Tag Archives: immigrant experience

Neither This Nor That by Aliya Husain

Neither This Nor That by Aliya Husain

neither this nor that

This 251 page novel reads like a biography that has no climax or real conflict in its linear retelling of the protagonist from 3rd grade to a junior in college.  If you are part or all Desi, raised in America in the ’80s and ’90s and have fond memories of NBC’s Must See TV, rolling your pants up, your family packing Corning Ware sets to take to the homeland, and the joys of TJ Maxx, you might enjoy the nostalgic similarities you too experienced, but even at that, with no plot or character arcs, the book is easily forgettable and you might forget to finish it.  For all my critiques of Muslim stories that don’t read authentic, this one definitely does, she doesn’t rebel, she doesn’t ever go against Islam, but because she is similarly not ever tempted to, I think most readers won’t relate to this fictional girl, who’s biggest worry is smelling like her mother’s cooking.  The book seems to just want to tell her life story, and getting through it is the point of the book, not making emotional connections, giving the reader something to think about or even inspiring others, which is ultimately a missed opportunity that this book could and should have capitalized on.


It is the first day of school for Fatima Husein the eldest of many daughters in her Indian American suburban home.  With a mother who doesn’t speak much English and parents that don’t seem to understand Fatima’s desire to fit in, the stage is set that will carry through the entire book of Fatima loving to study and separating herself as the girl at school pretending to be more American than she really is, and the girl at home pretending to be more Indian than she feels.  As the book follows the character through college, along the way Fatima and her family have extended maternal family move to America from India and then move back, they take a trip to India which is not enjoyed at all, her dad’s family then moves from India and settles near them, they move to be closer to the masjid, and they go for Hajj.  Characters bounce in and out: school friends, community friends, cousins, etc.. The only real constant is Fatima’s love of school and her paternal grandmother grumbling about her getting married. There are the ups and downs of life that are shared, most very specific to a ABCD (American Born Confused Desi) living in the ’90s.  Fatima is religious and Islam is important to her and she never waivers in her black and white view of things.  It does take her a little while to wear hijab, but there is no real self reflection and catharsis, it is just states she wants to fit in and isn’t ready.  The conclusion is she finally accepts a proposal from the son of an old family friend who lives in Chicago.  Not so much because she likes him, but more because she has no reason not to say yes and her parents are in favor it.


If this were a biography and it was someone famous, the minutia of day to day living might be compelling, but as it is fiction and you have no idea where the story is going, it just seems to tell a story about a typical girl doing typical things.  It has value in that it shows how normal and boring even, a normal Muslim family is, but it gets really preachy at times and really dry.  None of the side characters are memorable.  I have no idea how many sisters Fatima has, when her grandfather passed away I felt nothing, when two who families died in a car accident Eid morning on their way to prayers, I had to flip back to see if the characters had ever been mentioned before.  It seems like the whole point is to get to the end, and more heart and less tedium would have made this book an amazing example of American Muslims in America.  The first page mentions friends and there is no follow up to where they are or what happened to them, and this happens all through out the book, there are no emotional connections, nor attachments among the characters to include the reader into their plight as well.  The protagonist one must assume gains her voice from the author’s experiences herself, but it just lacks internal dialogue and conviction.

Fatima lives through the Gulf War and makes big changes and has to find her place, yet the book just tells us all this, it doesn’t show us how she internalizes and processes and emerges from the experiences shared, it just gives an example and then comments on it.  The font and layout visually looks like a text book, and at times, the internal structure reads like an essay, sharing an anecdote, backing it up, and moving on to the next event on the time line.

I feel like I know the character, it definitely comes from a place of shared experience and credibility, but you have no idea where it is going, and just like I doubt anyone would want to read my life story, the book needs a little direction and editing.  In the author interview posted below in the “Tools to Lead the Discussion” she mentions that mainstream publishers wanted more rebelling and she wouldn’t compromise.  I agree with her, we need books that don’t follow that assumed track, I think that the presentation of the story, however, as it is, is lacking.  The integrity is there, but the character is really flat, and there are plenty of literary tools that could enhance the story without compromising Fatima’s character to drugs and alcohol and boys.  The book was self published in 2010 and I really hope at some point the author will re-edit it, to make it relevant to preteens and teens today and more personable.  Ultimately making it so that the successes Fatima has are cheered on by the reader, who are also inspired by her accomplishments while staying true to her beliefs.


Considering how many pages are dedicated to how she and her sister are to behave in India as to not seem naughty or as arrogant Americans, the curse words flow pretty regularly in the book, and the way she speaks to her elders and in front of her elders is not always kind.  There are side comments about hooking up, STDs, and drinking, nothing any of the characters engage in, but judgments regarding these topics for those that do is present. She also talks about her mom’s failure to discuss menstruation before hand, to exemplify how things are only discussed once they need to be dealt with.


I don’t know that as a book club selection today’s youth would voluntarily pick up and read this book.  There might be some ability for a teacher to assign it and then turn around and make the students write something similar about their experiences in a fictionalized form.  I think students would struggle to relate to Fatima with the outdated references and the lack of conflicts and climaxes in the narrative.