THE WRITING ON MY FOREHEAD by Nafisa Haji

Book Quote:

Your mother is worried about you – you have so many choices, so many options. Those are choices she cannot relate to and it is always difficult to see those we love choose differently then we have chosen, to live differently and be different.

You have to decide what you want for your life. But don’t be too quick to throw away all of the old to embrace the new. Make room for both, Saira.”

Book Review:

Reviewed by Jana L. Perskie (APR 29, 2009)

The Writing on My Forehead is a multi-generational tale involving a complex Indo-Pakistani clan which is scattered all over the world. They periodically gather in Pakistan, England and America for family visits. However, Pakistan is the locale of preference, because so many relatives live here. The elders who live in the West are determined to familiarize their children with the rich culture and traditional mores of their heritage. Nafisa Haji has written, with lyrical prose, a multi-layered, coming of age story which is sure to appeal to many readers. Saira Qader, a first generation American, is the narrator. 

Sisters Ameena and Saira Qader, were born and live in a suburb of Los Angeles. They are Muslim-Americans of Indo-Pakistani descent. Their parents were born in India, before the Partition of British India into the countries of India and Pakistan. The Partition caused the sisters’ grandparents, parents, and millions of others, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs, to make individual decisions on where they would reside. 

The two sisters are as different as day from night. Ameena , the eldest, is beautiful, inheriting her mother’s milky white skin and well defined features. She is slender, graceful, and has long, sleek, dark brown hair. Saira’s hair is so wild that it is kept boyishly short. She takes after her father with her “shorter limbs and stubby proportions.” While Ameena is obedient with traditional values, Saira is a “junglee girl,” (Hindi for ill-mannered), inquisitive and very intelligent. She longs to have a bit more Western culture added to her sheltered life. 

The teenage girls are forever listening to their mother’s stories – all with a moral attached. At times her tales appear to be far fetched and seemingly unrelated to the subjects which inspire them. “Mother India” is the “source of all her improbable fables. The stories always end with a twist – of fateful karmic proportions.” Mrs. Qader’s has a facile, but nonetheless comfortable, world view. “Bad things happen to bad people…or to not-so-good people who make bad choices.” Good people’s lives are defined by duty and obligation. She has learned this firsthand. 

Storytelling plays a big part in the author’s debut novel. Three generations of family people her book. They are a wonderfully diverse, boisterous clan which holds frequent gatherings, often in Pakistan with stops for more visiting in England. These get-togethers usually involve weddings or funerals. With so many people there are bound to be many secrets, some going back generations. Saira becomes an expert at winkling out whatever details she can obtain of family lore, and stores them away for the day when she will become a writer, a journalist – a far away day, as she is only fourteen when the novel begins. 

Saira’s view of her narrow world changes drastically when she flies solo from her home in Los Angeles to Pakistan for a cousin’s wedding. Here the reader is introduced to many of her relatives, and to a wonderfully bright and rich culture. The celebration is filled with joy, and rife with family rivalries, feuds, sibling jealousies and more secrets and lies than the teenager can internalize. 

Just as The Writing on My Forehead bridges generations, the characters attempt to bridge cultures, sometimes with disastrous results. From arranged marriages to pot smoking, sex and alcohol at university, there are resounding repercussions and even exile. Saira becomes a journalist and travels with her cousin, a talented photographer, to the most dangerous places in the world to “bear witness” to life’s injustices. An old friend and former lover asks, “Chechnya, Rwanda – have you ever met a massacre you didn’t like, Saira?” 

Her beloved aunt, Big Nanima, advises her to make room in her life for both the old and the new. The bond of family is all important. When tragedy strikes, this long ignored bond forces Sara to return to the culture she has rebelled against. It is at this time of extreme stress that Saira Qader aches for her mother’s touch. When Saira and Ameena were little girls, Mrs. Qader would write an “ayer” from the Quran on her daughters’ foreheads – “Ayatul Kusi,” a prayer for protection, meant to sooth away fears and nightmares. But now Saira is an adult, her mother is dead, and she will have to find other ways to bring peace into her life. 

I really enjoyed this novel and am impressed by Ms. Haji’s writing and ability to balance multiple storylines. She develops her characters so well, that I feel as if I know them. However, the narrative’s pace is uneven at times, and I wish the ending were stronger and more credible. I highly recommend The Writing on My Forehead and look forward to Nafisa Haji next book. 

AMAZON READER RATING:  stars-4-5from 15 reviewers
PUBLISHER:  William Morrow; 1 edition (March 3, 2009)
REVIEWER:  Jana L. Perskie
AMAZON PAGE:  The Writing on My Forehead: A Novel
AUTHOR WEBSITE:  Nafisa Haji
EXTRAS:  no
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION:  no

Bibliography:

April 29, 2009 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: Coming-of-Age, Debut Novel, Family Matters, India-Pakistan, Pakistan, World Lit

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