Category Archives: Pakistani American

King for a Day by Rukhsana Khan, illustrated by Christiane Krömer

King for a DayWith the arrival of the spring festival in Lahore, Pakistan, no one is more excited than Malik who is ready for the upcoming kite-flying battles armed with Falcon. “‘How can you be king of Basant with only one kite?’” his sister teases. “‘Insha Allah, it will be fast enough,’” he happily insists.

Directing from his wheelchair on the family’s rooftop, Malik sends his brother “downwind so he can catch the kites I will set free.” His sister remains nearby, carefully following his instructions. Together, the children take on the bully next door, whose hurtful words and powerful kites are no match for Falcon. Once he’s defeated the enemy, Falcon continues to pluck kite after kite from the sky: “When they land, they’ll belong to whoever finds them. But at least they will have tasted freedom.”

Malik is not only king of Basant for his aerial prowess, but even more so for his earthbound kindness as he manages – anonymously! – to stop the tears of a little girl who becomes the bully’s next victim. Joyfully, he’s already planning for next year: “And tomorrow I will start designing a new kite … for next Basant when, Insha Allah, I will be king again.” By highlighting Malik’s many other strengths and talents, author Rukhsana Khan seamlessly presents a hero who is much more than his physical challenges: His patience and skill prove stronger than any bully’s cruelty and greed.

Christiane Krömer, who “specializes in illustrating stories that feature cultures from around the world,” uses multi-layered, mixed-media collages to enhance Khan’s caring story: unexpected combinations of delicate embroidery and rougher textures add depth, carefully placed architectural specifics ground the narrative, while the depiction of a teeny-tiny black cat who is the sole witness to Malik’s secret thoughtfulness turns out to be the perfect ‘show-don’t-tell’ detail.

In the endnote “About Basant,” Canada-based Khan gives a cultural and historical overview of Basant in her birthcountry of Pakistan. She explains in the final paragraph how “kite flying and the celebration of Basant in Lahore were banned for safety reasons and for security concerns due to orthodox religious opposition.” According to a recent Pakistani media article, “Hundreds have died in Basant related accidents in the past decade”! Khan mentions that 2013 was supposed to bring a return of Basant to Lahore, but activities remained cancelled until this year. At least in Lahore, Basant officially returns February 21 until March 5, 2014. Here’s to the promise to lofty adventures ahead!

Click here to see Khan’s other titles on BookDragon.

Readers: Children

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Fiction, Canadian Asian Pacific American, Pakistani, Pakistani American, South Asian American

American Dervish by Ayad Akhtar

In a sentence, American Dervish is about a young boy’s indoctrination into Islam – the religion he was born into, but from the practice of which his parents have lapsed (by choice) – and his eventual withdrawal from his fervent childhood devotion. By extension, the novel also exposes the oftentimes extreme divide between fundamentalist religion – its mindless rules and regulations – and true spirituality.

Dervish begins essentially backwards with protagonist Hayat Shah already a college student – feeling “at once brave and ridiculous” eating bratwurst, choosing not to leave a class from which the rest of his fellow Muslim students have fled in anger (and fear) from that day’s “‘in-cen-diary!” discussion, glibly announcing that he’s a Mutazalite (“[a] school of Muslims that don’t believe in the Quran as the eternal word of God … [who] died off a thousand years ago”), and initiating a relationship with a young Jewish woman. By the end of this prologue, Mina – Hayat’s mother’s closest friend from childhood who became his religious enabler – has died … and Hayat’s new love interest gently reaches out and says, “‘Tell me.’”

Mina “had, perhaps, the greatest influence on my life,” Hayat acknowledges. Escaping a stifling, disastrous marriage in her native Pakistan, the independent, lively, gorgeous Mina arrives with her toddler son in the American Midwest and moves into the Shah family home. Hayat is enthralled, and his less-than-happily-married parents newly joyous. Mina warmly, lovingly begins Hayat’s spiritual education which, in his sexually-maturing adolescent mind, eventually morphs into an obsessive attachment to Mina. When Mina becomes romantically involved with Hayat’s father’s medical partner and best friend, Hayat’s single act of youthful jealousy sets in motion an overwhelming tragedy with lifelong consequences …

Dervish will surely persuade you that Ayad Akhtar is one of those very rare writers whose debut titles hit shelves fully formed. Perhaps his earlier dramatic experiences (Brown diploma in theater, serious actor training as both student and teacher, several stage productions) and filmic accomplishments (Columbia grad degree, more screenplays, numerous award nominations) gave him the foundation to do what he does so undeniably well on the page. Clear your calendar for an uninterrupted few hours: Akhtar absolutely knows how to tell this story – achingly, convincingly, memorably.

