Book review: Samira Ahmedʹs "Love, hate and other filters"

A sense of not belonging

Samira Ahmedʹs novel "Love, hate and other filters" brings the reality of being the child of South East Asian immigrants in America to life in the guise of a young adult coming-of-age type story. Richard Marcus read the book

Maya Aziz is both a typical teenager in suburban Illinois and completely different from the kids she goes to school with. Like them she worries about boys and dreams of a life beyond the confines of her quiet neighbourhood. However, unlike them, her parents were born in Pakistan, she's Muslim and if she's not careful, her mother will plan out her future for her: study to become a doctor or lawyer and find a good husband.

A good husband is of course someone her mother approves of, or perhaps has even picked out for her. Of course, this means he's definitely not the Anglo-American quarterback of the high school football team Maya dreams about. This isn't the only part of her mum's plans Maya has a problem with. Not only doesn't she want to become a doctor or a lawyer, nor go to school at an Illinois university, she wants to study film-making. In fact, as well as applying to parentally approved colleges, she has also applied to and been accepted by New York University on their film course.

While she's trying to navigate all these potential mine fields, something happens to make them all feel trivial. A terror attack in the capital city of Illinois, Springfield, turns her safe little world upside down. When the FBI announce their initial suspect is an Egyptian national who shares the same last name as Maya, any sense of belonging she might have had within her school and wider community is shattered.

Any excuse to hate

First her parent's dental practice has a brick thrown through its front window, slightly injuring her father. At school she finds herself becoming the target of sideways looks and then direct racist confrontations by a fellow student, which culminates in her being attacked. Even though it turns out the actual terrorist was an Anglo-American who had stolen the Egyptian man's identification (one of the victims of the bomb blast), it doesn't seem to make any difference to those who want an excuse to hate Maya and other Muslims or people of brown skin.

Maya's parents had experienced the massive spike in Islamophobia following the attacks on the World Trade Centre in 2001, but it had never been addressed at them specifically. Their understandable reaction to the attacks on them and their daughter is to try and keep her safe, which means not letting her leave home for university.

Cover of Samira Ahmed's "Love, hate and other filters"
Tough times: torn between honouring their parents' culture and wanting to fit into the life and culture of their new community, children of immigrants sometimes end up feeling like they don't belong in either world. Whether South East Asian, African, Arabic, or Persian – neither nationality nor faith matters in 21st century North America – you're labelled as different and potentially "one of them": a terrorist

"Love, hate and other filters" is unique in the way it approaches the Young Adult teenage girl story. That the lead character is not only a person of colour, but a first generation immigrant and a Muslim to boot sets it apart from the rest of the pack.

That Samira Ahmed has given Maya a life outside home, with worries about boys, school and all the rest – in other words, exactly what you'd expect to read in this genre – makes the book even better.

Maya is presented as a typical American girl with typical American problems. However, when something happens, she suddenly becomes that brown girl with the odd last name and the different religion – the religion and the name of a terrorist.

What's distinguishes Ahmed's story-telling is that she doesn't spell this stuff out for us, she shows it happening. We experience the chilling atmosphere that Maya feels through her eyes. We feel her confusion and isolation. We share her fear.

The social outcast

What's more, we feel what it's like for her as she realises that she's not as universally accepted as she had thought. Of course, her close friends stick by her and there's only one person who overtly attacks her, but there's an overwhelming sense of not belonging, of being different.

Even though she's lived in the community and gone to school with these children all of her life, suddenly she feels like an outsider.

Teenagers already have enough problems with insecurity and worrying about how they fit in, so how must a person in Maya's situation feel?

Ahmed has done a remarkable thing in bringing these circumstances to life and making them real enough so any reader can understand her experiences. Even better, though, is the fact that any young woman of Maya's age and circumstances can finally read a book in America where she, or someone like her, appears on its pages.

The heroine isn't blonde, nor does she have a vampire for a boyfriend. What she does have is a funny last name. Her parents speak Urdu, the family eats food with names most North Americans wouldn't recognise and they don't eat pork or drink alcohol. Finally, most lead characters in a Young Adult novel don't have to worry about being labelled a terrorist or being physically threatened because they look different.

Unfortunately, more and more young women like Maya are becoming targets for the bigots in North American society. They aren't really different from their peers, they have the same fears and hopes, yet – for all that – they stand out as if they have a bull’s-eye on their backs. Samira Ahmed has written a book for them; a wonderful compassionate book which allows them to see they aren't alone in the world and that somebody understands what they are going through.

Ahmed says she wanted to write a book for those who have born the brunt of hate because of who they are or the scarf on their head. She not only has succeeded in doing that, she's created a book which allows the rest of us a glimpse of how that feels.

Richard Marcus

© Qantara.de 2018

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