What Happens When We Get Real Representation

Updated: Mar 14

Tahmina R., Palwasha A. & Irisa R.

"If there is a book that you want to read but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it"

- Toni Morrison


Fatima Farheen Mirza did exactly that.


Let us introduce you to the book that is everything you ever wished you could read as a child, the representation we craved. It’s our own families on its pages, the scenes are from our own lives and the choices each character makes, we understand. This book felt like home, everything about it - the dawats, the colours of the jai namaz, the sound of her Ammu calling out badtameez (lol), the intense love for parents that did everything in their power to build a life far from home, but with every bit of the ugly that we know very well comes with many of those moments.


The story started with a single image. Fatima recalled, “The first image came to me when I was 18. It was of a family gathered at the wedding of their eldest daughter and, as they’re about to take the family photograph, their son, Amar, cannot be found. The entire novel was written as a way for me to understand this moment.” But in creating these characters she brought to life experiences that gave us a reason to pause, and recognise them in our own lives and families.


We’re introduced to the “rebellious” brown boy we all hate, the “strict” father who can’t show love, the “simple” mother who never seems to stand up for her kids and the “studious” daughter who does everything in her power to keep her family together. The way that these characters are all of these things but none of them made us question how we could ever have thought that any of the people in our own lives could have anything but the same level of nuance.


MISCOMMUNICATION


‘A Place For Us’ is about the breakdown of a family, not from anything that is said, but from everything that is left unsaid. So much of the book is narrated from characters' thoughts, and this storytelling choice was a true reflection of so much of the way that our families communicate in the spaces created by words left unspoken. After we finished the book we read a review that said, with so many exclamation marks, “this book was ridiculous, they never actually said anything! They never told each other what they meant or felt.” And we laughed, because we understood, from our own lives, that this was the whole point.

“What was it about an apology that was so difficult? It always felt like it cost something personal and precious.”

Our Desi cultures are among the most difficult to decipher because so much of what is communicated lies in non-verbal cues like body language, tone and etiquette. And we’re all too familiar with what happens when these cultures are transplanted into societies that don’t share the same values. Where one says to acquiesce, the other says to be assertive, where one is driven by duty, the other privileges the individual at every turn.


Let’s talk about the character of Hadia, the eldest daughter of the family who did everything she could to do right by her parents, her sister and her brother. This character was unbelievably confronting because of much we could see parts of ourselves and women we love in her. In the ways that she rarely chose anything for herself, and in the future she ended up with. Her passivity represents such a real fear for so many of us, the daughters born to immigrant families that are doing what will be best right now, choosing the things that make our families happiest under the assumption that once we’ve done enough we'll be beyond reproach.

“Afsoos was the word in Urdu. There was no equivalent in English. It was a specific kind of regret - not wishing he had acted differently, but a helpless sadness at the situation as it was, a sense that it could not have been another way.”

Almost every one of our experiences as diaspora kids are interwoven by the fact that our parents, or our grandparents, uprooted their lives to start a new one across the world. But the portrayals of sacrifice and unconditional love that we’re used to associating with these journeys, Fatima does not give us in this story. She chooses not to portray the parents as heroes and martyrs, or strict pillars from whom their children dream of escaping. She doesn’t give us that comfort-the comfort of not having to be truly confronted by the experience because it is told incorrectly, or foreign enough to allow us to disassociate from it comfortably. Like the way we did with so many of the stories we read growing up. Our experience was not romanticised beyond recognition. Instead, she gave us something we couldn’t shy away from - the truth of our lives, and how we are also complicit in the choices being made.


FAITH & FAMILY


When we recommend this book we often say that there is no other book we’ve read (or show we’ve seen) that deals with faith in such an aspirational way, without taking away from how hard it can be to live by it.

“The first sound we want our children to hear is the voice of their father, telling the child where it has come from, who its creator is, and whose care it will be in now. Telling the child, there is no God but God, and God is Great.”

This is one of the only lines in a fiction novel that explains the connection between faith and family, not by what is said, but by what is done. The act of whispering the adhan (call to prayer) into a child’s ears when they are born fulfills a parent’s first responsibility to their child. In the book, Fatima plays with this idea beautifully. In her story, years later when the father, Rafiq, and son, Amar, are estranged, Rafiq laments that while he was able to recite the adhan for his two daughters, a complication during Amar’s birth meant that he never could. This he later described as his first failure to his son.


