I‘ve never been a huge fan of Mohsin Hamid. I loved “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” initially but was disappointed and irritated by the end, I enjoyed his essay collection “Civilization and Its Discontents” and I couldn’t get through the beginning of “How to Get Filthy Rich in Asia.” His latest book though, “Exit West” is magical. I’m almost done and hoping that the ending doesn’t let me down. Read below for one of my favourite passages from the book.
The first time I read a novel with Muslim characters, I was 21, and the book was “Does My Head Look Big in This?” by Randa Abdel-Fattah. The main character was sixteen years old, and even though the drama of being in high school and being the only person in a hijab was something I had experienced several years previously and had largely processed by then, it was affirming to read about a character who looked like me.
It was a lesson that women in hijab have stories worth telling.
I’ve been thinking a lot about work and careers recently. After living in Johannesburg, South Africa for almost two years, I started a new job in an unfamiliar field in 2017. That job involved a country change as well, and because of my new role and new home, I’ve been thinking a lot about how my identity as a female, visibly Muslim, person of colour shows up at work, how to do well at work, how to find energy for projects that I want to pursue, and how to balance and manage the projects I want to do with family life and relationships given that “making things” often requires solitary focus and lots of time. It’s hard to find one book that addresses all those questions, so I’ve been reading different books for different purposes.
In a way, I met my husband because of Zadie Smith. I used to run a bookclub in Toronto, and 2 years ago, our December book of choice was Zadie Smith’s novel “White Teeth”. Close friends had raved about Smith and talked about “White Teeth” as one of their favourite books, but I had never read any of her work before. Despite my excitement to read her for the first time though, I hated the book and gave up after 100 pages. So the first time I didn’t finish our book club selection was the first time my now husband attended the Seriously Planning bookclub.
Yesterday I started and finished “The Happiness of Pursuit” by Chris Guillebeau. Guillbeau visited every country in the world by the time he was thirty-five (a fact he reminds readers of every few pages) and the book is supposed to be an exploration of how you too can find your own quest. According to Guillebeau, quests are projects that have a clear goal, a specific end point, and a defined set of milestones. Examples of quests are Guillebeau’s journey to visit every country in the world, a project to visit every basilica in the US, a project to walk across the US, a quest to never travel by car again, and the list goes on. This could have been an interesting read, but instead is just a poorly written book with no critical reflection and or ability to mention any African country without using stereotypes or using actual country names. When he talks about North America, he mentions specific town and city names (Manitoba, St. Louis etc) when he talks about an African country, he simply talks about visiting Africa. Here are (some) examples:
In addition, this book is completely devoid of any critical reflection or analysis of what it means to do a “quest”, and who gets to travel and pursue ridiculous journeys. There is no racial analysis, no discussion of privilege, and no examination of whether it is a good idea to seek meaning that is missing from your everyday life in a “faraway locale.” The chapters on creating personal lists and goal setting are interesting, but the flaws in this book make it impossible to take his advice seriously. Guillebeau says everyone can travel anywhere as long as they can save at least $2 a day, and seems unaware that that isn’t a measure that everyone can meet. Poverty and bills and responsibilities are not important variables as to whether or not someone can leave their life and go, in this book travel and adventure simply require that you are uncomfortable with your life and want to make a change in order to go out and do these things. He does spend a bit of time saying that you can do quests in the way that is meaningful for you, but he gives unrealistic examples of scaling down. For instance, if you feel like you can’t visit all the countries, 30 countries is pretty good too!
What isn’t discussed is that there are good and bad reasons to do a quest. He speaks of a friend who “after years of debauchery as a New York City nightclub promoter” finds his calling bringing clean water to Africa. He tells the story of another person who wants to connect with different cultures and decides to cook a different dish for her family from each country in the world. The ethics and validity of both of these projects are very different because the reasons for each project is very different, but there is little analysis in this book of personal motivations or broader political implications of the quests that people undertake. What does it mean to support oppressive regimes through travel? This a question that should be talked about because of the stories Guillebeau chooses to include, but isn’t discussed at all.
