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April 10, 2008

Review of Sidhwa's 'An American Brat'

It still surprises me when an experienced, acclaimed author produces such a mediocre novel.

And ‘mediocre’ would be a generous estimation of Sidhwa’s An American Brat. The protagonist is Feroza, a 18-year-old Parsee from Lahore. Her mother, fearing Feroza is becoming too timid in her surroundings, sends her to America for 3 months, under the care of her uncle, studying at M.I.T. Feroza’s experiences and encounters form the main plot line of the novel.

There are some passages which are interesting in this journey, where Feroza reacts to American norms, standards, landscapes and so on, given her particular cultural and social background, upbringing, and experiences. The strongest parts of this novel are when through her characters, Sidhwa appreciates the different types of poverty in the East and in the West.

“When Feroza talked of the condition of blacks and Hispanics, the poverty and the job insecurity prevailing even among the whites in America, her family and friends looked at her with surprised, unsparing eyes. They had their own vistas of uncompromising poverty and could not feel compassion for people in a distant, opulent country that had never been devastated by war….seeing the filthy conditions in the tattered jhuggees that had sprung up on the outskirts of the Cantonment and between Ferozepore Road and Jail Road, Feroza understood their reaction. Poverty had spread like a galloping, disfiguring disease. Every kind of poverty in the United States paled in comparison. Yet it did not mean that the condition of the poor in America was trifling, or the injustice there less rampant. Feroza tried to clarify her thoughts. Poverty, she realized, groping for expression, was relative.”

This is one of the strongest, best written, and most thoughtful of passages in the novel. This is where Sidhwa actually allows her protagonist to reflect, compare, slowly understand the situational differences. Regretfully, such passages are very few and far between in this novel, and perhaps I have done the reader a disservice by quoting the best passage in the book, leaving all the rest to be a let down.

There are, regretfully, so many parts which are lacking, poorly executed, badly thought out in the rest of the narrative. The weakest element is perhaps character development. Feroza’s character is supposed to have undergone sea changes, especially when she stays on in America for some years, studying. However, for most part, the reader is informed of this, rather than witnessing through Feroza’s actions, thought processes, internal identity negotiations. It is a much more superficial method of developing a character, and much less convincing. Feroza is a singularly unsympathetic character, curiously enough, and not one easy to identify with, except on a surface level. It is a pity, because the backbone of the novel rests on this protagonist and her experiences.

The other side-plots and associated characters in the novel are even more poorly developed. We are told of Gwen, a former-apartment-mate of Feroza’s, who has a mysterious wealthy lover, but this story goes nowhere – the reader never gets any explanations, there is no follow up, and one day, Gwen simply vanishes without trace, this story has no purpose, direction nor conclusion. There are all together too many side tales of this type in Sidhwa’s novel. We are told that Feroza’s uncle has a darker, more dangerous side to him – but this piece of information also goes nowhere. There is tension in the relationship between niece and uncle, perhaps even sexual tension, but again, that just peters out without trace, and builds up to nothing. It is a most unsatisfactory novel on many counts. Even the initial portrayal of Khutlibai, Feroza’s grandmother who is potentially a woman of strong personality, is left hanging and undeveloped – Khutlibai fades from the narrative rather abruptly, and is no longer spoken of, after that promising introduction to the reader. There are altogether too many hints not followed up, side stories going nowhere, pieces of information that do not tie together, in this novel. It detracts from what could have been a rich narrative, becoming instead a sketchy, rather amateurish piece of writing.

Sidhwa also gives a rather distasteful depiction of how international students behave in America, attempting to beat the system. Shashi from India annually disguises himself as a starving beggar and appeals to the guilt and sympathy of Americans to give him money, while Feroza’s uncle routinely goes to expensive restaurants, intending to refuse to pay his bill on some trumped up excuse, to get a free meal. And it is not only international students, but American ones as well – Jo, Feroza’s first room mate, teaches Jo to shop lift regularly. It is unclear why Sidhwa stresses and repeatedly depicts such behaviour, unless perhaps the author is convinced this is the norm rather than the exception.

A far more rewarding line of narrative could have been developed through an analysis of the character of Feroza’s uncle, who seems to have developed a split personality to cope with his Pakistani and American identities. But alas, no, the reader is given little opportunity for greater insight into this far more interesting character than the protagonist.

The depiction of the Parsee community in Lahore is by and large clichéd and stereotypical, but humorously done for most part. Although not problematic, it does add relatively little of value to the narrative. If Sidhwa had given the reader more insight into, say, Feroza’s father’s views, for instance, which may in turn have informed Feroza’s own, this would have lent the novel some much needed depth. If she had moved beyond stereotypes of Parsee expectations, and treated culture as fluid and multi-interpreted, rather than a reference point set in stone, the novel could have developed into a narrative worth rereading.

Overall, this novel adds little which is new or particularly worthy to the spectrum of diasporic literature, to cross cultural understanding, even to the good reading in general. The writing style is unremarkable, unmemorable, uninteresting. I must admit I expected more of Bapsi Sidhwa. Quite a lot more.

Posted by Lisa Lau at April 10, 2008 05:08 AM

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Posted by: Anonymous at April 10, 2008 05:08 AM

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