Demystifying the world is central to many coming-of-age stories. Often in these stories we find a wide-eyed, hopeful young person who journeys out into the world seeking to manifest their ideals, only to face impersonal cruelties and structural tragedies which force them to reassess who they are, who they want to be, and the world where their lives will unfold.
But nowadays young people can tap into a sprawling global information ecosystem with just a WiFi signal and a device that connects to it. A few minutes on TikTok or Twitter followed by a Wikipedia-binge can reveal seemingly endless iterations of injustice in the world. Given the easy and early exposure to the harsh ways of the world, is it possible for young people to inoculate themselves from the rude awakening that constitutes coming of age? One gets the sense that Hira—the central character in Dur e Aziz Amna’s debut novel American Fever—thinks such an inoculation is possible.
The novel opens with Hira in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, as she’s preparing to leave for a study-abroad program in America. The brief glimpse we get of her life in Rawalpindi is colored by the tension around her decision to leave. Her parents’ grappling over the decision to send her away brings to light the burden of being, and representing herself as, a “Pakistani, a Muslim, and a girl.” The weight of what it means to leave home begins to dawn on her, and on the eve of leaving she finds herself “missing a moment that had not yet passed.”
Hira’s study-abroad trip brings her to the rural suburbs near Eugene, Oregon, to spend the next year with Kelly, a white, middle-aged single mother, and her daughter Amy who is the same age as Hira. Given her excitement about studying abroad, one could be forgiven for expecting this novel to play out with Hira euphorically experiencing the life of a middle-class, suburban American teenager and fostering nurturing relationships with her host-mother and sister. And with that expectation, some of Hira’s first interactions may come as a surprise: early on at school, she cusses out a classmate for using a racist nickname for Hamid, another foreign-exchange student (who was okay with the name); she coldly tells Amy she needs to read more after she laughed at a racist joke; and when visiting her host family’s church, she sharply reminds a churchgoer of the “bass of American bullets” when the churchgoer makes demeaning remarks about the sound of the azaan in Afghanistan.
An unforgiving bluntness towards others is Hira’s general disposition, and she seems to revel in the small conflicts it causes, but the book isn’t entirely about Hira’s combative attitude towards America and the world in general. Indeed, there are gorgeous depictions of her taking in the beauty of the Pacific Northwest, budding friendships and romantic interests, and a wonderfully complex relationship between Hira and her host mother—but those other experiences don’t amount to a softening of Hira’s cynicism.
But cynicism itself can be a type of posturing, and what can cut through posturing like illness and death? Before leaving for America, Hira tests positive for tuberculosis, but on the advice of her parents she forgoes taking preventive medicine that could’ve kept the symptoms at bay. A few months away from the end of her stay, her symptoms emerge with force, sending her into quarantine and bedrest. And shortly after her symptoms have set in, she gets the ominous phone call that everyone who leaves home fears the most: a loved one has passed away, and in Hira’s case it’s her grandfather.
In Hira’s grappling with illness and grief the book reaches an emotional crescendo. It isn’t clear what Hira was seeking by leaving for the United States. But, particularly after her grandfather passes, she is overcome by yearning for home, and she realizes that wherever she goes, her past comes with her; her sense of self—and the people and places it is rooted in—is not something she can depart from, but has to build upon: “The weight of my life is back there, the locus of my grief is back there—and it pains me to write this because I will have to confront this over and over and over again my entire life—the mouth of the fall, the gleam of dawn, the spring of pain, it is all there, it will always be there.”
But having your personal history rooted somewhere else doesn’t mean you have to close yourself off to experiencing the world where you are, out of a misplaced sense of loyalty to “home.” In her final conversation with Hamid, he questions why she never attempted to assimilate to America so she could experience it on a deeper level. When Hira claims it’s because it’s impossible to escape the past, Hamid responds, “You being open to other people doesn’t wipe away your history …. You don’t have to roam the earth so defensively. Your existence doesn’t require anyone else’s acknowledgement.”
Coming of age may be a universal experience, but the ages that we come into are not. Within the single character of Hira, Dur e Aziz Amna brilliantly interrogates what it means to feel at home in the world, exploring themes of gender, religion, and family along the way. This book could not have come at a better time. Developing a sense of self has always been challenging, but Amna skillfully captures the unique struggles of finding a place in oneself and the world during a time of mass migration, the collapsing of social orthodoxies, and globalization.
By Dur e Aziz Amna
Published August 16, 2022
Farooq Chaudhry is a writer and editor based in Chicago. He currently serves as a Daily Editor for the Chicago Review of Books. You can find him on Twitter at @spilledchai_.