American Fever by Dur e Aziz Amna review – a subversive debut

Show caption Dur e Aziz Amna provocatively undercuts received narratives about the ‘American dream’. Photograph: Nelson Pinheiro Fiction American Fever by Dur e Aziz Amna review – a subversive debut A spiky teenage heroine from Pakistan brings a fresh perspective to the coming-of-age, coming-to-America novel Sana Goyal Wed 24 Aug 2022 11.00 BST Share on Facebook

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Two-thirds in to American Fever, Hira, the 16-year-old protagonist, and her friend Zahra – both on study exchange schemes from Pakistan – are discussing “Americanness” and American culture. Hira’s host family are white, and based in Lakeview, Oregon, while Zahra is living with a Pakistani family in New Jersey, prompting them to debate the “authenticity” of their experiences. When Hira argues that there is value in living with people different from you, Zahra shrugs, “As long as they’re not the white kids at school, whose first question to me is always ‘Where are you from?’” To this, Hira quickly replies, “But you are from elsewhere, yaar.” It is the sharpness, and surprise, of Hira’s statement – and there are several such moments throughout the novel – that makes Dur e Aziz Amna’s coming-of-age, coming-to-America debut novel stand out.

Back in Pakistan, Hira hadn’t been dreaming of America “desperately, passionately, like the Hollywood foreigner’s yearning for America, like the third worlder’s slobbering”. Mostly, she had wanted to escape the stifling smallness of high school and home: the same schoolgirls, who called their periods their “visitors”, and the same married girls, “who wore their piety and innocence like goddamn medals to be polished every night before bedtime”.

Once in the US, Hira becomes a cultural ambassador for her country and a translator between languages and practices. She feels “straitjacketed by English” and self-conscious about her faith, defending her reasons for fasting during Ramadan. She faces micro-aggressions and her own insecurities, shaped by the unholy trinity of racism, sexism and Islamophobia in a post-9/11 United States. She makes failed attempts to assimilate; she discovers her inner fury – and willingness to fight for what she holds dear. While in the US, Hira changes, but of course, “one was only what one could ever be”. Throughout, she is steeped in homesickness, and later, sickness – her tuberculosis worsening until she’s under quarantine.

This is 2010-11, when “America is still king of the world, the cool guy’s in the White House”, and yet, as Hira points out, “a half-black American in power is still an American in power”. It’s a place that would “upsell you on the thread count for your deathbed”, that thinks it can transcend history. The highly quotable Hira is a force to be reckoned with. Her spiky prose style provocatively undercuts received narratives about the “American dream” from the immigrant’s perspective.

Hira describes how during her time in the US she “peddled in one stereotype or another, taking succour in their confirmation”. And yet, “this is not an account of how America was”, she clarifies, “it’s an account of how I was”. American Fever, at its heart, is a story about self-discovery. The truth is that Hira, a bored teenager, finds that “America was a concept, a metaphor, and not the thing itself”. It is this liminal space between the place one imagines and the place one lives in that Hira must come to terms with as she plants a foot in each of her two worlds.

If the narrative sets up a binary inherent to the immigrant story – between Pakistan and America, home and away – it does so only very lightly. On a deeper level, more than her merciless criticisms of the US it is Hira’s memories of home that leave an impression on the reader. For her, “home is the sole landscape of dreams, the only place that will ever convince you that its failings, its bounties, its excesses, and caresses are all your own. After all, where does it end and you begin?” In making Pakistan her landscape of dreams, Hira yet again subverts the dream of migration. Where you come from matters as much as where you go. “Perhaps if you imagine a moment long enough, it begins to exist outside of time,” Hira says. There is a dreaminess to coming home. “The chai is always pouring. The tree never dies. It is raining for ever.”

• American Fever by Dur e Aziz Amna is published by Sceptre (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.

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