BOOK REVIEW "The Writing on My Forehead" is a brainy, beautiful braid of stories about three generations of a Muslim family.
Perhaps no Americans live so intensely, and in such tension, as immigrants. It's hard for those whose families have been in the United States for two or more generations to understand what it's like to live with your heart and loyalties torn between two places, with beloved and influential relatives a world away.
Nafisa Haji, a Californian of Indian and Pakistani descent, understands what it's like all too well, and has poured her bittersweet wisdom through the filter of imagination to craft a sublime first novel.
In "The Writing on My Forehead" (William Morrow, 306 pages, $24.99), Saira Qader, a Muslim-American journalist, struggles to bridge tradition and ambition, duty and dreams, and to keep the ties that bind her immigrant family from binding too tightly. Even as a child, Saira has a restless nature, challenging her mother's good-vs.-evil fables, pouncing on "the devilish details that caused Mummy's stories to spill over and out of the boxes that she had constructed for them."
When a tragedy whose nature we will not learn until the book's end cuts Saira's globe-trotting short and wrenches her home to California, she finds herself pondering the events that have shaped her family in Bombay, Karachi, London and Los Angeles.
We meet her conservative grandmother, whose Indian husband left her after many years of marriage for an Englishwoman -- all agree, it's outrageous! Then we meet the Englishwoman, who is disarmingly likable. We meet Saira's American parents, with their conflicting desires for their two daughters, and her sister, who one day abruptly dons the hijab, to Saira's dismay. We get to know her brilliant, eccentric, obese aunt in Pakistan, who has lived her dream of pursuing an education at no small cost. There are cousins -- the gay Londoner thrown out by his parents, and his opportunistic sister, who profits from her manipulation of his plight. There's Saira's little niece, who embodies a poignant mystery also revealed at book's end, and her sometime lover, a handsome, enigmatic professor.
It is to Haji's credit that each of these many characters is exquisitely drawn. So little seems to bind them, yet they are inextricably linked; for instance, when Saira is racked with grief and insomnia, what soothes her is the memory of her often aggravating mother's finger gently tracing a prayer on her forehead.
One gathers from the names in the acknowledgments that many of Haji's characters are drawn from real life, and that may be what gives the story its vivid, documentary-like feel. Yet it also bears the confident, truthful feel of fine fiction, of a layered story that carries implications beyond the fortunes of its characters.
This book, if widely read, will go a long way toward deconstructing stereotypes about American Muslims, and that, on top of its value as a work of fiction, makes it a treasure.
Pamela Miller is a Star Tribune night metro editor.