My Past Is A Foreign Country. February 2, 2020

I wanted to like this book, I really did. There are enough bits here that could make for a compelling story, but as it is it’s just not well told. Narratively it’s all over the place. There are interesting things happening in the life of the author, but beyond her immediate reaction, she has very little to say about them. Instead of some introspection, she just moves to the next thing.

Maybe she should have waited a bit before writing a memoir. There are some questions that permeate the book, having to do with her own identity and how her place in society. These are important questions, but she doesn’t seem to be able to explore them in her own words. Mostly we get her reactions to events or views that she took from reading feminist literature or Islamic teachings. Sometimes I had the feeling that she didn’t have much of a voice in her own book.

As an example of the kind of introspection I longed for, chapter 2 ends with the following paragraph:

I had always idealised the West, and a chance to study in a Western university meant I could gain experience and hopefully find the tools to create a space which was not at odds with my identity. In Saudi Arabia I was too Indian, too brown. In India I was too foreign, too Muslim. In a Western space, I thought I could be myself. That I could stand out and be celebrated for my differences. It would be a truly inclusive space, I thought.

The way this final paragraph is phrased, the expectation is that she’ll be proven completely wrong in a later chapter, that the West can be very exclusionary indeed, perhaps as much as Saudi Arabia and India. I was looking forward to the resolution, but I never got one. Talkhani relates some bad (and good) experiences in the West, but overall it’s impossible for me to tell how her views were changed by her experiences, because she never asks these questions (did she realize her identity in the West? did she find the West more inclusive?) again. It’s fine not to have answers for the questions, but I don’t understand the point of introducing them as a kind of cliffhanger if you never revisit them.

I’ll make one exception: her struggle with hair loss was very well told. Besides the hair loss itself, the story involves several points she has struggled with more generally: being a woman in a conservative society with arranged marriages, her relationship with her mother, her own sense of self, as well as her eventual marriage to someone who doesn’t care about her hair loss troubles. I’m glad she managed to find resolution for that one.