American Fever Review by Dur e Aziz Amna – Subversive Debut Novel

TonTwo-thirds of the American fanatic, 16-year-old protagonist Sheila and her friend Zahra — both on a learning exchange program from Pakistan — are discussing “Americanness” and American culture. Hira’s host family is white and lives in Lakeview, Oregon, while Zahra lives with a Pakistani family in New Jersey, prompting them to argue about the “authenticity” of their experiences. Zahra shrugs when Hira thinks there’s value in living with someone different from you, “As long as they’re not white kids in school, their first question to me is always ‘Where are you from?'” To which, Sheila responded quickly: “But you’re from somewhere else, yaar. ” It’s the sharpness and surprise of Hira’s statement—there are several such moments throughout the novel—that make Dur e Aziz Amna’s coming-of-age, American debut novel stand out.

After returning to Pakistan, Sheila did not “dream desperately and passionately about America, like Hollywood foreigners yearning for America, and like drooling in the third world.” For the most part, she wanted to escape the suffocating smallness of high school and home: the same schoolgirls who called their periods “visitors,” the same married girls who “dressed their piety and innocence like a damn Medals, polished every night. Before going to bed.”

Once in the United States, Hira became her country’s cultural ambassador and translator between language and practice. She feels “bound in English” and self-conscious about her beliefs, defending her reasons for fasting during Ramadan. In post-9/11 America, the vicious trinity of racism, sexism, and Islamophobia has shaped her microaggressions and her own insecurities. Her attempt to assimilate failed; she found anger within herself—and a willingness to fight for what she held dear. In the US, Hira has changed, but of course, “one can only be one”. She was homesick throughout, and then fell ill—her tuberculosis worsened until she was quarantined.

This was 2010-11, when “America was still king of the world and the handsome guy was in the White House,” and yet, as Hira points out, “a half-black American in power is still an American in power.” It’s a place that “sells you thread count on your deathbed” thinking it can transcend history. The highly cited Hira is a force to be reckoned with. Her snarky prose style defiantly undercuts the narrative of the “American Dream” from an immigrant perspective.

Hira described how she “peddled one stereotype or the other and was helped in their confirmation” during her time in the US. However, “this is not a description of America’s past,” she clarified, “it is a description of my past.” At its core, American Fever is a story of self-discovery. The truth is, bored teenager Hira discovered that “America is a concept, a metaphor, not a thing in itself.” It is this borderline space between where one imagines and where one lives that she must embrace as she takes hold in each of her two worlds.

If the narrative establishes the binary relationship inherent in immigrant stories—between Pakistan and the United States, home and abroad—it’s only very much an understatement. On a deeper level, beyond her relentless critique of America, what impresses readers is her memory of her hometown. For her, “Home is the only landscape of the dream, the only place where you can believe that its failures, its favors, its excesses and caresses are all your own. After all, where does it end and where do you begin? In making Pakistan her dream landscape, Sheila has once again turned the immigrant dream upside down. Where you come from is as important as where you go. “Maybe if you imagine a moment long enough, it starts to exist outside of time,” Hira said. It’s a dream to come home. “The firewood is always falling. The tree never dies. It’s raining all the time.”

American Fever by Dur e Aziz Amna is published by Scepter (£16.99). To support Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Guardianbookshop.com. Shipping charges may apply.

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