Reviewed by T Nicole Cirone
Author: Ayesha F. Hamid
Publisher: Auctus Publishers, 2020
When we first meet Ayesha, it is the summer between her freshman and sophomore years in college, and she is about to set off for the mall to find a summer job. Her future at Chestnut Hill College depends on her making enough money to pay the remaining balance after her financial aid package, and she cannot ask her parents, immigrants from Pakistan, for the money. So, she puts on a blouse and pants and prepares to leave her cul-de-sac and walk along the busy road to the mall. Her mother stops her. “You’re a girl. Why are you walking the whole way to the mall by yourself?” and then continues, “What you’re wearing, your pants and shirt, it’s too revealing. Whenever you wear pants instead of shalwar-kameez, I can always see the shape of your hips and rear-end. Your outfit will draw male attention, and it’s already dangerous for you to be walking.”
As cars speed by, Ayesha, who is walking to the mall because she has neither a car nor a driver’s license, considers the great paradox of her life at the moment: her parents will not let her drive because they think her too wild, whereas everyone outside of her family sees her as a “bookworm, only interested in things like grades, books and college.” It is only in college that Ayesha has started to find a place for herself: in her studies, in the friendships with other students and in a future that she can make for herself through education, which her family has encouraged despite their wariness and concern for her safety. From the start of the story, we see Ayesha fighting for her opportunity to figure out who she is and to create a path for herself. She is determined and will not give up, even if it means walking alone and not taking the easy way. This defines Ayesha’s struggle to find and define herself even as she exists in this borderland between worlds: too American for her Pakistani family and too “foreign” to fit in with her classmates or what mainstream American culture often has us take for granted as “cool.”
Ayesha contends with both of these realities. She is often isolated by classmates and peers, but feels misunderstood at home, and as she comes of age, she wonders what freedom looks like for her. Is it in being popular and thus going against who she is? Is it in dressing more “American?” What about her family legacy, which is always with her? Who is she, and what is her place in her family– and in the world?
In chapter two, Ayesha questions whether her parents’ decision to come to America was worth it. Had her family stayed in Pakistan, she muses, her life would have been “the life of an insider and one of ease.” Surely, this existence in the “borderland between worlds” was not easy for her—nor for her family: “So, if the choice had been mine, would I have given up everything I’d learned from coming to a new country, and what is learned by every immigrant who comes here, that breadth of wisdom and sadness pushing us down with its weight, leaving dents in out bones, our skulls, and our souls? Would I have opted for security over the truth of what life can be? Would I have taken the easy way out?”
As she grows up and faces new challenges and takes new opportunities, these questions follow her. The reader sees Ayesha’s sense of self and, by extension, her courage, become forged by her experiences. More questions like: who am I?; what does it mean to be free?; how can I do good in the world?; what does it mean to be a woman at this time in history, what is independence, and how can I stand up for myself?… present themselves as she grows. The answers she discovers along the way help her to navigate college, a job, finally getting her license, doing good work, and experiencing the freedom she seeks in travel and (a mostly arranged) marriage—which ends in her husband, who becomes abusive towards her– and whose motives for marrying her are by now questionable– filing for divorce.
After she emerges from the devastation of her divorce, though, Ayesha finally finds the balance she has been searching for. She settles into her own apartment—living not far from, but not with– her parents, whose support throughout the painful divorce is particularly touching, and she goes back to school for a graduate degree in Creative Writing, which leads her to becoming part of an academic community and, eventually, to writing this book.
Ayesha Hamid’s memoir is honest, beautiful and compelling—I read it in one sitting. Her struggles and the stories she shares connect us all, as humans and as immigrants or children of immigrants to this country. Ayesha’s courage assures us that the easy way out is not always the best way out. Sometimes it’s confusing to navigate the borderland between worlds—whatever that might mean to the reader, for the borderland of which Ms. Hamid writes is not only a space of cultural ambiguity, but a space of uncertainty in which decisions must be made. Ayesha learns to live in this borderland on her own terms. She finds the courage and the balance to live an authentic life through experiencing the growth and self-awareness that happens while residing in this borderland. In fact, she eventually comes to realize that the borderland is a place where her worlds come together in balance. She realizes that she can be independent—as well as part of her family and her society. Her identity is formed by all of her experiences. And, she learns in the end, the only way to make sense of anything life throws at us, is to work together and figure it out.
“If the decision had been mine…” she writes, “then I too would have brought my family to this land. I’d have yelled out, ‘It’s not a mistake. America is not a mistake! It’s the way our lives are meant to unfold. And if we stay in Pakistan, where everything is easier, then we will miss out on the struggle and the learning. Most importantly, we will miss out on each other—in America, sometimes, all we have is each other, and we’ll have to work together to try to make sense of it all.”
T. Nicole Cirone is the author of the novel Nine Nails: A Novel in Essays (Serving House Books, 2019). Her work has appeared in several literary journals, including Serving House Journal, Ovunque Siamo: A Journal of Italian-American Writing, Hippocampus, Perigee, Red River Review and Philadelphia Stories; and in three anthologies: The Best of Philadelphia Stories Anthology, Reaching Beyond the Saguaros: A Prosimetric Travelogue and Gateways. She is a poetry editor for The Night Heron Barks. Ms. Cirone holds undergraduate degrees in Italian Studies and Political Science and an MA in English from Rosemont College; and a dual-concentration (Poetry and Creative Non-Fiction) MFA in Creative Writing from Fairleigh Dickinson University. Her work can be found at tnicolecironewriter.wordpress.com.