Coming of age is never easy. Coming of age as a woman is even harder. But coming of age as a female immigrant in a foreign country may be the most difficult of all. For many women born into societies with restrictive social and political codes, however, immigration may be the only real way to come of age. In An American Brat, Pakistani-born novelist Bapsi Sidhwa reveals with a humorous yet incisive eye the exhilarating freedom and profound sense of loss that make up the immigrant experience in America.
Sidhwa begins her novel in Lahore, Pakistan. Feroza Gunwalla, a 16-year-old Parsee, is mortified by the sight of her mother appearing at her school with her arms uncovered. For Zareen Gunwalla, Feroza’s outspoken 40-something mother, it is a chilling moment. The Parsees, a small sect in Pakistan, take great pride in their liberal values, business acumen, and—most importantly—the education of their children.
It’s 1978 in Pakistan and 16-year-old Feroza Ginwalla, the heroine of the novel, An American Brat, is beginning to worry her relatively liberal, upper-middle-class Parsee parents. She won’t answer the phone; she tells her mother to dress more conservatively; she sulks, she slams doors, she prefers the company of her old-fashioned grandmother; she seems to sympathize with fundamentalist religious thinking. What to do? “I think Feroza must get away,” says Zareen, the girl’s mother, to her husband, Cyrus. Feroza is packed off to visit her Uncle Manek, a student at MIT. But as Zareen waves goodbye to her daughter, she cannot know that in America Feroza will become more independent than Zareen ever dreamt, or hoped, was possible. “Travel will broaden her outlook, get this puritanical rubbish out of her head.”
And indeed it does—although to a disastrous degree, from Zareen and Cyrus’ point of view, for Feroza’s three-month sabbatical with her uncle in Massachusetts turns into a three-year sojourn in many parts of the United States.
By the time Zareen decides, toward the end of the book, to reassert parental control by flying from Lahore to Denver—where Feroza has become a hotel-management student—it’s too late. Her daughter is already an “American brat,” a woman with a mind and opinions of her own, able to relish the ability to choose.
An American Brat is an exceptional novel, one of such interest that the reader’s reservations, while significant, are ultimately of little consequence. Bapsi Sidhwa, author of three previous works of fiction and frequently referred to as Pakistan‘s most prominent English-language novelist, has produced a remarkable sketch of American society as seen and experienced by modern immigrants.
America, to Feroza and her Uncle Manek, is in many ways a paradise—as indeed it appears to be for Sidhwa, a Parsee who has lived in the United States for many years—but An American Brat is nonetheless a measured portrait, often reassuring and discomfiting at the same time.
It’s both wonderful and startling, for example, to hear the fully Americanized Manek say to the newly arrived Feroza, as she grapples with some well-wrapped container, “Remember this: If you have to struggle to open something in America, you’re doing it wrong. They’ve made everything easy. That’s how a free economy works.”
In style, An American Brat is nothing like Henry James’ The Ambassadors, being straightforward, humorous, easygoing and unpoetic. In plot, though, it bears some similarities, with travelers finding themselves unexpectedly transformed by their encounters in a new land. Feroza soon realizes that Manek’s years in the United States have changed him: He is now “humbler and, paradoxically, more assured and quietly conceited, more considerate, yet … tougher, even ruthless.”
One of the first things Zareen notices about Feroza at the Denver airport is her gaudy tan: “You’d better bleach your face or something,” she tells her daughter, “before you come home.”
But even Zareen proves vulnerable to America‘s charms:
Although she has come to break up Feroza’s engagement to a “non”—a non-Parsee—she glories in the shopping and amenities of Denver life, “as happy as a captive seal suddenly released into the ocean.” Zareen, her American mission at least partially accomplished, returns to Pakistan but wonders momentarily whether she has done the right thing. And that’s the issue lying at the heart of this novel—the competing loyalties immigrants feel toward family, culture, heritage, self. The problem only flashes through Zareen’s mind because she is too old to be fully taken with American ways; Manek can almost ignore the contradiction because, being male, he will be celebrated for living in the United States so long as he takes a Parsee wife.
Feroza, by contrast, feels the brunt of the conflict, newly aware of the severe sexism in Parsee culture—men can marry outside the faith, for instance, while women cannot—and thrilled at the idea of having her own money, her own career, her own identity. Feroza has come to America, she discovers moments after first landing in New York, to be “unself-conscious”—to be free, once and for all, of “the thousand constraints that governed her life.”
An American Brat suffers from a meandering, literal plot and a tone that doesn’t distinguish major insights from minor ones. Page by page, though, Sidhwa keeps the reader engaged, for one can never predict which mundane American event she will display in an entirely new light.
At the hospital: A Parsee couple is presented with a ?15,000 bill for their daughter’s delivery, where-upon the shocked father replies, walking out, “You can keep the baby.” At home: Feroza, gushing over Manek’s vast supply of canned frankfurters and sardines, saying, “I could eat this all my life!”
At an expensive restaurant where Manek has sent back half his meal, to Feroza’s horror, because he can’t possibly pay for it: “If you weren’t so proud,” Manek tells his niece, “you wouldn’t feel so humiliated, and you’d have enjoyed a wonderful dinner.”
He has a point, however twisted, and it’s moments like that which make An American Brat a funny and memorable novel.