Monday, March 15, 2010

The Writing On My Forehead by Nafisi Haji

The Writing On My Forehead by Nafisi Haji
320 pages
Published March 2009 by Harper Collins
Source: the publisher and TLC Book Tours

Saira Qader is watching over her sister's daughter, as the book opens, because her sister has been shot. Thinking of Ameena takes Saira on a journey into her past, from the time the sisters were little girls right back to the present.

Of Indo-Pakistani descent, but born and raised in the U.S., the two are as different as they can be. Ameena is the "good" daughter, bound to follow the rules and the traditions of their culture. But Saira has always been a little unruly, has always been one to question "why." When she is sent to Pakistan to attend a cousin's wedding, she learns the real reason her mother has refused to attend and so much more about her family and their history. She learns about her maternal grandfather, who left her Indian grandmother for a young Englishwoman before she was even born and she's able to meet the woman and the aunts her mother has never acknowledged. She's able to learn about her paternal grandfather, a man who spent great amounts of time fighting for India's independence from Britain, who lamented the separation of the land into India and Pakistan, all while suffering pain losses in his own life. Knowing these things only seems to convince Saira that being the good little Indo-Paki daughter is not for her. When Ameena enters into an arranged marriage, Saira becomes convinced that, like her great-aunt, Big Nanima, she will never marry.
"But it was a sour proposition to have to contemplate--that there would be any such "we" in my future. That my marriage--that any part of my adult life--would be determined by "we." I thought of Big Nanima, living alone in her little house. That's what I wanted for myself. Space. Freedom."
Instead she attends college, does all of the things her parents would disapprove of, and travels the world as a journalist. But on 9/11, along with so many thousands of others, Saira's life is changed forever.

My sister told me this weekend that she heard that you should probably live where most of the books you love are set. I guess that means I should be, at the very least, considering a trip to India. Because, yet again, I have found a book centered around Middle Eastern culture that I couldn't put down.

Because of the time span of the book, there almost appear to be "parts" of the book. Haji has gone into great detail about certain time periods, then skips over years before picking up the story again. This doesn't always work for me, but Haji has managed to make the story flow for the most part. Learning about the culture, learning about the Indian/Pakistani separation and looking at the world from a different perspective really captivated me. Haji also manages to work in some references to other literary works, including Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" and Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women."
"My mother, I decided, had morphed into some kind of Indo-Pak version of Mrs. Bennet. Ameena was typically quiet. The shy, blushing-bride routine would come naturally to her, I decided, recalling Jane with some bitterness. So, who was I supposed to be? Lizzy?

More like Jo to Ameena's Meg, I decided later, during dinner."
Haji writes of living in the modern world, making your own way, while not entirely turning your back on your culture's history.
"You are a young woman from a different time and place. You have to decide what you want fro your life. But don't be too quick to throw away all of the old to embrace the new. Make room for both, Saira. This old family network--it is with us when we are born, why we marry--as your mother is using it now--and when we die. It is not always a bad thing. Here people don't die alone in their apartments, unmissed and unnoticed for weeks, as I have heard happens in America. In our culture, you are defined by who you are to other people--someone's daughter, wife, mother, sister, aunt. "
There is a lot here, and it doesn't always work. At one point there is a speech that lasts several pages regarding journalism's merit versus fiction's merit. After a bit, I just jumped ahead to get back to the meat of the story. Occasionally Haji can get a little preachy.

But, overall, this is a wonderful story about what it means to be part of a family and part of a particular culture. This would make a good book club selection; there's a lot here to discuss.

Thanks to Trish, and TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour!


  1. I enjoyed this book, but thought the ending seemed rushed. Great review Lisa.

  2. Oh, that's an interesting thought from your sister, I'll have to think about where my favorite books are set.

    I have this one on my shelves SOMEWHERE, you've inspired me to try to find it and put it back on my radar.

  3. Sounds like a great story that probably could have been edited to make it even better. Nice review!

  4. I'm always fascinated about people's lives in other countries. I have this book marked to read and will do it sometime in my life!! LOL!! Great Review!

  5. Great review! I'd like to learn more about India/Pakistan, so hopefully I'll get to read this!

    Side note, I love that tidbit from your sister about living where your favorite books are set. I think that would put me somewhere between England and the Middle East :P

  6. Love your beautiful review!! I have this one on my wishlist! And hope to read it!

  7. I can tell you loved the setting of this book, so you definitely need to read Chef by Jaspreet Singh (May IndieNext List nominee). A young chef serves on an Indian military base in war-torn Kashmir and struggles to come to terms with the personal devastation caused by the religious and military conflict between India and Pakistan. I absolutely loved it.

  8. Gosh, if I was to live where I love to read about the most, I wonder where that would be? I think I'd have to divide my time between a few different places. :)

    Love your review! Thanks for being on the tour!

  9. This book sounds like a great one for the South Asian Authors Challenge! I also am drawn to books set in India which is why the challenge has been perfect for me!

    Will put this one on the list!

  10. I too am drawn to books set in the Middle East; based on that I should move to Syria, during the time of the French Protectorate :)

    Yours is the second positive review I've read of this book.

  11. I think I would be out of the country if I lived where some of my favorite books are set.... :)

    What a wonderful review! This cover reminds me of that Tina Turner one that was recently out.

  12. I am so with you on needing to go visit these places! Like you, I love stories set in this part of the world. I visited India in October, and I did really love it and want to go back! I think you would love it too. Great review. Mine is coming up on the 29th.

  13. Sounds like this book needed an editor to keep it on track!

  14. Imagine the places we would travel if we were able to visit all the places we enjoy reading about! I'm not sure I would want to live in some of the places--or time periods, but it would be fun to visit.

    I am glad you enjoyed this one, Lisa. I did too. I know exactly what part you are talking about in regards to the lecture--I'd almost forgotten about it. It did seem to drag on a bit long, but I found it so interesting that I forgave the author for going off on a tangent that once.

  15. What your sis said is quite interesting. I never thought about it really but what she said makes sense.

    I've seen this one all over and it's gotten some wonderful reviews. Sounds completely shallow on my part but the cover didn't pull me in so I haven't picked this one up. Doesn't mean I won't read it of course. It just means it may take awhile to get to it.

  16. It was interesting - the discussion about journalism versus fiction. Hope you will visit the guest post by Nafisa on my blog - when she talks about writing and how she wrote her book. Guest post by Nafisa Haji