A Place For Us, by Fatima Farheen Mirza

cover4Fatima Farheen Mirza’s debut novel, A Place For Us, fills a niche that I haven’t seen filled very often, if at all, in mainstream contemporary fiction: it’s a dysfunctional family saga/romance set in the context of a deeply traditional, conservative, Indian Muslim community. Rafiq and Layla were married by arrangement; they have settled in California, they have three children – Hadia, Huda, and Amar – and their lives are pleasant, stable, comfortable. But as Amar starts to grow up, he finds it hard to conform to the life his parents expect of him. Meanwhile, Hadia and Huda are fighting their own battles: whether to wear the headscarf, how best to please their parents, what to do about the boys they fancy. Told mostly in flashbacks from the moment of Hadia’s wedding, to which Amar (now estranged from the entire family) is invited, A Place For Us illustrates how secrets and illusions in a family can develop over years; how easy it can be for a husband not to know his wife, for a mother not to know her daughters.

For the first third of A Place For Us, I was hoping that Mirza was really going to push the boundaries (which, if we’re honest, means I was hoping Amar was going to be gay). Eventually, I realised that she was pushing the boundaries; it is sufficiently controversial, in a conservative household, to be uncertain of your faith, to drink, to smoke, to want to escape. It’s fortunate that Rafiq and Layla, and their community, are never portrayed as oppressive caricatures. As Layla puts it, they want to be able to guide their children, and they can only guide them in what they know. But you don’t have to be a cartoon villain to represent a life that your child doesn’t want, and you don’t have to be a parent to understand how difficult, even impossible, it can be to let go of your expectations for your child’s life. Mirza balances these emotional currents with astuteness and compassion for all sides; although I hate referring to an author’s age as though it means anything, I confess to being floored by envy that she’s achieved this book at the age of twenty-six. It is perhaps too long: establishing the shifting dynamics of the family over years does take time, but it’s hard to believe that every single scene here is essential. Still, A Place For Us is a thoughtful and moving story, demonstrating that, happy or unhappy, most families are more alike than we might care to think.

In response to a reader request, I’m trialing breaking up my long reading diary entries into individual ones on each book. It goes against my tendencies to publish posts that are so brief, but I’m sure someone will tell me if you feel you’re being shortchanged.

7 thoughts on “A Place For Us, by Fatima Farheen Mirza

  1. Not shortchanged at all – I prefer shorter posts. I have a copy of this and wasn’t at all sure about whether I wanted to read it or not but you’ve convinced me.

  2. This is just the right length, Elle! Thanks for taking my suggestion 🙂

    Your comment about hoping the son was gay has me thinking now. I’m not sure what I think in this debate personally, but I’d love to talk about it:

    so many readers are looking for diverse books that it almost seems to me like they want all the characters to be anything but straight white people. I try to think about the populations I know: my family, my friends, my students, the student body of my teeny college where I teach. There’s loads of diversity, but not to the extent that I’m seeing in books.

    Now, to backtrack, I don’t think it’s outrageous to have a gay son. But I have read book reviews about high school students who are in a friend group with a bi-sexual and bi-racial person, someone in a wheelchair who is poly-amorous, a Latinx lesbian, etc. I’m not describing an actual book right now, but I’m also not exaggerating too much, either.

    I’m wondering if my personal groups are too small, so I’m not really seeing the diversity people are writing about in books in my own life, or if authors are aiming to include representation over what they see in society? I understand that my thoughts may seem offensive, but I don’t aim to be. Like I said, I don’t know where I stand on this new direction in fiction and want to have a conversation about it.

    1. That’s an interesting question. It seems to me that there are two different things happening here: there’s diversity, and there’s tokenism. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to write a character who belongs to two or more “minority” groups; in fact, I think not doing that can lead to unfortunate centering of conversations where, for instance, the mainstream portrayal of LGBTQ teens overwhelmingly has them as white, middle-class, able-bodied, neurotypical, etc. It’s important that authors write characters that reflect reality, but I generally take that as an argument for more specificity in characterisation. What I see as seriously problematic is texts where there’s only one of each kind of person, or where there’s only one “non-standard” person, like those language textbooks from the ’90s where there’s six apple-cheeked teen characters and their one black friend, or their one friend in a wheelchair.

      I don’t think your comments are offensive; I think you’re coming at this from a particular social circle. A very dear friend of mine and I were talking about how many people of colour I know – actually have in my life, as opposed to just being friends with on Facebook or generally acquainted with – and the answer is: really remarkably few. Partly that’s a result of structural whiteness: the industry I work in, and the university I went to, are still overwhelmingly white, despite efforts to improve access. Partly that’s because I could be trying harder to join a local church or spend time at my community centre or volunteer in the area. The same is probably true of all sorts of other diversity. I always assume there are a million more kinds of people out there than I’m personally seeing.

      It’s also worth mentioning that there may be a divide between YA lit and “adult” lit as far as representation goes. I think YA writers are often the ones who pick up on the zeitgeist most quickly (which makes sense, since they’re writing for a market that’s now hugely influential in terms of what the zeitgeist is). I also think that, although YA lit can be just as brilliant and nuanced as adult lit, it often works best when it’s a little larger than life. I certainly see more in the way of what looks like deliberately diverse casts in YA books than I do in adult lit, and I’m inclined to think that’s a necessary component of helping our kids to feel less disenfranchised and angry than, e.g., my generation currently feels.

      1. That’s a good point about YA being larger than life. I hadn’t thought of it that way. They really are the ones picking up the slack on diversity. Just recently, I read an article by Julie Murphy. She named 7 or so books with positive fat representation. I got excited because that’s one of my reading challenges — and it HAS been a challenge (not only to read horrible books that were labeled good rep, but to find any books in general). Almost every single book Julie Murphy mentioned was YA. I wonder if adults around my age are trying to “fix” all the wrongs they faced when they were young adults by writing better YA books so kids don’t feel disenfranchised, as you say. The books I read as a young adult were all Sweet Valley Twins. The most “diverse” a character could be in that book was having frizzy hair, like Enid.

    1. I used to post this way all the time, but they were usually longer posts. (I managed to write a university-essay-length post on IT, by Stephen King!) Giving myself permission to write something shorter is new.

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