A Muslim Gen Xer


I'm part of a book group that reads fiction and non-fiction from varying religious or spiritual perspectives. (Sounds heavy, but it's really not.) Otherwise, I will be the first to admit, I would have never heard of this title. (Novelist, where I found this book, is an amazing database for locating titles based on topic or on others you've read ... check and see if your local library has Novelist online so you can use it at home. It's way more powerful than Google or Amazon.) 

I'll admit to a certain trepidation taking on a book from a Muslim perspective, because of my own stereotype of Eastern fiction being weighty, dark, and depressing. That turned out to be incredibly short-sighted of me. I forgot this book was, not just about Islam, but about Islamic Americans. And its author, Ayad Akhtar, is of my generation. Akhtar, an experienced playwright and actor, says he wrote the book much like a screenplay, with reliance on action to move the story forward. This works quite well because American Dervish is told by a twelve-year-old boy, and despite the youthful narrator, the depth of the novel isn't compromised. The screenplayish style lends authenticity to the boy's voice. And 300 pages fly by very quickly.

As the novel opens, Hayat Shah is in college in 1990 and falling in love with Rachel. Haunted for eight years by a formative experience as an adolescent, Hayat confesses to Rachel that he is responsible for the death of another person.

Then we meet Hayat at age twelve, growing up in mid-1980s Wisconsin, the only child of of an unhappy marriage. Enter Mina, his mother's best friend, who is on the run from Pakistan due to the prospect of losing her five-year-old son through divorce. Mina's lively beauty and dynamic personality lulls the family into an unusual happiness. The Shahs, while fully culturally Muslim, are not active in the local religious community.  Mina introduces Hayat to the Quran, and her own version of Islam. Hayat flourishes under Mina's attention and love.

But trouble is just around the corner. Mina falls in love with Dr. Shah's Jewish partner and best friend. Hayat experiences an intense jealousy borne of his age. And a single act in a moment of rage changes the course of Mina's life. Or so Hayat believes.

American Dervish is imminently readable. It is the story of a boy growing up and coming into his own faith and adulthood. We've all experienced knowing the world to be one way and finding out that it is another, as we mature from the black and white landscape of pre-adolescence to one muted with grays. Muslims in the novel are represented at all points on the faith spectrum, from fundamental to agnostic, which struck me as intensely similar to my own experience of Judeo-Christian culture. And Hayat's voice, again, is convincingly real. Finally, this is a novel of Islamic America, but also a tale of growing up Gen X. I can't wait to see what comes next from this American writer.