THE SWEETNESS OF TEARS by Nafisa Haji. William Morrow. 2011. $6. 400 pages.
Nafisa Haji’s novel, The Sweetness of Tears, set in two continents, is a sweeping story of three generations of women. The protagonist, Jo, named after Jo March in Little Women, goes through a shocking realization when she finds out that her father is not the Christian war veteran married to her mother, but a Pakistani Muslim. She is interested in uncovering her background, and in the process encounters more family secrets. The Sweetness of Tears also touches upon 9/11 and its consequences. Those whose interest in Islam has been fanned by the tragic event can gain a better understanding of the religion.
Haji effectively uses a multitude of voices, each one colloquial, but distinct and culturally appropriate, to narrate her story. Sometimes there are stories within stories as characters reveal their secrets. They show us that people are who they are not just because of their genes but also because of the events that have shaped their lives.
Jo begins the narrative by filling us in on her Christian upbringing. Her maternal great-grandfather was a preacher and his daughter, her grandmother, worked for a missionary organization. Jo’s uncle was the youngest ever televangelist, and her mother founded a camp in which children had obstacle-related activities illustrating a “specific detail of the allegory of salvation” from The Pilgrim’s Progress. In school Jo disputed Darwin’s theory with her biology teacher using her great-grandfather’s bestselling book, Evilution, to bolster her arguments. However, she tells us, a problem arises when she finds about Mendel and his theory of genes. It makes her question her own parentage because she realizes that two blue-eyed people could not produce a daughter with dark brown eyes. Two years later, just before she leaves for college, she confronts her mother, who confesses that Jo’s father is not Jake, the man who brought her up, but Sadiq Mubarak. This revelation sets in motion the course of the novel and once Jo goes to Chicago to attend college she finds herself staring first at the windows of the apartment building he lives in and finally at the name, Mubarak, S. A., on the intercom system.
The narrative baton passes on to her biological father and he conveys the shock he feels when he discovers he has a daughter, “My daughter, who is newborn to me and eighteen years old, knocked at my door last month.” They scrutinize each other, looking to see resemblances. Jo wants to know who he is, a request Sadiq feels he should honor. His account of his childhood in Pakistan traumatizes Jo, who leaves before she learns how he met her mother.
As a result of her encounter with Sadiq, Jo decides to study Arabic and Urdu instead of the Swahili class she signed up for. She becomes an interpreter for the government, hoping to do some good after 9/11. One of the suspected terrorists she interrogates proves to be a link to her father’s past. After Jo encounters him, she wants to find out more about her father and she goes to her Pakistani grandmother, who is as oblivious of her existence as Sadiq was.
The novel illuminates important aspects and stories of the Shia branch of Islam. When Sadiq first meets his daughter, he recounts to her what his mother told him about Muharram. “We wear black, Sadee, every year, for two months, my mother said. We don’t listen to music. We mourn what happened in this month, almost fourteen hundred years ago. As if it were today. We grieve for the family of our beloved prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, crying and mourning for them more than we mourn for our own troubles and problems …”
Elsewhere we read the details of a traditional Islamic wedding as well as a mut’a, a temporary arranged marriage, the kind that Sadiq and Jo’s mother had. There are riveting passages presenting a scene in a Pakistani church, showing how Christianity is practiced in an Islamic society.
The writer shows the interconnectedness of the world through Jo, who brings together the jigsaw pieces of her life to ultimately form a complete picture. She presents a scene of a Thanksgiving family dinner at the end that sheds light on the different weaves of faith and family.
The Sweetness of Tears shows the personal consequences of war through three generations of men, Jo’s brother, her father Jake, and grandfather, who have been affected by the war and whose actions have had repercussions on the women in their lives.
Haji, an American of Indian and Pakistani descent, amazes us at her ability to bring together the elements of the faiths of Islam and Christianity, the different cultures of Pakistan, America, Iraq, and a cast of three generations in two continents in a single novel. However, this is not her first multi-generational novel nor is it the first time she has a protagonist uncover a lie pertaining to the family. Her debut novel, The Writing on My Forehead, which is about three generations of a Muslim family, has a protagonist who discovers that her dead grandfather is actually alive and lives with his second family in London.
The Sweetness of Tears is a tapestry of stories embroidered with many rich threads. The tiny flaws are almost inscrutable, but if we search for them they are there: Jo is shaken up after discovering that her biological father is Pakistani, but we don’t see her anguish over the fact that Jake isn’t who she thought he was; we don’t learn her deepest thoughts about Islam though she observes so much about it; and for the skeptical readers there are too many coincidences. However, what is indisputable is that Haji has much to offer, especially when it comes to depicting faith, cultures and families.
Tara Menon is a freelance writer based in Lexington, Massachusetts. Her fiction, poetry, and book reviews have been published in many magazines.