Any love story worth paying attention to has two integral components: conflict and devotion. Often the former gives way to the latter, but in Fatima Farheen Mirza’s debut novel, A Place For Us, the two coexist, both in her writing and in the lived experiences that inspired it. Mirza’s novel is not a love story in the way that you are thinking, although there are a number of romantic subplots within the narrative. At its core, A Place For Us is a love letter to community, specifically the Indian-American Muslim community whose culture, customs and complexities are at the center of the narrative.
The novel catches a family in the middle of their eldest daughter, Hadia’s, wedding, which also marks the return of Amar, the estranged youngest child, back into the folds of his family after three years away. Going back and forth in time, the novel tells the story of Rafiq and Layla, immigrants from India, to whom religion, tradition, and culture are both a comforting reminder of their old lives in India and an anchor in their new lives as Americans. Their children, Hadia, Huda and Amar, are attempting to navigate their way between their parents’ world and their present reality, to find a balance between doing right by their roots and staying true to themselves.
Throughout her novel, Mirza situates this family firmly within a wider community and culture. This is evident in the locations where much of the novel takes place: obligatory prayers and Quran classes at the local mosque, functions at the homes of different families within the community, basketball games in mosque parking lots. Many of the most significant events in the characters’ lives are also a by-product of these wider influences, from the pressure to fit in, rumors and gossip, to unconditional support and unspoken solidarity. It is clear that their community, culture, and religious convictions have a deep pull on the central characters, who are both fiercely loyal to and struggling against them.
When you belong to a community that is not widely represented in mainstream media and art – like the one Mirza writes about – there are certain complexities in how you choose to depict them when given the chance. Ideally, you would do so with total accuracy and transparency, but there is always the fear that if you expose the bad as well as the good, the former will contribute to pre-existing stereotypes and rhetoric while the latter remains largely ignored. This is particularly true with regard to Muslim communities because we are at the mercy of a media landscape that refuses to see us as anything but homogenous. And so we are torn between propaganda and accuracy, between irresponsibility and betrayal.
Mirza finds a solution to this dilemma in a single, powerful tool that is the foundation of her storytelling: empathy. She knows her characters intimately and loves them despite this. The same applies to the wider community in the novel, which is reflective of her own. Raised in California by Indian Muslim immigrants, Mirza walks the precarious line between loyalty and clear-sightedness with careful diplomacy.
It can be intimidating to disclose – no matter how subtly – the flaws of one’s community, marginalized or otherwise. And Mirza is subtle, touching on the sexism, the judgment, and the immense pressure that exists within the Indian Muslim community without ever sounding preachy or deprecatory. Even in her criticism, she is deeply empathetic. She recognizes where these flaws come from, in what environments these injustices and oppressions grow, compelling us to understand them without excusing them. She communicates that all these things exist simultaneously with the warmth of the community, the hospitality, the unyielding loyalty, the generosity, the fierce love – and that to weigh either side against the other to come to a definitive conclusion is both impossible and unnecessary.
As we do with those we truly love, Mirza recognizes and confronts her community’s shortcomings with a degree of empathy and thoughtfulness that catches you off-guard, especially in the fourth and final part of the novel. A Place For Us shows that there is a middle ground in between the extremes of blind loyalty and calculated critique and that writers and artists from marginalized communities must claim for themselves that space that is so easily afforded to everyone else.