A Place for Us?

What diversity discourse in the Trump era commonly leaves out.
Fatima Farheen Mirza with members of the National Book Foundation BOOK UP program. Photo courtesy of Fatima Farheen Mirza.

LAURA KIM TELLS an illustrative story in the Race/Related newsletter published by The New York Times about a white boss who responded to her request for promotion by saying, “You’re so good at what you do. I thought you wanted to stay in your position forever ... Normally, Asian women keep their heads down and stay very quiet.”

It is the kind of story that professional, middle-class Asian Americans are telling more and more these days. Stereotyped as determined and technically competent, but not especially creative, we might be the kind of people you’d want as your accountant or computer expert, but we are definitely not management material. In my experience, Kim’s story rings true, but it’s not the only true story about Asian-American experiences.

I think that’s one of the reasons I found Fatima Farheen Mirza’s debut novel, A Place for Us, about an immigrant South Asian Shia Muslim family in post-9/11 California, so interesting. As part of a South Asian Shia Muslim community myself (the Ismaili community), the various religious references (to Imam Ali and Imam Hussain, to the presence of the Quran as a protection) felt both familiar and comforting.

Equally familiar, if less comforting, were the family dynamics. The lives of the children were governed by rules written by religious tradition, maintained by family, and enforced by the broader community.

The kids largely viewed the white world outside the home as a place of freedom, a world where you could choose your own path of study, select your own romantic partner, and go to parties, all without the prying eyes of your parents and the wagging fingers of community members. At home, at the mosque, at Muslim events, you bore the burden of your tradition. Your words and deeds represented your parents at all times.

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