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A Place for Us: A Novel, by Fatima Farheen Mirza.

January 3, 2020

A Place for Us
A Place for Us: A Novel, by Fatima Farheen Mirza. Hogarth/Random House, 2018.

5 stars

A moving account of a successful, devout Muslim American family coping with each other’s needs.

Fatima Farheen Mirza was born in California to parents of Indian descent.  She attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. In this, her first novel, she deals with issues she herself confronted growing up in a similar family.

The story opens with the wedding of the eldest daughter and the alienated family son who returns for the celebration after years of absence.  With his presence, long term tensions surface.  Then Mirza goes back to describe the family’s earlier years and establishes how the individuals in the family grew and changed.  We see how each has a particular perspective on what is happening.  The parents have a good, if sometimes distant, relationship and shared expectations for their children.  The eldest daughter is strong, bright, and ambitious, at times the “son” of the family.  The second daughter is also successful, but somewhat less fully developed in the book.  The youngest child is a son, who from the start is a more needy and disruptive individual.  As he grows up, he struggles against his father, gets into drugs, and leaves home in anger. The Muslim community forms a context for the family conflicts.

Mirza says that her book is primarily a book about a family and how they deal with universal concerns about love and loss, and commitment to family and tradition.  Certainly the family could be from any ethnic background.  And yet they are Muslims and their faith permeates their lives.  They are economically and socially secure among other Muslims and, with one telling exception, they are marginally involved with non-Muslims.  Instead of the story of assimilation that structures many migrant stories, we get the texture of what it means to follow the rituals and practices of their faith despite their American success.  By the end, we see how that faith is basic to their identity and sense of being in the world.

The book is well-written and successful as a story which reflects problems faced by a variety of families in the United States today.  At another level, it exposes insight into Muslim Americans which few of us appreciate.  It is a story we need if we are ever to move beyond negative stereotypes and see Muslim Americans as essentially like ourselves.  Mirza subtly raises the question of the place of immigrant people in our society and how they can maintain their own traditions without threat to the rest of us.

I highly recommend this book.

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