A Place for Us a ‘quintessentially American’ tale? Fatima Farheen Mirza answers
Visiting India for the first time five years ago, author Fatima Farheen Mirza visited the masjid (mosque) where her parents had her nikkah (wedding), in the city of Hyderabad. Fatima was then the same age that her mother was the same number of years ago.
“A man was sitting outside in the courtyard, threading flowers that would decorate one of the shrines. I asked if I could have one flower, because I wanted a souvenir of the place, and he denied me. I remember telling him, ‘But my mother got married here’. And he looked at me, asked me to wait for a minute, and then threaded an elaborate string of flowers that I could tie to wear in my hair. I’ll never forget it.”
This is how Fatima describes that moment. It is almost as if this passage has filtered out of the consciousness of one of the characters of her famous debut, A Place for Us. As a family gathers for the nikkah of their eldest child, the obedient, precocious doctor Hadia, their youngest, the delinquent, the errant Amar, cannot be found for the family photograph. This is a family, but the discord is unbelievable, and the silhouette of the elephant in the room grows darker and darker.
“I wanted to do my best [for] this family. I wanted to do justice to their lives, I wanted to understand their experience with as much complexity and care as I possibly could. I loved them, and it was a privilege to be able to write about them,” says Fatima about the book’s keenly felt impulses, its ability to pick up life’s mundane moments lying unnoticed in our midst and light them up with meaning. A Place for Us was recently chosen by Sarah Jessica Parker — Carrie Bradshaw of the hit American sitcom Sex and the City — for her publishing debut with her imprint for Hogarth Press. And while Parker has called it a “book about a quintessentially American family”, Pulitzer Prize-winner novelist Paul Harding has exalted it as “a work of extraordinary and enthralling beauty”.
Born and raised in California, it is natural to assume that Fatima not only spoke and wrote English for the majority of her life, but wrote about characters that belonged to a certain place, a certain way of life. How did the book come about? “Writing has always been a part of my life. Recently, I was surprised to find a story from when I was maybe seven or eight, because it was written in both Urdu and English—an impulse that returned when I was working on the novel. But throughout high school, I wrote about characters with names like Corrie, and now I wonder if my imagination had internalized the belief that stories belonged only to the kind of characters I’d grown up consuming. I remember pausing when I first wrote the name Hadia, how I not sure if I could proceed, but once I started writing about this family, I was committed,” says Fatima.
But conceptualising Hadia — which means the ‘guided one’, and is the ideal daughter, freethinking but also committed and devoted, and thinking for her — surely must have come somewhere from inside Fatima, who was once pursuing medicine, and has similar beliefs about religion and autonomy?
“Once seeds from one’s own life are planted into the novel, they are altered by the personality of the characters, and begin to take on their own significance. I might relate to the pressure Hadia feels to pursue a medical career path in order to make her parents proud, or Amar, keeping journals and looking to lines of poetry as a way to make sense of his own life — but the way these pursuits and pressures manifest in Hadia and Amar’s life is theirs alone,” Fatima shares.
At a moment in the novel, Hadia, soon to turn nine, contemplates intensely on the looming prospect of wearing the hijab, which her faith requires of her. With religious symbols coming under a lot of fire lately throughout the world, how does choosing or rejecting the hijab empower Hadia or her mother Layla? “Each character is aware of what the world wants from them. They have to navigate what their community, family, and faith want from them. It can be difficult, in the face of all of this, to know what they want for themselves. Figuring out their desires and attempting to make choices is what each of the characters contends with,” she says.
“[So], they are empowered when they make a choice that is aligned with their inner voice. This also applies to religious practices — Layla is empowered when she wears the hijab, and Hadia, when she decides not to.” And indeed, when not touching your deepest impulses about life and relationships, A Place for Us is a work about the significance of choices: An otherwise patriarchal father passes on a watch meant for a son, to his daughter. A deeply conservative mother gathers the courage to roll up her shalwar to meet her little son in the river. A young couple in love chooses to continue to meet in private, risking everything at stake for their families.
In this book about a quintessentially American family, white characters make short appearances as the immigrant minority dominates the focus, and their customs and sensibility — Sunday school, the significance of prayer, community gatherings — comes to the forefront of an American consciousness. Can one interpret this novel, then, as an attempt to envision a new America?
“This is rather [my way] of presenting the experience of living in America that is true to these characters. I wanted to place their lives, their concerns, at the centre of the narrative. If what results is a version of America that seems new, then what that speaks to is the lack of adequate representation in literature — because these lives are here, they have been here, and they have stories to tell,” Fatima says.
Modest though she may be — Fatima has undeniably mastered the art of sticking to describing life through memory. From the first scene, the narrative shifts into a series of flashbacks, in no particular sequence, from the collective consciousness of this family. From the parents’ wedding in India, their relocation to the US, the birth of their kids, the little moments as they grow up — the childhood stories, picnics, crushes, school, their rivalries and revelries — the narrative reveals itself both all at once and in parts.
And she explains the systematic revelation and withholding of information that take place through such a technique. “The [flashbacks] appear the way memories rise in a mind trying to understand something about one’s past — seemingly at random, skirting around a conflict, until enough context is understood that the centre of the conflict can be tunneled towards.”
Most of A Place for Us is poetry, and poetry is what moves its author. “I loved and returned to The Lover by Marguirite Duras and The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard. I listened endlessly to Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, trying to pay attention to the mood and movement in it, and how that could translate into the way I thought about the structure for the sections within the novel. I wrote and rewrote quotes by Muhammad Ali into my journal to stay focused,” says Fatima, who is learning boxing these days.
Interact with the author @Prannay13