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Reading Dur e Aziz Amna’s American Fever in Northampton, MA

Vika Mujumdar


Closing the first act of Dur e Aziz Amna’s debut novel American Fever, that of Hira leaving Pakistan, Amna writes: “What of tomorrow? Perhaps if you imagine a moment long enough, it begins to exist outside of time. The chai is always pouring. The tree never dies. It is raining forever” (Amna 46). And this moment was perhaps the moment in my reading where I could superimpose my selfhood onto Hira’s, to recognize myself in this novel, though my deepest moment of recognition would come much later. But this temporal shift, this one singular moment of perpetuity, the idea of this time separate from Hira’s life as it progresses linearly, makes me consider the floating timeline, that device of childhood literature that so deeply shaped my own childhood, that came to shape how I understand my own leaving(s) of home. Postcolonial childhoods and girlhoods reminiscent of Enid Blyton haunt spaces of this book in my reading of it—surrounded by her friends, Zahra and Rabia and Amy and Sam and Alicia with whom she loves and judges in equal measure, in a new geography she must make sense of with so much myth, Hira is both the detective of the children’s mysteries and the young girl coming of age in the boarding-school novel.

The floating timeline is a continuous present, an ongoingness, a perpetuity. There is no nostalgia in the floating timeline, there is no longing. So perhaps then it is fitting that I only thought of the floating timeline once nostalgia had entered my life, once longing had entered my life. I grew up on the floating timeline, that elusive, impossible staple of British children’s literature that characterized the mystery and the spy novel. I moved from New Jersey to Pune when I was five, with that brief gap in the middle, where I reliably remember that we stayed with my maternal grandparents for five months in Mumbai, but my father tells me it was just two weeks. That first unreliability of my memory—my first floating timeline: five-year old Malavika is always in Mumbai, always in loss, always in transit.

I was born in New Jersey to immigrant parents from South Asia—my parents met in Pune, where my father is from, and where my mother had moved for her graduate education—and then we moved back for my school, to Pune, where I went to school in an ICSE board school, another reminder of the postcolonial. But before all this meant anything, before I was five, in diaspora, a child in loss of homeland, but not in loss of motherland, and my parents took me to the Crossword bookstore on Fergusson College Road in Pune, where I picked out two Noddy books by Enid Blyton. My parents, in that moment of buying those books for me, forever shaped the trajectory of the literary landscape of my life. But perhaps not, because this was largely inevitable, I sometimes think, when I remember finding Hardy Boys novels after that in my grandparents’ house. And then, the perpetual question that haunts me, when I consider the reading landscape of my childhood: who gets to have the floating timeline?

*

The plot of American Fever is this: Hira, a young Pakistani high schooler, leaves Rawalpindi for rural Oregon for an exchange program, and eventually develops tuberculosis. But American Fever is not one of those novels that is propulsive and compelling because of the exterior life of Hira—what makes it most compelling is Hira’s interiority. In my reading of it, American Fever is a novel about daughterhood, diaspora, and longing, more than it is a novel about a Pakistani immigrant in an exchange program.

In Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work, Edwidge Danticat writes, “The nomad or the immigrant who learns something rightly must always ponder travel and movement, just as the grief-stricken must inevitably ponder death” (Danticat 16). I first read Danticat during the pandemic, when my Overseas Citizenship of India meant that when my college campus closed in March, I couldn’t return home to my parents. Instead, I spent the next six months with family friends, friends of my parents I had known forever; even reconnecting with the daughter of one who had joined us on a trek to the Himalayas during the summers of eighth and ninth and tenth standard, in which we would take a train to Delhi, then another to one of those hill-station towns like Dehradun, those places that always seemed outside of time in the literature that shaped my childhood—those Ruskin Bond novels of idyllic Anglo-Indian hill stations abstracted from the nation. We would then take a bus to villages in the mountains, trekking for a full day before we stopped at the next village that the organization we travelled with had planned for us, playing charades and eating Maggi. And in reading Danticat, I found myself struck by the perpetual act of leaving, and am even now, still trying to make meaning of it, trying to find a perpetual that can contain all my selfhood, not just fractured fragments of different selfhoods.