Last year I read “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry” a delightful fictional read about a man who walks 500 miles across England to visit a colleague who is dying of cancer. The journey heals his marriage and his life, but he travels across small towns of England in his own country. Harold Fry’s journey is charming and sweet, this book is the opposite of that.
I am battling the flu, and a couple of days ago I sat in bed and read Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni’s AMAZING new book “Before We Visit the Goddess at one sitting. It’s an incredible book about the love that exists between mothers and daughters, the challenges of love, the vulnerability, fierceness and resilience of women, the challenges and solitude of immigration and the legacies we inherit from our mothers, grandmothers and greatgrandparents. It’s a magnificent book and one I highly highly recommend reading. Below are my #booktube reflections on the read.
“Did I want to go back? Back to a city without glens, without places to sit in public with my arms around his neck, without the luxury of wandering among indistinguishable trees unmindful of the repercussions of getting lost. Back to a city that was feasting on its own blood, the violence so crazy now that all the previous violence felt like mere pinpricks. Back to a city where I’d have to face my father. Why would I want to back to any of that?
And yet. When I read the Dawn on-line and then looked around me at the pristine conditions of campus life, I knew that every other city only showed me its surface, but when I looked at Karachi I saw the blood running in and out of its veins; I knew that I understood the unspoken as much as the articulated among its inhabitants; I knew that there were as many reasons to fail to love it, to cease to love it, to be unable to love it, that it made love a fierce and unfathomable thing; I knew that I couldn’t think of Karachi and find any easy answers, and I didn’t know how to decide if that was reason to go back or reason to stay away. ‘Because Karim, you’ve shown me it’s not so simple to leave a city behind.” (Kamila Shamsie, Kartography, p.297)
Prior to last week I had never read a novel set in Karachi before. Last week however that changed during a visit to the Mayfair Library in Joburg when I found “Kartography” by Kamila Shamsie on the shelf. It’s an old book (it was published in 2002) but I’ve never read Kamila Shamsie before, and the book’s description as a “love song to Karachi” intrigued me. It delivered on its promise to be a good read. Kartography is a book that takes you by surprise with its beauty, humour and grace, and whether or not you are familiar with Karachi, it is a book that is definitely worth reading.
The book is about two friends named Raheen and Karim who grow up together in Karachi, and whose parents make up an inseparable quartet. Karim and Raheen have been inseparable from childhood and have their own special language and jokes (a lot of their jokes revolve around anagrams). They are more than best friends; an incredible connection exists between the two of them.
Once upon a time, Karim and Raheen’s parents were engaged to one another. Karim’s mum Maheen and Raheen’s dad Zafar are the first couple to separate and their engagement breaks after the civil war in Pakistan. That war resulted in the creation of Bangladesh, and before the war, during the war and after the war, Bengali people in Pakistan experienced severe discrimination and prejudice. Maheen is Bengali and experiences prejudice as well, and when they are engaged Zafar is ostracized because of their engagement. What happens to end their engagement is unclear, but at the beginning of the book, during a summer holiday with Karim away from Karachi, Raheen starts asking questions about why the pairings of their parents’ marriages ended up the way that they did. She stops asking questions when she overhears her parents arguing about the best time to tell her the truth about the past, and she decides to let the secrets of their parents remain unknown.
Soon after their holidays, Karim moves to London with his parents and Karim and Raheen only see each other several years later when they are twenty-one. When they meet again, four years have passed since they have last spoken or written to each other because of a fight that takes place four years previously that severs their friendship. This book is about their friendship, their relationship with each other, their relationship with their parents, their relationship with Karachi and how and why the history of Pakistan and the history of their families impacts today.
There is so much to say about this remarkable read. Here are some of the things that struck me about the book.