“That was my fight: to continue to do little things for people around me, so no one would find fault in my demeanor and misattribute it to my religion.”

The Brown Baggers met on Thursday, August 15 to discuss Fatima Farheen Mirza’s debut novel, A Place for Us.

place for usA Place for Us tells the story of a Muslim Indian American family and their close-knit community in California. The novel opens at the wedding of the oldest daughter, Hadia, where her estranged brother, Amar, also the youngest child and only son, has returned after a long absence. As Mirza goes back and forth in time and alternates points of view, the reader learns why Amar has been gone for so long and the ups and downs that led this family to gather at Hadia’s wedding.

The Brown Baggers had a generally positive reaction to the novel. One member remarked that it was the best fiction they had read in years. Others said they recognized their own family members in the characters and were emotionally moved when the point of view shifted towards the father. Some noted a few stylistic flaws in the novel that they attributed to the author’s young age and inexperience. One of the biggest criticisms was the novel’s unconventional structure. As Mirza weaves through the chronology of events and changes perspectives, the reader can get easily confused about dates and characters.

Despite these quirks, all were impressed by how Mirza captured the story of immigration, particularly how different generations of this Muslim American family assimilated. The parents hold fast to their faith and the old world. The children, on the other hand, feel more inclined to create their own identities and embrace the new world while still respecting their heritage. As a result, each family member relates to their faith and culture differently, thus revealing the power of community and the uniqueness of the immigrant story.

Mentioned:

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company That Addicted America by Beth Macy

Islamic Society of Central Virginia

The Brown Baggers will discuss The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian on Thursday, September 19 at noon in the Central Library and newcomers are always welcome.

“I wasn’t popular, but I wasn’t an outcast. I was everywhere with everybody, and at the same time I was all by myself.”

bornacrimeThe Brown Baggers met on Thursday, July 18 to discuss Trevor Noah’s autobiography Born a Crime.

In Born a Crime, Trevor Noah recounts his childhood in South Africa under the apartheid government and the first few years of democratic rule by the nation’s black majority. His is the story of a disobedient young boy who had to hide from the world during the early years of his life since the government could take him from his mother if they were discovered. Noah tells stories from his childhood and high school years with a humorous twist. He describes visiting three churches every Sunday with his mother, being pushed out of a moving car, and navigating high school. Noah writes about how he struggled to fit in and how he always felt like an outsider.

The Brown Baggers loved this book and the discussion was full of laughter as members recounted their favorite parts of the book. Many felt that it was incredible how Noah was able to learn so many languages and become such an international star, when he had so little growing up and faced numerous challenges. Some Brown Baggers thought his success was due to his mother’s influence, who was such a strong person, and really pushed him to learn.

Some members said that they learned more about South Africa in general and about apartheid after reading this autobiography. They felt that Noah used humor to cope with everything that happened in his life and thought it was amazing that he was so observant, especially when he was so young. Others mentioned that this was a great story of survival.

Mentioned:
Documentary: You Laugh But It’s True
Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
The Kitchen House by Kathleeen Grissom
Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust by Immaculee Ilibagiza
The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts by Joshua Hammer
Nelson Mandela

The Brown Baggers will discuss A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza on Thursday, August 15 at noon in the Central Library and newcomers are always welcome.

“Standing in the doorway of the newspaper’s office, he watched the streetcar continue on its eastward way, and he knew that if he lived to be a hundred, he would never be more in love than he was now.”

fellow travelersThe Brown Baggers met on June 20 to discuss Thomas Mallon’s Fellow Travelers. The historical novel takes place in Washington, D.C. in the early 1950s when Communism and homosexuality were considered “enemies of all things American.” At the center of the red and lavender scare is Tim Laughlin, a young devout Catholic and staunch anti-Communist, and Hawkins Fuller, an older, sophisticated State Department official. The men engage in a secret affair as Senator Joseph McCarthy leads a crusade to root out Communist sympathizers and homosexuals in the federal government and Army.

Many of the Brown Baggers found the novel was a lot different from what they expected. They were familiar with the anti-Communism movement–some remember watching the McCarthy hearings on television–but they had no idea the federal government, even President Eisenhower himself through an executive order, persecuted gays in the federal government. Although gay people still face discrimination and prejudice today, the fact that they were once barred from federal employment demonstrates the impact of activism in past decades, such as Stonewall, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

Some were overwhelmed by the staggering number of characters and names, while others were engrossed in the details. All agreed the novel taught them a lot about the time period and they were drawn to the love story at the heart of the novel. They were most sympathetic towards the character of Tim, who wrestled with an internal struggle between his Catholic faith and upbringing and the experience of his first love. Hawk, as his name suggests, preys on others and was an amoral and despicable character. For many, the most interesting character in the novel was Mary Johnson, Fuller’s co-worker, who was a revolutionary feminist figure for her time period. Overall the Brown Baggers thought the novel was an authentic portrait of human nature and appreciated the realistic ending that stayed true to the characters’ personalities.

Books Mentioned:

Advise and Consent by Allen Drury

More Information:

PBS Documentary, The Lavender Scare

Cincinnati Opera production of “Fellow Travelers”

Interview with Thomas Mallon

Interview with Thomas Mallon in George Washington Magazine

 

The Brown Baggers will meet again at the Central Library on Thursday, July 18 at noon to discuss Noah Trevor’s Born a Crime.