Tidbit: With such a practiced background, no surprise that Akhtar is also a most excellent narrator: he’s his own reader in the audible version. That Akhtar thanks Firdous Bamji (whose voice alone will make me stick a book in my ears) in his acknowledgments adds another layer of well-deserved approval. Akhtar made my last 50K race pass quickly … too bad he doesn’t have another title to join me for a 50-miler in two weeks!

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Pakistani American, South Asian American

The Wish Maker by Ali Sethi

I confess the main reason I finally plucked this debut novel (written by its author when he was just 23) from my never-shrinking ‘to-read’ pile was because I found the audible version is narrated by Indian American actor Firdous Bamji. After finishing Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide, I was missing Bamji’s transporting characterizations … alas, even Bamji couldn’t bring enough sparkle to the ultimately disappointing, overwritten family saga.

Wish Maker basically begins where it will end (don’t worry: no spoilers): narrator Zaki Shirazi arrives in his native Pakistan from his U.S. college in the first chapter to attend the wedding of his cousin-raised-as-his-sister Samar Api, the event which will mark the novel’s end. Over the 400-plus pages in between, we meet the many women – yes, the men are mostly absent – that shape and influence Zaki’s young life: his imperious, power-wielding conservative grandmother who is the family matriarch; his widowed, liberal, feminist mother often at odds with the matriarch; and, of course, his free-spirited, rule-defying cousin-sister Samar Api (who is, actually, Zaki’s father’s first cousin, the daughter of his grandmother’s younger sister, to be absolutely accurate).

Sethi gingerly overlays three generations of Pakistan’s tumultuous history – from its violent separation from East Pakistan-turned-Bangladesh to the controversial leadership of Benazir Bhutto to the country’s ongoing struggles toward democracy – with reminders of the unexpected influences of western pop culture (The Wonder Years!) and the closer-to-home fantasies created by Bollywood. Sethi is never overtly political except to allow Zaki’s mother an occasional anti-colonial diatribe, but he does remain keenly aware of the inequity of gender-based privilege throughout. Undoubtedly, the characterization of Samar Api’s mother remains the most memorable by story’s end.

I (again) confess that I don’t have any glaring, obvious reasons as to why Wish Maker eventually proved so lackadaisical a read (and listen); surely it seems to have had all the potential elements to be stupendous (including that 23-year-old wunderkind bravado!). But bottom line: at 432 hardcover pages or 11 hours in narration, such a time commitment is inevitably better spent with others … in Pakistan alone, Daniyal Mueenuddin, Kamila Shamsie, Mohammad Hanif, Mohsin Hamid, Bapsi Sidhwa all beckon with unforgettable tales.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2009

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Pakistani, Pakistani American

Wanting Mor by Rukhsana Khan

Sometimes even the saddest tragedies can eventually lead to happy new beginnings … even if the journey is a bit circuitous and challenging, to say the least!

When Jameela, a young Afghan girl, loses her Mor (the Pushto word for mother) to illness, she can’t imagine that anything worse can happen. Her mother was the kindest, most loving presence in her life. Born with a cleft lip she keeps hidden as much as possible, Jameela was well aware she would never be considered attractive, but her mother always told her, “‘If you can’t be beautiful, you should at least be good.’” And ‘good’ Jameela continues to try to be.

Left alone with her drinking, gambling, disappearing father, she is suddenly uprooted without warning from their small home village to the big city of Kabul. Jameela is quickly put to work as a house servant, and is uprooted again when her father unexpectedly remarries. Her new stepmother is selfish and abusive, although her new stepbrother seems to have a generous heart and tries to teach Jameela to read. But the brief, almost-family-like respite for Jameela doesn’t last long: her irresponsible father is easily manipulated by his new wife to abandon Jameela in a crowded market intersection. With nowhere to go, no one to turn to, Jameela must rely on the kindness of strangers to survive, but eventually she finds a home, new friends, and for the first time in her life, she finally begins her education.