As the children grow older in the book, we see in Amar and Hadia’s characters emerge a pattern that is all too familiar in our own lives. While Amar’s desire to forge his own path leads him to act out, Hadia’s desire for the same thing is stifled. Through their individual choices, Fatima plays with the differences between what it is to be religious, what it is to be conservative and how the dangers of teaching religion with the same rigidity we are taught culture can push people away from their faith than toward it.


At one point, their mother Laya dwells on how Amar would truly listen to the religious teachings he heard growing up, pull out the teachable moment and spend hours reflecting on whether he could ever measure up. But the more he started seeing his relationship with his faith in black and white, success and failure, the harder it was to hold onto it at all. When he prayed he wanted it to mean something or he didn’t want to pray at all. So, as his life took the course that it did, when he could not live up to who he thought he should be, he struggled to keep the principles too - like being honest, staying true to his word and taking responsibility for his actions. But these were not the first to go, the first to go was the belief that he could, and would, be forgiven.

“The Prophet was the leader of the entire ummah, his every action an example, but when his grandson climbed his back, he had bent the rules, and what if it had been because it was more important to protect a child from pain than to be unwavering in principle?”

Now, this challenged the essence of Rafiq’s entire character. He was so hellbent on principle that he refused to bend with life, and to bend with his children. Until the very end of the novel, we had grown so comfortable with judging Rafiq and blaming him for all that had happened. At the end, when we are finally given the opportunity to see the story unfold from Rafiq’s perspective, this feeling is what Fatima addresses so powerfully. Throughout these final chapters it became so clear that each and every moment he recounted was filled with more tenderness and hope for his family than anyone else. We couldn't help but look at our own fathers, our grandfathers and all the men that had a hand in raising us, and ask ourselves: did we judge them before we even tried to understand them?


IF I WAS A PARENT I WOULD BE BETTER


In her book, Fatima plays with almost every cliche of endless drama, miscommunication, and at times plain dysfunction that has come to plague stories told about immigrant parents and the whole while we couldn’t help but think of everything we would have done differently.


Through the eyes of these seemingly predictable characters, we witnessed the unfolding of one of the most gentle portrayals of a first love that we’d ever read. A love story that is not quite a love story because it ends before it ever really started. As fleeting as it is, it becomes the flashpoint for a series of events that have us questioning the parents more than the children and the communities that they had spent their lives trying to live by.


For us, Layla was a particularly grating character. It was difficult to see someone try so hard to understand, and be understood by her children, but when push came to shove, she was the one to undermine them. It was interesting because her character spoke to the most commonly heard phrase, ‘what will people think?’ Speaking to the passivity and inaction that comes with living a life dictated by the assumption that you can control how others perceive you.

“Back then, Layla remembered thinking that humiliation was a deeper wound than heartache. She had wanted to protect them all from it. Now, as they stood beneath the spotlight on the stage, before the remaining guests who surely must be whispering to one another.”

After reading this book, we shared it with our family. Our parents took turns reading it and we spent hours and hours sitting around our dining table just talking about it, trying to understand the motivations of the characters and in doing so, trying to better understand each other. This is what happens when we’re given a real, true representation of our faiths and cultures, written without any of the implicit bias or othering that we had come to expect in all representations of us.


More than anything, Fatima gave weight to the moments where we act in a way that falls short of ourselves. She shows the ripple effects of the choices that seem insignificant at the time but that change us as people and the people around us. It showed the importance of niyat (intention) in everything we do, showing how when this is even just the slightest bit skewed, the tiniest moments can drastically change lives.


A FINAL WORD.


Fatima Farheen Mirza spent ten years writing a book that is what we needed as teenagers, and just as much today. She tells our stories with genuine respect and understanding that only someone who’s lived through them can. This is the first book we’ve all read, as adults, that has fundamentally changed the way we see some of the most important relationships in our lives and it did this by requiring us to question people who we have never had cause to give nuance to or expect nuance from.


The reason we couldn’t put this book down is because with most books we read, there are huge parts of the story that we can disconnect from, because the characters live such different lives to us and empathy isn’t the same as truly understanding an experience. But in ‘A Place For Us’ no matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t disconnect from the way they spoke, the conversations they had, and the judgements that were so often unfairly made because we ourselves have either thought them or seen others live by them.


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