*

I spent five years of my life in New Jersey, and returned to Pune to the first home of my parents, where I spent the next twelve years of my life. And then I moved again, to the Midwest, for three years of college, before the pandemic brought me home to my parents once again. And then I left home again, in 2021, for graduate school, this time in the Northeast, where I spent two semesters reading motherhood theory and writing about motherhood in diasporic literature, and learned to hold space for my mother’s self. American Fever was the last book I read that semester, before I went home for the summer, home to my parents, home to the first home, the place my selfhood had been formed.

Amna writes of Hira’s friends: “I didn’t know back then, but no one in the world would ever be as much like me as Rabia and the other girls I was leaving behind” (17). And over the summer, after returning after being away from home for the longest I have ever been away from Pune since I first moved there at five, as I spent time with friends who had known me for varying but long lengths of my childhood, who had known me before I had become a self distinct from my mother, from home, I found myself filled with a newfound joy and delight and appreciation for them, for the self they knew me as, for how they understood my selfhood differently from all my other friends scattered across the geography of the United States. Here too, the floating timeline—those all-encompassing friendships trapped in childhood.

I refer to this summer as my summer of serendipity—I became closer with a friend who I was less close to, a friendship that is now one of the most generous and valuable friendships of my life, over coffee at Starbucks and Waari Book Café and Third Wave Coffee, and over watching and critiquing Long Way Up, and over the new Obi Wan Kenobi show we were both watching that summer, and I spent time with friends I’ve known for ages now, making chaotic, spontaneous breakfast plans as we always have, going to the same places we always have, and I spent a lunch with another friend I have known since I was eight talking about the school we went to and complaining about it. And so I spent my summer revisiting the spaces of my 2016 selfhood, and before I left Northampton to go home and live my 2016 life, I read American Fever, and after I left Pune to return and conclude my summer of serendipity in Northampton, I read it again. American Fever gave me the space to revisit the selfhood of my first coming of age, with generosity instead of the desire to avoid who I was then.

As a child, weekly, my parents took my brother and I to the British Library on Fergusson College Road, where over the years I graduated from reading Roald Dahl books to reading Jacqueline Wilson books, and at school every week I checked out another book set at a boarding school—generally either St. Clare’s and Mallory Towers, or the Chalet School series by Elinor M. Brent Dyer. But there is no floating timeline here—in girlhood novels, they must grow up, must learn their selfhoods, but still, they can be abstracted from the nation and history even in how they are still entwined with it, away in their boarding schools where the outside world in many ways ceases to be. But before all this, there were the floating timeline books that shaped my literary landscape, that were the first texts that taught me how to read the world—those children solving mysteries, obsessive, single minded in their search for answers. The floating timeline shaped my understanding of that girlhood literature, and so in my literary landscape the two are forever linked, impossible to extricate from each other.

*

Towards the end of the novel, Hira says of her mother:

“Later that week, I will bring it up with her again in anger and her eyes will flash and her mouth will draw into a snarl almost cruel, almost because that mother of mine is many things but never, ever cruel, and she will ask “So you think only you can leave?” And I will recognize her hunger as my own because, well, where else could I have gotten it from? And I will think, Good Lord, we are all people who leave.” (244)

And perhaps this line is where I felt most strongly, where I felt seen in literature, where I felt my experience understood most. My relationship with my mother is not a complicated one—we fight, as mothers and daughters do, but I love her wholeheartedly. But perhaps, or certainly, five years ago, I would not have insisted on this wholeheartedness, this magnanimity, towards the tensions my mother and I had growing up, when I was a teenager. But away from her, in diaspora, I hold space for her personhood, her selfhood beyond being my mother, that I do not hold for her in Pune. And also then, more sharply, I feel seen here in some ways that I am often reluctant to admit—for years before I even left Pune, I was excited about the prospect of leaving Pune, looking forward to the day I would return to the US, this time as an adult for college, where I would forge the kind of friendships I read about in those Jacqueline Wilson books that I felt had eluded me my whole life, and before I left Springfield, forced to by the pandemic, I was already looking forward to when I would move next, hopefully for graduate school. And then the pandemic forced me back home, back to India eventually, where I once again longed to leave when I got back. And when I would go home every four months, I never found myself longing for home, but now, when I don’t go home during winter breaks, I find myself in perpetual longing.

