Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Review: The Writing on My Forehead by Nafisa Haji

Opening with the adult Saira's longing for the comfort of her mother as she walks down the hall to check on her sister's daughter, this novel is one of family, tradition, and secrets and it quickly turns back in time to Saira's childhood. As the American-born younger daughter of strict, traditional Muslim, Indo-Pakistani parents, Saira never quite fits the image of the girl and then the woman that her cultural heritage insists she be, not like her older sister Ameena. She has no desire to grow up and marry well, being more interested in living a life of freedom, as exemplified by her unmarried, but self-sufficient, much-beloved great aunt back in Pakistan. Her desire for an education and a less constrained life bring her into conflict with her mother especially, a woman who is determined to create for Saira the same contented, married life sister Ameena has embraced. But Saira rebels in small and large ways, especially after her journey back to Pakistan for a cousin's wedding where she uncovers family secrets, the consequences of which continue to reverberate far past the borders of Pakistan. The secrets give her a different view of life, but they also, ultimately, intrigue her in a way that finding a suitable husband does not. And so Saira follows her own path, deviating from what is expected, becoming a journalist, focused on the small details, the bearing witness. But just as she bears witness to others' suffering in war torn areas around the globe, she will be drawn back in to her family's intimate life when tragedy strikes.

Haji's novel is beautifully written, taking on identity and family in the context of the second generation, that generation still so tied to the culture from whence their parents came but oftentimes wanting to assimilate, rejecting their cultural history partially or in full. Saira is in a difficult position, both American and Indo-Pakistani and so many outside forces, current and historical, contributed to her character, the Partition of India, the Western concept of love, the Muslim faith and its tenets, the culture of the American teenager. She is a character who is completely appealing and as she reveals her story and that of the neglected family secrets, I was drawn into a world both like and unlike mine in so many ways. The characters felt real though some of the revelations towards the end of the novel, mostly about Saira's generation, were quite obvious and predictable at least to me, including the one involving Saira herself. Haji has taken the story of a family and skillfully woven major events in the modern histories of India, Pakistan, and the United States into the more personal narrative. Only when cousin Mohsin is regaling Saira with their shared grandfather's service with Gandhi does the history seem to overwhelm the story itself, becoming more a history lesson than a piece of a fictional plot. It feels at this point as if this is inserted in its entirety for an audience who can't be assumed to know about Gandhi, the British Raj, and the Partition at all. And perhaps that's a fair assessment of the English speaking and reading public but it is the only time the novel descends into the didactic, generally preferring instead, to let the personal speak for the universal, and doing it successfully.

The ending of the novel feels a bit rushed, as if Saira is more comfortable telling the story of a more distant past than of her years outside the family fold, the immediate past, and so the deaths and her grief have, perhaps a bit less of an impact than they could have had if her more current life been included more in the plot. But overall, Haji has written an insightful book on family and relationship and the complexities of both. She has created characters who are not "other" but are us, despite differences in cultural expectation and superficialities. The book is engrossing and despite minor flaws, flows pretty seamlessly through until the reader turns the last page and sets it aside, still thinking about some of the issues it raised. Those who value insights into the Indo-Pakistani culture will find much to revel in here. And those who enjoy novels limning the difficult balancing act that second generation children face, caught as they are between two strong cultures, will enjoy this novel of one of these children who is still, and always will be, balancing culture, tradition, and history with the new, the sometimes forbidden, and the different.

Check out Nafisa Haji'swebsite for more information about this book and the author herself.

Thanks to Trish and TLC Book Tours for sending me a review copy of this book. Be sure to visit other tour stops for this book and see how their views and mine match up (or don't):

Monday, March 1st: Literary Feline
Thursday, March 4th: Luxury Reading
Monday, March 8th: Savvy Verse & Wit
Wednesday, March 10th: Bibliophile by the Sea
Thursday, March 11th: My Books. My Life.
Monday, March 15th: Lit and Life
Tuesday, March 23rd: Book Dilettante
Wednesday, March 24th: A Sea of Books
Monday, March 29th: Lost in Books
Tuesday, March 30th: Entertainment Realm
Wednesday, March 31st: Book Club Classics!


  1. I liked this one Kristen, but felt as you did about the ending being a bit rushed. Thanks for the thorough review.

  2. I guess the ending was a bit rushed but I was anxious to finish the story so I didn't really mind.

    I didn't see the Saira revelation coming at all. It totally caught me off guard. I find it interesting that you figured it out.

  3. Wow, what a gorgeous review. I really like how you talked about what you enjoyed and didn't enjoy in the book. For me, I found the historic portions between Saira and Mohsin interesting and they didn't seem to bog down the story for me.

    I did see the revelations coming, but I don't mind that so much if the story is well written.

    I really thought that this was a beautiful tale.

  4. I'm looking forward to reading this one! You have written a great review!

  5. I loved when you said, "I was drawn into a world both like and unlike mine in so many ways." I think that's one of the great things about reading. You find that no matter the culture, we're not really that different after all. :)

    Love your review! Thanks for being on this tour!

  6. This is a beautifully written review, Kristen. I always enjoy your writing. This sounds like something I'd really like, even with its flaws, like the predictable secrets. It's already on my TBR list. :-)

  7. Great review! I'm intrigued by the fact that the author has created universal characters, despite their cultural differences.

    Diary of an Eccentric

  8. I wonder if the felling of being rushed at the end is from a reluctance to see the book end! Hope you will visit the guest post by Nafisa on my blog - when she talks about writing and how she wrote her book. Guest post by Nafisa Haji

  9. I really enjoyed this book. Post Colonial Literature was always a big favourite of mine when I was studying for my degree and reading this reminded me why. I did not see the twist coming - any of them. I am usually so good at working things out as well (years of reading Agatha Christie novels!)


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