Rukhsana Khan based her latest novel for young readers on the true story of another young girl, Sameela, documented in a single paragraph in “a report on children in crisis that was issued by Afghanistan’s department of orphanages,” she explains in her ending “Author’s Note.” Khan sets her story in 2001 just after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, already a ravaged nation. “When countries go to war, it is always civilians, especially children, who suffer the most.” Such simple, heartbreaking truth indeed.

Access to education will ensure Jameela’s future. Khan’s book is yet further testimony that educating girls can and will make the most lasting, powerful difference in changing the persistent tragedies of the world. Khan’s title, is both homage to Jameela’s mother, but also a fervent prayer for more, for education, for a future, for peace. Indeed, educate girls and the impossible will become possible.

Click here to see Khan’s other titles on BookDragon.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2009


Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, Afghan, Canadian Asian Pacific American, Pakistani American

Indivisible: An Anthology of Contemporary South Asian American Poetry edited by Neelajana Banerjee, Summi Kaipa, and Pireeni Sundaralingam

The title – Indivisible – the editors explain, is “a word taken from the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance.” Through the 49 diverse American voices represented here with roots in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, Indivisible explores “[t]he issue of whether unity and pluralism may be reconciled …” The editors starkly remind that in a post-9/11 world, the “voices [of many South Asian American poets]  had been diminished by the tide of anti-Muslim and xenophobic sentiment arising after the attacks.” Given the recent Quran burning threats and the ongoing debates over who is welcomed as Ground Zero’s potential neighbors, that oppressive tide unfortunately remains challenging at best.

Regardless, creative expression will not be stemmed. Through many years of devoted labor, three tenacious editors – Neela Banerjee is a journalist, fiction writer, and editor; Summa Kaipa is a literary curator, psychologist, and magazine editor; and Pireeni Sundaralingam is a playwright, literary judge, and scientist – have created a remarkable collection that pays homage to a “multiplicity of languages, cultures, and faiths” while acknowledging the “inherent contradictions in grouping together writers of such differing backgrounds.”

Established, award-winning writers such as Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Vijay Seshadri, Amitava Kumar, and Meena Alexander, mix experiences with younger, break-out voices including Srikanth Reddy and Shailja Patel. From Reetika Vazirani’s search for elusive glamour in her prose poem “From the Postcard at Vertigo Bookstore in D.C.,” to Tanuja Mehrotra’s borderless memories laid bare in “A Song for New Orleans,” to Sejal Shah’s lost road trip through “Independence, Iowa,” to Sundaralingam’s own unique snowflake discovery in “Vermont, 1885,” these category-defying, form-pushing works criss-cross the country, searching, watching, discovering, being …

Lucky for us as we enjoy the journeys …

Tidbit: Co-editor Pireeni Sundaralingam makes her Smithsonian debut at SALTAF 2010 this Saturday, November 13. She’ll be sharing the stage with award-winning Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni … and me as their moderator. Uh-oh …

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2010


Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Poetry, Bangladeshi American, Indian American, Nepali American, Pakistani American, South Asian American, Sri Lankan American

The Big Red Lollipop by Rukhsana Khan, illustrated by Sophie Blackall

Pakistani Canadian writer Rukhsana Khan takes on sibling rivalry once again, but unlike her adorable 2005 title, Silly Chicken, this time, all her characters are all of the human variety …

When Rubina gets invited to her first-ever birthday party, her mother – being of a different culture– insists that she must take her younger sister Sana along. Ami will not budge, and Rubina has no choice but to call her friend Sally about the unwanted extra guest.

At the party, Sana is the typical little sister. She has to win, she falls, she cries. Her not-so-considerate behavior doesn’t get much better at home, either. Worst of all, it will be a long time before Rubina is asked to another party …

Still, Rubina proves her older, more mature, big sister mettle when Sana comes home in great excitement with an invitation of her own …

Illustrator Sophie Blackall clearly seems to be having the most fun of all … the two-page spread with an aerial view of angry Rubina giving chase after a wicked little Sana as they dash from room to room adds gleeful energy indeed. Oh, what a challenge it is to be the oldest!