At the start of American Fever, Amna writes of home:

“And perhaps these accounts are not lies but simply omissions that elide over how home is forever that other place, the first one to drive you to despair, the lover you took before learning to externalize the deeds of the world. It is the sole landscape of dreams, the only place that will ever convince you that its failings, its bounties, its excesses, and caresses are all your own. After all, where does it end and you begin?” (5)

In this line—where the floating timeline and daughterhood and immigration converge, where what prevents me from fully seeing my selfhood in those floating timeline books of my childhood is present. In Amna’s work, mother and homeland converge, and for Hira in this novel, home is not the nation, but a time and a landscape—the Rawalpindi of her growing up, summer trips, all are the homeland, all become what she is in exile from in her year in Oregon. The motherland is specific, not the broad, vast geography of the nation state, and it allows Hira’s mother and the homeland to converge—to become one—things that are separate converge in diaspora, becoming intertwined in their longing. It is impossible to separate Hira’s longing from family from her longing for the geography of her home.

*

Afsaneh Najmabadi in The Erotic Vatan [Homeland] as Beloved and Mother: To Love, To Protect, To Possess writes of the convergence in Persian literature of nation as mother and as lover (442-467)—and it is impossible not to think of this in relation to Amna’s novel; to return to the floating timeline—amidst the formation of self away from mother and homeland, there is also a young girl coming of age, amidst friends and first loves. And the first love is crucial here in how Amna conceives of the homeland and exile—Hira, in her time in Rawalpindi, in longing for home, reaches out over Facebook to a family friend, Ali, a sophomore at NYU. And then, after months of Hira’s crush and flirting via Facebook messenger, Hira visits New York City during a winter break trip to her friend Zahra and her host family in New Jersey, and finally meets Ali.

And of Hira leaving the city, Amna writes:

“For how long we kissed, I still can’t tell, except that after the rose of his lips had withdrawn and we had pulled apart, after I had hungrily brushed back his hair and he had hailed a cab and closed the door and tapped the side, after the driver had begun rushing up the West Side highway and I had collapsed onto the seat and set my blazing forehead to leather, I knew there was a part of me, a shadowy outline of a person with my curves and my hair, that remained behind forever, leaning against the railing, in the city of the beloved.” (177)

Like Amna’s line about the chai that I open this essay with, again here there are the echoes of the floating timeline, but this time wrapped up in a floating timeline that cannot be abstracted from the nation—from the detail of the West Side Highway, to the cab, to the eventual reminder that this is a city Hira is a visitor to, not one that she finds herself belonging to—that reminds the reader always of the ways in which Hira, even in her longing for that perpetual time, cannot have it—she must leave pieces of herself behind, and in becoming diasporic, she is now forever trapped in multiple selfhoods known to different people and places. The beloved and the homeland of perpetuity converge in Amna’s usage of the echoes of the floating timeline.

Ali is where the floating timeline and the nation converge—for Hira, the floating timeline binds her to the nation—unlike the children of British boarding school mysteries, for whom the floating timeline abstracts them from the nation. The homeland is both mother and beloved for Hira, and in her exile, these convergences are what allow it the weight it does narratively. But there are distinctions that are important—Ali is from Pakistan but not from Rawalpindi—from home and not from home. Ali comes in because Hira longs for home, and in the beloved, Hira finds echoes of home, perhaps an inversion of Najmabadi’s reading of Persian literature, where the beloved is found in the homeland.

