I guess I first came across Abeer Y. Hoque (Facebook, Twitter) – a Nigeria-born Bangladeshi-American writer and photographer – in a speakers list for Jaipur Literature Festival sometime last year. I was immediately intrigued by her personality and have wanted to check out her work ever since. A recipient of the 2007 Fulbright Scholarship and several grants, fellowships and residencies, Hoque is the author of (at least) three books: The Long Way Home (2013), a combination of travel photography and poetry, The Lovers and the Leavers (2015), a volume of twelve linked stories, and Olive Witch (2016), a memoir.
Yesterday, I read Olive Witch and found it very engaging. (The title comes from the nickname Hoque got from Glenn, her boyfriend at the University of Pennsylvania. It is a play on the lyric “All of which are American dreams” from the song “Know Your Enemy” by Rage Against The Machine).
When the book opens, the author is 25, committed to a psych ward in Philadelphia after a suicide attempt—the unbearable load of a PhD programme at Wharton she barely likes and the strained relationship with her parents being two big reasons behind her anxiety and depression.
We are soon taken back to Nsukka, a Nigerian university town, where Hoque’s father is a professor (of geology) and mother, a school teacher (of economics). Abeer is their eldest daughter, followed by another one called Simi, and a son called Maher. Nigeria has prospered with oil money in the 1970s and academics have been recruited from all over the world to advance its educational ambitions. Schools are modelled strongly on the colonial British system, rote memorisation and corporal punishment are prominent features. Life is overall fine. The air is filled with red dust, the juju men (the witch people) with painted masks beat drums at night and go from compound to compound asking for money. You must attend to them, if you don’t you’ll have bad luck.
Then, the political situation goes bad, coups and curfews become a recurring reality. The Hoques migrate to America, settling in suburban Pittsburgh. Thirteen-year-old Abeer finds it hard to adjust in this hyper-individualistic environment. She has to change her accent, her attitude. The nasal tones she encounters are easily distinct from the heavy Nigerian English tongue she is used to (I pledge to Nigeria, my cawn-awn-tree…uphold ha ona and glo-oh-ry). First, a brown among blacks, now a brown among whites, she is too conscious of the fact that she doesn’t fully belong anywhere. Furthermore, she finds hardly a home among browns. The Bangladeshi-American Muslim community—the general South Asian diaspora in America—although rich and successful, is too limited in its views, too rigid in its values.
Compelled to follow a predetermined path that will supposedly give her professional prestige and a stable future, she works hard but loses it. There comes a point where Abeer has no confidence left – in religion and faith, in science and reason, in herself, her studies, all that she’s ever done. Nothing makes sense. But she recovers, going on to do an MFA in San Francisco, and later, travelling to Bangladesh to spend time with her extended family in Dhaka and the green fields beyond. But this trip isn’t about settlement, it is just a phase.
How does the author ultimately find serenity and make peace with her seemingly deracinated existence? I liked that she doesn’t fret over her mixed (or split) identity. She is able to train herself to focus all her energies on the “immediate now”, without excessively pondering over questions on who she is, where has she come from and where she is going. She remains happy, too, with the idea that is it perfectly okay to just be on the surface of things, on the outer plane of phenomena, to not sink deep into any one culture or one people or one land. The exterior, the margin, the periphery—all can afford a perspective, and a genuine and valuable one at that.
Two passages I loved –
This is What I Want. A World that Recreates Itself…
My other fear, cavalier and conceited, is that I’ve already done what matters, or whatever matters when you’re twenty-five. I’ve accomplished all the goals I was set so far, and I can see the rest of them standing in a row, falling domino by domino. I can feel myself fading. I am so tired, and nothing stops the march except sleep. All I want is to close my eyes for a second, for a year.
In one of my classes, a graduate psychology course, we’re doing memory experiments that prove that we see much more than we remember and we remember more than we can say. For 250 milliseconds, the world is stamped onto our retinal palette, in all its minutiae. Then in less than the space of a blink, a sweeping destructive descent of an eyelid, it’s gone.
This is what I want. A world that recreates itself, every time my eyes open to the light. Not one that magnifies from the past, nor one that telescopes into the future. I want something untouched by anything except the immediate now.
I Might be Able to Create Something from the So-Called Skim…
My father says that in order to be a writer, I have to know a place, which, to him, means living somewhere for a long time…What he doesn’t know is that it might be too late for me. It might always have been. I might never know a place so deeply to come back to it half a century later and write two novels and three story collections in the space of five years. The ways I will never measure up to my father abound. What I’m hoping for is a lesson that comes from the surface of things, poised in stop-gap motion, real in transition. I might be able to create something from the so-called skim, from the outside in.
For now, I revel in the now. It’s only tomorrow that I’ll think twice. It’s only the past that drags me down. It’s just me in this slow exquisite present, not waiting for the morning, with its grace and its grief.