Readers: Children

Published: 2010

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Fiction, Canadian, Canadian Asian Pacific American, Pakistani American, South Asian American

Skunk Girl by Sheba Karim

Skunk GirlWithout giving too much away, I have to say that this heartfelt debut has one of the most touching first-kiss scenes ever: up on a snowy mountain under a bright clear sky, having just taken a tumble while skiing, making snow angels and laughing … and then … just *smooch*. What’s not to love about that?

For not-yet-16-year-old high schooler Nina Khan, being a good Muslim daughter means no weekend parties, no sleeping over even at her best friend’s house because some strange man (her best friend’s dad?!) might see her in her pajamas, and most especially no talking to boys because that just might lead to getting pregnant! With a genius sister at Harvard (of course, Sonia never even looked at boys except as disdainful competition), Nina’s got a big expectations to meet. But when new boy Asher arrives in their sleepy little town, he turns every girl’s head … including Nina’s. Now what’s a good Pakistani American daughter to do?

Readers: Young Adult

Published: 2009

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Filed under ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, Pakistani American, South Asian American

A Party in Ramadan by Asma Mobin-Udden, illustrated by Laura Jacobsen

party-in-ramadan2When young Leena is invited to Julia’s pony party which happens to fall on the first Friday of Ramadan, she decides she will go anyway and just not eat or drink. During the month of Ramadan, observant Muslims fast during the day as a sign of gratitude and perform good deeds in order to feel closer to God. Leena is still too young to fast every day of the holy month, but she is looking forward to breaking the fast with a traditional iftar dinner with her aunt who will be visiting.

At the party, Leena realizes just how difficult not eating or even taking a small drink of water is. When the sun finally sets and she breaks the fast with her family, she is that much more grateful for all the blessings of her life.

Review: “In Celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month: New & Notable Books,” The Bloomsbury Review, May/June 2009

Readers: Children

Published: 2009

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Fiction, Pakistani American, South Asian American

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin

in-other-rooms-other-wondersWhat can I say? This debut collection is a gift. In eight intertwined stories using spare, perfectly measured language, hapa Pakistani American Daniyal Mueenuddin captures the lives of the haves and have-nots – money, position, power – with both precision and grace.

Each of the collection’s characters revolve around the elderly K.K. Harouni, whose extensive household and massive holdings begin in a Pakistani village and emanate far beyond. Each is fighting for survival with various skills: Nawab the electrician gains enormous local status by managing to secure himself a motorcycle, Saleema the servant goes from one man to another searching for comfort and security, Jaglani the skimming land manager succumbs to love late in life, socialite Lily hopes to change her meaningless rituals with marriage, while wandering Rezak falls victim to kind intentions.

Review: “In Celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month: New & Notable Books,” The Bloomsbury Review, May/June 2009

Tidbit: Talk about missed opportunities! Mueenuddin was in the River Cluster while I was in Mid-Mass at Dartmouth … we were in the same graduating class, holy moly! And then it turns out we overlapped at Yale for three years, too. And it takes this book to find out about him! His mother is also best friends with the grandmother of our son’s oldest friends – got all that? Anyway, we’re going to work all our angles to try our best to get him to the Smithsonian this fall for the latest SALTAF (South Asian Literature and Theater Arts Festival). Stay tuned!

THIS JUST IN (on April 22, 2009): Mueenuddin is coming to SALTAF 2009. That’s Saturday November 7, 2009. How’s that for some fabulous news??!!

THIS JUST IN (on October 15, 2009): Mueenuddin’s a finalist for the 2009 National Book Award. I swear, I should be a book bookie!

Readers: Adult

Published: 2009


Filed under ...Absolute Favorites, ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Short Stories, Hapa, Pakistani, Pakistani American, South Asian, South Asian American

The Pakistani Bride by Bapsi Sidhwa

pakistani-brideFirst published in 1983, Sidhwa’s haunting first novel has been brought back with a new introduction by grand dame Anita Desai. It’s based on a true story Sidwha heard while traveling in Pakistan about a young bride who ran away from a brutal marriage, only to be hunted like an animal and murdered in the name of honor. Sidhwa gives voice to that silent soul, giving her a history, a life, and even hope.

Review: “In Celebration of Asian Pacific American Month: A Survey of New & Notable Books,” The Bloomsbury Review, May/June 2008

Readers: Adult

Published: 1983, 2007 (re-issued with new preface)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, Pakistani, Pakistani American, South Asian, South Asian American