Muslim convention in New Orleans provides his reason for taking off.
Karim takes on Islamophobia, racism, and homophobia directly and indirectly throughout the story, in many of the little and large ways that these historical, institutional, and personal prejudices affect our lives. One hard-hitting scene takes place in a Tennessee diner off a highway. No spoilers, but it’s marvelous because of how subtle, real, and surprising the events are. Another amazing (heart in mouth) scene plays out in a raucous honkytonk karaoke club in Nashville.
I was charmed by but also sometimes disbelieving of how loving and supportive the three teenagers were to each other. They’re besties, but I know few adults or kids who affirm each other and their relationships so articulately, openly, and frequently. I may need nicer friends and/or need to be better myself. 🙂
“The most compelling part of the book for me was the depiction of Muslims (and South Asians) as a vital part of American life and literature.”
The most compelling part of the book for me was the depiction of Muslims (and South Asians) as a vital part of American life and literature. I especially appreciated the gay Muslim plot line. Umar is in the throes of an existential crisis, torn by the seeming conflict between his Muslim faith and his sexuality. Karim explores this thread with sensitivity, nuance, and great feeling, and I hope it provides some solace to any young queer Muslims out there looking for community and acceptance.
I also loved the range of Muslim religiosity that the book displayed, from the atheist Muslim to the fully observant. I’ve often been jealous of cultural Jews, or Christians who only show up for the holidays but still get to belong. It doesn’t often feel like Islam, as is practiced by many, makes space for those who don’t follow every last rite and ritual. Maybe Mariam’s road trip will be part of creating that space. I’m already looking forward to Karim’s next.
Abeer Hoque is a Nigerian born Bangladeshi American writer and photographer. Her memoir Olive Witch (Harper 360) was released in 2017 in the U.S., and The Lovers and the Leavers (HarperCollins India) is her book of interleaved stories, poems, and photographs. See more at olivewitch.com.
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