I was surprised to learn after reading that Mirza went from studying to be a doctor to switching her degree to creative writing. What a triumph that’s turned out to be! A New York Times Bestseller and recognized as an honoree for National Book Award Foundation's 5 under 35, Mirza is a rarity in the literary world who deserves every piece of credit that comes her way. Her storytelling comes from the heart.
A Place for Us revolves around an Indian-American Muslim family living in California after immigrating from India in the late 80’s. The parents, Layla and Rafiq, go on to have three children—Hadia, Huda and Amar (their only son). At the beginning of the book, they appear to be quite the quintessential diaspora family.
However, as the story develops, we learn that their relationships with one another are more complicated than they initially seem.
What appears to drive the family’s actions, however differently they individually act upon it, is a strong sense of family, faith, and an undercurrent of unresolved trauma. I was struck by how much Mirza packed into one magnificent novel that could relate in so many ways to South Asian families and how they operate.
Amar is the only son and the apple of his mother’s eye. However, the sentiment is quite the opposite when it comes to Amar’s father, whose own Babba died when he was very young.
Brought up in a strict household, Rafiq’s distaste at Amar’s poetic and wayward actions keeps them at bay, their differences in both mentality and traditional cultural “norms” acting as sources of conflict. Yet still, they have a fierce loyalty towards one another that shows up repeatedly in the ways they stand for one another when it really matters—tethering them in a whole other way amidst suppressed emotions.
There’s a true kinship between Hadia, the eldest daughter whose wedding sets the scene in the opening few pages, and her brother Amar. She’s a maternal figure to him and it shows in the connectedness that exists between them. Hadia bears the “guardian” role with crushing guilt when things go wrong and Amar instinctively feels as if he can trust her the most, his infamous line “Do you promise?” a phrase he reserves only for his big sister.
There is a lot of love between them all. But there are themes demonstrating a clear picture of how small cracks get bigger and the mistake of bypassing causing catastrophic results.
There is the inability to communicate freely until it’s belated and no longer valid. There are losses that fester within their family and circle of friends; bottled up anger always simmering below the surface.
The family feels the need to keep up appearances with each other and the community, with an invisible wall ever-present. There is favouritism in the household; a heady mix of stifling and controlling habits pertaining to the patriarchy.
We see pinnacle turning points such as 9/11 and its severe impacts, heightening the wrath of racism and “othering”, without a handbook on how to overcome it. There’s also the search for one’s identity taking a drastic turn, changing the course of path that could have been prevented.
I devoured Mirza’s tumultuous tale in three days straight. The end result? I was left devastated.
Deeply invested in my fictional crush on Amar, who is relatable in his quest for individuality and an unusually sweet soul who is constantly fighting his demons—I could not stop thinking about the life-altering events he and his family go through.
Mirza is adamant in ensuring that each character is complex, so as to give the reader joy and hope amidst the woeful pangs.
Nevertheless, she provides a serious lesson in teaching us that family is who we ultimately learn from. And, if they do not deal with the ghosts that haunt them in real-time it will seep into those they care about the most—to a point of no return if left too late.
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