This book puzzled me. Jabeen Akhtar’s writing is less stylish and lyrical than flowing and easy, and I do mean that as praise. But beyond this bland praise about her writing, she is able to capture an indefinable American ethos with a spot-on fluency. The way her characters behave in certain situations, the things they say, these are the at-your-fingertips reactions of someone who has grown up in that country and observed it keenly.
For example, there’s an obsession with a dispenser for the inexplicably popular sweets called Pez. There’s the use of trash bags as travel gear, a widespread practice among students driving home for vacations. You don’t know these details without knowing the country like a home.
Because they feature in her writing so naturally, this book has an authenticity and fullness to it. This is no ‘my three months roaming the USA’ book. Instead, this is experience lived and breathed. The point about Welcome to Americastan is not so much that Akhtar’s central character, Samira, is Pakistani-American, but that she is thoroughly American. In the same way that Akhtar herself is thoroughly American. So what goes wrong?
For one thing, there are several inexplicable errors. Spelling mistakes that should have been caught by an editor, but more serious ones too. Twice, Samira notices her father about to say what she thinks should be ‘adieu’. “It’s add-ee-you,” she says, helpfully. Elsewhere, she silently wills him to say the word in a speech — “Adieu, Dad, adieu!” But her efforts are futile, he doesn’t say ‘adieu’. So what is that wrong word that he would have said? It is ‘ado’, as used in the phrase “without further ado”. Samira really believes it should be “without further adieu”. Her father, incidentally, uses that definitive Americanism of the 21st, “back in the day”. But he also asks, “Why all this hulla-goola you are making?” Doesn’t quite gel.
But the real problem with the book is that it goes nowhere in particular. Samira returns from a job and a failed relationship in Washington DC, to live with her parents again after years. Life back in North Carolina is a whirl: the Pakistani-American community, an often screaming brother who cannot quite make up his mind about getting married, another failed relationship and retrospectively meaningless sex with a gym acquaintance, and some amount of political lobbying. All mixed in with a healthy dose of memories of Ethan, the other end of the DC relationship.
But what does it all add up to? I anticipate a denouement in every page that would bring together the strands of the story. Oh sure, novels don’t necessarily need denouement. But this one hints at some, and then shies away.
The brother finally decides to get married to his white American girlfriend, telling his aghast father that he doesn’t want a maulvi and Islamic rituals because he doesn’t believe in them. Then, without any particular reason offered, he decides to have the maulvi and the nikaah after all.
The gym hunk is passionate about Samira. Samira actually asks him out. They meet nearly every day and end up in bed. Then, without any particular reason, he drops out of her life. She is distraught and angry, but this is just another failed relationship; she even rationalises it by telling herself that she was on the rebound from Ethan.
There are the usual family issues, the tensions inherent in the immigrant experience. But it’s as if Akhtar has put them in there because she knows she must. In the end, Welcome to Americastan fights shy of exploring many potentially fascinating themes in any detail.
(Dilip D’Souza is a Mumbai-based writer and journalist)