It had been some time since I cried reading a book. A Place for Us did that for me.
Fatima Farheen Mirza’s debut novel by Hogar Publishers with Sarah Jessica Parker’s imprint (her debut as an editorial director too) is a story of an American Muslim (South Asian) family torn between finding their individual selves and their roles within the family that is headed by a strict Muslim father. In a deeply polar American society, it is a family whose characters are in a constant battle with themselves, their family and the world around them to find relevance, liberty and peace and to identify with the same.
A Place for Us begins with the wedding celebration of the eldest daughter Hadia in California. It’s special not just because Rafiq and Layla’s first child us getting married but more so because Amar, the youngest child and only son has come back home to be a part of the celebrations, after three years of having fled. The story would revolve around circumstances that led to Amar’s estrangement with the family, interwoven between memories of the parents—Rafiq and Layla—and their children, Hadia, Huda and Amar, that go back and forth in time.
What I found beautiful about the book was how the story progresses through the point of view of different characters, often repeating the same memory from how different characters saw it and how it affected them in smallest of ways—typical of familial love, limitless and unwavering, and yet envious and rival. Sometimes it might feel like a typical diaspora family, dislocated and misplaced—parents trying to raise their kids on not only strong Muslim (Shia) values but also inherently South Asian ones, i.e. extrinsically motivated, God fearing and society pleasing—and yet it’s also a family that may just be any other South Asian family: native language speaking at home, ‘kasam’ giving, sibling-secret-keeping because the parents would never understand certain stuff, and ritual following: of Ramzans, and Moharrams and Jashans and wedding rasams and walking under the shade of Quran, or tracing Ya Ali on the foreheads of your loved ones.
But that’s just the feel good part of the book. What was heart wrenching, tormenting and yet absolutely relevant for our part of the world is how families are destroyed because of the parents’ ego—of loving but not expressing their love; of having their own set expectations from their children, where kids have to be obedient children, unquestioning Muslims and top performing students who go on to become doctors and engineers and lawyers and businesspeople, nothing less; of never apologizing to their children even in the face of a grave mistake that might lose them their child; of comparing their children with others’, even with their own so that the only recipient of love is the child who is the smartest and most obedient.
So when Amar leaves, a part of Rafiq and Layla’s soul also leaves. But it’s too late to mend ways. Perhaps the saddest thing in the world is to see your child (so let down from the people who gave birth to him) leave you. But it’s dejecting for the child too, to resort to leaving them, for he could not think of a single thing that could revive his relationship with his parents. There is not a single more heart breaking thing than the feeling of not feeling at home with your family.
And so I cried when the family tore apart because of secrets, betrayals, and smallest of estrangements that accumulated and could not be contained any more. The truly emotional part of the book that actually made me cry was the last part, from Rafiq’s perspective. The feelings of a father—not so overt in expressing his love, who is guilty and yet protective—are written so raw and bare, it’s a pleasant surprise coming from a debut author. As much as this part is emotional and poignant, it leaves a feeling of longing in you, in a way that you would want to mend how each member of the family has been wronged.
Fatima Farheen Mirza has done an amazing job penning down the story of this family spread over decades, which is so interconnected and yet so dissociated from each other in its own way—in children trying to find their own identity, in parents trying to protect their children, loving them while also not expressing it, in understanding them and yet not understanding them enough to save them from themselves.
A Place for Us is a story of perhaps every South Asian middle class family (not just American) that struggles with the idea of expressing their wholehearted love.