Akashic Books ($15.95)
by Julia Stein
Since 2000, writers from central Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa have published some brilliant, award-winning novels in English. Pakistani-British Nadeem Aslam’s wonderful Maps for Lost Lovers and Bangladeshi-British Monica Ali’s Brick Lane (both 2004) explore the lives of first generation immigrants in Britain. In the United States, Khaled Hosseini’s best seller The Kite Runner (2003) describes an Afghan boyhood friendship against the backdrop of war, Rabih Almeddine’s An Unnecessary Woman (2014) focuses on a bookseller in war-torn Lebanon, and Laila Lalami’s Secret Son (2009) looks at a poor boy’s foiled attempt to escape the slums in Morocco.
Like these five novelists, Ali Eteraz, author of the debut novel Native Believer, is an immigrant; he came from the Dominican Republic and Pakistan to New York, where he yearned to “produce stories that would be deemed quintessentially American.” As an adult he read Richard Wright on American disenfranchisement, and then found his own way to write a sad, funny, and haunting novel that debates what America is. The novel captures post-9/11 U.S. in a brilliant satire.
Born of Asian immigrant parents, M has married a Southern belle from a wealthy family and works in a PR firm in Philadelphia. M’s parents never taught him their religion, Islam, but they did teach him to believe in all-American upward mobility. After 9/11, M decided to become a “new kind of man,” one who wanted to surrender, and wanted to distance himself as much as possible from people with names likes his who crashed planes into buildings. In the gender reversal of his marriage, his wife is the sports hero, the aggressor working for a national security firm making America safe through drones, but she has battled a bad disease for some time. M is the gentle man who writes poems for his wife to help her get well and wants to become 100% American.
Eteraz often displays a knack for black comedy. At a party at M’s house, while he fusses over wine like a dandy, his new boss finds a Koran that M’s mother had given him, and subsequently fires M. His Jewish lawyer friend wants him to sue for discrimination, but both M and his wife Marie-Anne say he can’t, because he’s not actually a Muslim. The novel is not about “identity” but rather about how identities shift. M leaves his middle class neighborhood to wander North Philadelphia where he sees in the impoverishment and desolation a replica of his own life. There he befriends a Muslim pornographer named Ali and hangs out during an orgy with the rock band the Gay Commie Muzzies (yes, there is now Muslim punk rock). M thinks he’s living a kind of 21st-century incarceration, where all around is freedom “but it was not something accessible to us.” The “us” is now Muslims.
The satire and debate continues as M squirms back into the middle class when he gets a job working for the State Department as a “Moderate Muslim,” going to other countries to tell other Muslims the good about the United States. M realizes he still believes “there was no deity but America” but since he doesn’t control how others define him, he has “to enter the prison that someone else has constructed for you, and you have to live there with all the patient forbearance.” With the groundwork laid for an ending that will surprise readers, Native Believer offers no pat answers about being Muslim in America, but it does pose a lot of good questions.