“Feroza had grown up, like most young girls in the Subcontinent, believing that everything she had expected of life would be hers after marriage. The denial of even her most insignificant wish was followed by comments like: ‘You’ll reign like a queen in your husband’s house. You can do as you wish once you’re married.’ Statements like this made marriage seem to all the girls to be the ideal condition of existence. Their marriages would unshackle them, open their lives to adventure and knowledge of the world, give them the freedom that is each individual’s due.”
Bapsi Sidhwa’s 1993 novel, An American Brat, offers a keen insight into the world of freshly-arrived, young immigrants who by living some version of the American Dream must decide which parts of themselves to leave behind and must face the reality of sacrifice.
Feroza Ginwalla’s parents are concerned. The year is 1978, and former Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto is under house arrest and has been sentenced to death by General Zia’s new regime. The creeping tendrils of fundamentalist extremism are rapidly spreading throughout Pakistan, and 16-year-old Feroza herself has become more rigid and conservative despite her parents’ efforts to be moderate.
The Ginwalla family is Parsee, members of a small group who follow the teachings of Zoroastrianism. Parsees emigrated from Iran to the Indian sub-continent to avoid religious persecution, and the Ginwalla family felt secure in Pakistan under Bhutto’s rule. Zareen, Feroza’s mother, tells her husband, “I was really hopeful when Bhutto was elected. For the first time I felt it didn’t matter that I was not a Muslim, or that I was a woman. . . . Our women’s committes were making real progress. He was open-minded–didn’t force religion down everybody’s throat. Now it is as if none of that happened.”
To broaden Feroza’s horizons and to protect her from succumbing to extremism, the Ginwallas make the decision to send Feroza to America for a few months to stay with her uncle, Manek Junglewalla. Tenacious and deliberate Feroza is overcome by the freedom allowed to her in the States, and her three-month-holiday quietly and without much ado turns into a more permanent stay.
When she once again visits her home and family in Pakistan, she experiences the dysphoria of facing how much she’s changed. Though she loves and misses her family very much, she also understands that she can never return to how things were. And when she returns to the States and dares to fall for a Jewish boy instead of agreeing to marry a Parsee, her family’s reaction threatens to pull her from the life she’s created and into fundamentalism of a different form.
Sidhwa’s writing conveys the humor, exhilaration, and frustration of being young and in a new place. She captures quite vividly the pitfalls and pinnacles of American culture, communicating experiences matter-of-factly. When Feroza steps onto American soil she faces aggressive immigration officers who accuse her of being engaged to her uncle, officers who rummage through her bag and throw her underwear at her as proof that she is “here to marry your fiance . . . and live here illegally!” But she also meets a kind, elderly couple who help her navigate her first time on an escalator and make sure she has someone coming to meet her. She is nearly sexually assaulted in a bathroom at the YMCA dorms; the next day a Japanese man at the YMCA rescues her when she is accidentally locked into the fire stairwell.
All the characters are believable and beautiful in their strengths and flaws. Sidhwa’s main focus is Feroza, but she does not fail to endow complexity into the supporting characters. All members of the family, no matter how small their role, are given realistic voices in a way that made me laugh out loud in places, making me think of my own family dynamics when everyone gets together for a big event. For example, for Manek’s wedding, all the Aunties buzz about busily making plans. One of the Aunties by marriage, Jeroo, is described as “being tempermentally unsuited to stand up to the more powerful personalities around her,” an affront to her more extroverted in-laws. When Jeroo summons her husband to speak up for her, it creates a battle of wills in which other husbands are summoned, save one, whose wife Freny, “felt quite confident to stand up to anyone and maintain her own authority.”
Feroza’s cousin Manek is perhaps one of the most compelling characters in the book. Having lived in America for some years before Feroza arrives, he is her guide and mentor through the streets of New York City and Cambridge, Massachusetts. He schools her on what it’s like to be an American, offering sage proverbs such as, “One thing Americans won’t stand is being interrupted,” and, “If you have to struggle, you’re doing it wrong!” He often rides her for being a desi, or Pakistani native, and tutors her on how to use deodorant and how to not be an “illiterate Third-World native.” Feroza is naturally insulted by much of this, and exclaims that Manek is a “Third World native yourself! It’s my time, and my life, and I’m answerable to no one but my parents and God!” But Manek provides a keen look into what many immigrants must become in order to survive the assimilation process if they are to be safe in American society, even changing his name at work to “Mike” so that the “guys in the office feel more comfortable.”
I also thoroughly enjoyed the look into Parsee society–the religion of Zoroastrianism, the very real fears that it will be stamped out either through persecution or from the girls marrying outside the faith. Something I’d never heard before is that this particular tract of Zoroastrian belief is that once a girl has married outside the faith, she is considered unnatural and acting against nature, never being allowed back into the faith. The children in such marriages are considered to have corrupt “spiritual genetics” and are also exempt from the faith. Feroza’s family firmly believes and is willing to do anything it takes to prevent this damnation in Feroza’s life.
Overall, this book was really great. My only criticism is that is was slow in some places, but it held my interest throughout, taught me a lot, and was very well-written and still relevant today.
About the Author
Bapsi Sidhwa was born in Karachi, Pakistan in 1938. As a Parsee exile, she immigrated to the United States in 1984. She taught at University of Houston and Rice University and served as the President of the International Women’s Club of Lahore and was Pakistan’s delegate to the Asian Women’s Congress of 1975. Her other works include The Pakistani Bride and Cracking India. She currently resides in Houston, TX, and self-identifies as “Punjabi-Parsee-Pakistani.”
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