*

And Rawalpindi ultimately is what allows the homeland to carry the narrative weight it does—the specificity of the landscape of home is what allows this to become rooted and anchored, to occupy that liminal tension of postcolonial and diasporic, to become so many comings-of-age wrapped up in one. Rawalpindi is where Hira might have a perpetual selfhood, where her floating-timeline self might be anchored, just as the children of British children’s mysteries—Peter and Janet and Jack and George and Colin and Barbara and Pam, and George and Julian and Anne and Dick, and Fatty and Larry and Daisy and Pip and Bets—are anchored in the small towns of the British countryside.

Like Hira, I find myself more rooted to Pune than to India. I am diasporic, but I root my diaspora in the specificity of the landscape I grew up in, the landscape that shaped me, the landscape I long for away from home even though I claim to hate it every time I return. I grew up on the floating timeline, but briefly, as I grew older, I found myself reluctant to claim it in my literary lineage, to admit it was something that shaped how I understood literature. But it was impossible for it not to, because in diaspora, it is the only thing that allows me to hope that somewhere, my multiple selfhoods can become one perpetual self that contains me across time and space and literature and language.

Alison Stone writes: “The maternal body has repeatedly been interpreted as the background, environment, first home and container, which everyone must leave behind to become a self” (17). And I have always converged home with mother too—in my early childhood, summer trips were always to Mumbai, my mother’s first home, never Pune, my father’s first home, what I would later come to think of as home. One of the things I think is the defining characteristic of the floating timeline is that it is fundamentally lonely, for me. I do not have the luxury of the perpetual childhood, the perpetual selfhood rooted in the British countryside. I have five years in New Jersey, twelve in Pune, three in Springfield, IL, a year uprooted, a year in Pune, a year in Northampton, MA. The floating timeline is a space of loss and loneliness to me in diaspora, and yet it is also always somehow joyful in my memory of it, because I cannot separate it from those school children solving mysteries with their friends, delighting and obsessing over their newest discoveries. I can delight and obsess in Northampton too, but I am still always in longing and loss. But again, in understanding motherland and homeland and home, there is a disconnect between Hira’s floating timeline and the floating timeline of the literature that shaped my childhood—this disconnection of loneliness and joy. Hira’s floating timeline comes out of loneliness and loss, and the floating timeline of the idyllic British countryside comes out of joy and delight.

The floating timeline haunts American Fever, and the floating timeline haunts my life, and perhaps in my feeling seen in American Fever, in my finding spiritual experience in reading American Fever, I am drawn to the perpetuity of the novel. And in the novel, when Hira is ill with tuberculosis, she obsesses over Faiz’s poetry. And in her obsession, Hira finds echoes of a perpetual time in Faiz—but perhaps I am projecting onto Hira what I did with the floating timeline books of my childhood I would read obsessively, what I did with Amna’s work, and my own readings of the floating timeline—that elusive, impossible staple of British children’s literature that has shaped my literary life, that I cannot disentangle my selfhood from, as much as I may try to run away from it. Perhaps I will never find the floating timeline that can hold all my selfhoods, but in American Fever I can find echoes of a space that can hold all my selfhoods, across all my geographies and across time.



BIBLIOGRAPHY

Amna, Dur e Aziz. American Fever. Arcade, 2022.

Danticat, Edwidge. Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist At Work. Vintage Books, 2010.

Najmabadi, Afsaneh. “The Erotic Vatan [Homeland] as Beloved and Mother: To Love, To Possess, and To Protect.” Comparative Studies in Society and History, vol. 39, no. 3, 1997, pp. 442–67. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/179155. Accessed 26 Oct. 2022

Stone, Alison. Feminism, Psychoanalysis, and Maternal Subjectivity. Routledge, 2012.




 

Vika Mujumdar was born in New Jersey and raised in Pune, India. She holds an MA in Comparative Literature from UMass Amherst, and is the editor of Liminal Transit Review. Her reviews have appeared in the Massachusetts Review and ANMLY.


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