The Writing on My Forehead, by Nafisa Haji.
The Writing on My Forehead, by Nafisa Haji. HarperPerennial (2010), Paperback.
An enjoyable novel about a young American Muslim woman negotiating the choice between family and an individualized sense of duty.
Saira is the daughter of American Muslims from Pakistan. She was born and raised in Los Angles where her family is well-assimilated and financially successful enough to continue regular visits back to family in Karachi. Although clearly Muslims, most are not particularly religious or tied to other Muslims in the United States. Her mother and sister, however, are traditional in other ways, such as their view of women’s proper behavior and role in life. In addition, Saira’s mother regularly writes an invisible prayer from the Koran on her forehead to insure her protection.
As a teenager traveling alone to Pakistan for a cousin’s wedding, Saira learns family stories that her mother had never told her. One favorite relative, a woman who is a college professor, reveals the pleasure of remaining single and independent. A visit to her father’s relatives in London gives her a surprising glimpse into his past and into the non-traditional lifestyles that cousins in England are enacting. Saira arrives home to be caught up in plans for her more traditional sister’s wedding. She is increasingly determined not to marry and to pursue a career in journalism which she envisions as witnessing to the suffering of those ignored by the world at large. But tragedy requires her to rethink her individual choice to reject the role her relatives expect of her.
Nafisa Haji, like Saira, was born in Los Angeles, the daughter of American Muslims. Unlike Saira, her family returned to Pakistan and lived in other global cities. She now lives in California where she has enjoyed teaching in public schools. When her own son was born, she initially remained home with him, using his nap times to write. While not autobiographical, it is easy to see how The Writing on My Forehead reflects issues that have been important in her own life, and those of all of us experiencing the conflicting roles prescribed for women today. I had liked her second novel, The Sweetness of Tears, enough to find and read this, her first book.
In some ways, I liked The Writing on My Forehead even more than The Sweetness of Tears. The freshness and intensity of the story appealed to me, perhaps because Haji is writing here about people more like herself than the American Christian family at the core of the second book. The writing in the book is simple and clear, never striving to be literary. Like all first books, this novel is not without flaws. Its plot moves from being too predictable to being implausible. Some of the characters, especially those in London, seem simplistic and one-dimensional as if they were not as well understood as some of the others.
Although I have always lived in the United States, I find it all too easy to relate the conflict between loyalty to family and individual purpose. Haji clearly understands that both sides of equation have value, and that often the conflict plays out between mothers and daughters. I may not always agree with the decisions of her characters, decisions which Haji clearly supports, but I have a better understanding of their validity for other women having read her book.
The Writing on My Forehead is not a book about immigration or assimilation as so many books by non-American authors available in the United States used to be. Although part of its action takes place in Pakistan, it is not primarily a book about a foreign country. The content, as well as the author’s identity, is global. Haji, like other authors I have been reading, is firmly based in the United States as well as in the places from which her parents came, places where she retains close familial relationships. This is a novel about families of the diaspora which continue to strongly connect with each other despite their physical distances. Characters, male and female, have to face issues of whether or not to return to countries of origin and if anywhere can still be called home. Whether the authors are from India and Pakistan or Africa, such books represent a new aspect of our globalized lives in the twenty-first century.
I strongly recommend this book as worth reading. In particular, I think it can provide an important contribution to mainstream Americans seeking to understand the lives of ordinary Muslim Americans who are increasingly among us.