THE WRITING ON MY FOREHEAD by Nafisa Haji. William Morrow, an Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers: New York. March 2009. $24.99. 320 pages.www.nafisahaji.com
Nafisa Haji’s debut novel, The Writing on My Forehead, stands apart from other multi-generational family sagas. The candid and far-reaching story, written in comfortable, flowing language, is told by Saira Qadar, a young American Muslim born of Pakistani and Indian parents. The novel quickly draws the reader in by beginning at the mysterious end and flashing back to the beginning of Saira’s story. Her journey from adolescence to a worldly, post-9/11 woman sets Saira’s increasing rebellion against the religious and cultural traditions of her family with discoveries that both shock and surprise.
In the summer before high school, Saira travels to Pakistan for a cousin’s wedding, representing the American branch of the family. Curious about her mother’s adamant refusal to attend the wedding, Saira allows her London-to-Karachi chaperone, Razia Nani, to chatter on about family members and matters.
That’s when secrets begin to tumble out—the secrets that parents keep from their children in an attempt to protect them from the past. In Karachi, Saira quietly draws out more stories from her beloved Big Nanima. At the wedding, Saira meets her maternal grandfather’s second wife, an English woman with whom he ran off and began a new family. And finally, staying with relatives in London, her world expands courtesy of her cousin, Mohsin, as she discovers background on her little-spoken-of paternal grandfather and the story of anti-apartheid activist Steven Biko.
Contrasts and comparisons between relatives are inevitable: one grandfather’s infidelity; another’s march with Gandhi; an uncle’s death in 1947 while reporting on the Calcutta riots; and Big Nanima’s quest for independence and respect without marriage. These are pieces of a puzzle that never quite fit together before. It becomes apparent that Saira’s family is as divided as India and Pakistan at Partition, both geographically and emotionally. The more Saira learns, the more determined she is to be her own person rather than one defined by husband, tradition, family, or religion. By the time Saira is an adult, she reaches her goal of becoming a journalist. However, after September 11, 2001, Saira’s own tragedies and secrets begin to demand her full attention.
Saira’s family consists of some of the most interesting and complex relationships found in a first novel, and to have pulled that off is truly praiseworthy. As Saira peels back the layers of family history, the reader accompanies her. As Saira develops her focus in life, the reader supports her. The majority of the book is beautifully written with exceptionally-rendered characters. Haji’s prose is relaxed and detailed; she pays great attention to Saira’s journey from 8th grade through college. In well-paced language, Haji melds Saira’s family’s fractured history with the splintered histories of India and Pakistan. She allows us to witness a young girl becoming a woman who seeks truth and honesty.
It is unfortunate, however, that Saira’s triumphs are not woven into the story except as an after-the-fact reference. In chapter 14, the book abruptly jumps from Saira’s college graduation to five years later, and what had been built up gradually and carefully in the first 13 chapters is skipped over. The jump not only left an empty feeling in this reader but also a hole in the story. The succeeding, final chapters race, and after difficult-to-believe events, Saira is left to ponder actions that she had never considered would be a part of her conscious life. The question becomes: Why is Haji able to juxtapose South Asian history with the family story, but not then with Saira’s career? Perhaps the story of Saira discovering her family should have been enough.
This is not to say that The Writing on My Forehead isn’t worth reading. While the novel disappoints by omission, it remains a significant debut novel. Haji exhibits immense promise with her ability to tell a compelling story through her perceptive use of language. In fact, there are many stories, select parts of the whole, that could be told in companion novels. If Haji plans to write about those missing five years, then I for one anxiously await it. Until then, treat yourself to this highly-readable book.
|Jeanne E. Fredriksen reads and writes near Chicago, where she freelances as a copywriter and teaches Creative Writing to children through the Center for Gifted-National Louis University.|