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.
In Dur e Aziz Amna’s gorgeous debut, American Fever, readers can expect to find all the hallmarks of a bumpy adolescence—destructive confidence, crippling self-doubt, steamy crushes, social gaffes, obsession with looks and style, and pervasive loneliness. But within this jewel-box of a novel, these universal qualities unfold in a most unusual situation.
In late 2010, sixteen-year-old Hira is eager to leave Pakistan and begin a year-long exchange program in America. Only when she arrives in a woefully rural corner of the country, nothing quite measures up to her expectations. Hira’s host family seems to want little to do with her, her new high school is full of ignorant hayseeds, and she struggles even to get enough food to eat. To top it off, she’s falling in love with an older guy across the country, in New York, and carrying a dormant strain of tuberculosis. Underfed and way outside her comfort zone, she begins to deteriorate until her weakened immune system allows the virus to bloom, wreaking havoc not only on Hira, but also on the fragile community she’s built around herself.
All my life, I have observed a certain kind of person with baffled envy. The person who has never felt the desire to flee. I feel the least in common with this person, and yet I am endlessly fascinated by her. How can one be that content? Is she lucky, the draw of the universe birthing her in a place that fully aligns with her in temperament and ambition, or is she just complacent?
Throughout the novel, Hira must navigate complex cultural waters and a cloistered new reality in which self-preservation and personal growth are difficult to balance. She is expected to play ambassador, brush off xenophobic taunts, and feel grateful for all the United States has to offer, but the longer she spends in the U.S., the more she second-guesses exactly what she believes in and her decision to leave Pakistan in the first place. At the same time, she’s drawn more than ever to memories and ideals from home, the distance helping illuminate who she is and the magnitude of what she was so eager to leave behind.
Amna doesn’t hem all the edges of her characters or iron their every seam. Hira is funny, prickly, astute, and sometimes a little bit ragged—in short, she feels real enough to walk off the page. The secondary characters, like Hira’s host mother, Kelly, and her daughter, Amy, Hira’s frenemy, Zahra, and Hamid, a fellow Muslim exchange student in Hira’s new town, are also complicated—neither wholly good nor wholly bad—they are, just like the rest of us, a messy mix of biases, principles, hopes, and societal expectations.
Like the characters, the story itself is deceptively complex. Despite displaying some of the familiar aspects of a coming-of-age novel, American Fever does not reach for easy resolutions. Even though it is difficult not to binge the book (as this reviewer did), there are moments that will pull you up short, make you evaluate your own stance about politics, religion, wealth, family, and gender.
Feeling vulnerable after her illness becomes too serious to ignore, Hira reflects on Kelly’s confident assertion that her German American mother is happier in the U.S.
A lie told often enough becomes the truth. 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?
This question of home is at the heart of the novel. How have people and place shaped your beliefs? What is the faith that guides you? What does it mean to try to embody family and culture when you’re disconnected by thousands of miles? We see Hira grapple with these questions from a slight remove, given the subtle retrospective narration, but we are never far from her acute separation, her mounting loss of autonomy. Indeed, it’s hard not to relate to Hira, hard not to remember what it was like to be a teenager hellbent on forging your own path—hard to forget exactly how painful it is when that path seems to rise up beneath you and knock you flat on your ass.
Amna is a bold storyteller skilled at blending character, plot, and the kind of existential crises that keep us up at night. Her debut novel, American Fever—as propulsive as it is lyrical, as hilarious as it is sobering—is, above all, an irresistible read from an impressive new literary voice.