Wajahat Ali's 'Go Back To Where You Came From' is biting and funny and full of heart
Memoirs, of course, focus on a writer's personal journey. But of late, a number of those by immigrant writers of color — or by children of immigrants — have, collectively, contained some similar themes.
One prominent thread is that of being "othered," being told in various ways that they don't fit in or belong — and should return to their place of origin. This never-ending push-and-pull of being both "native and foreign," "citizen and suspect," "neighbor and invader," shapes entire lives.
Within the first few pages of writer Wajahat Ali's memoir, Go Back to Where You Came From, he describes just how that experience of being both "us" and "them" directs a life's trajectory: "The reality is that most people of color learn early in America that we will have to work twice as hard to get half as far, and when we fail, no one will help us fall up. [. . .] Immigrants, people of color, and women learn early that in order to make it in Amreeka you have to daft punk it through life. You have to do everything harder, better, faster, stronger, and smarter. [. . .] You go twenty feet just to get to ten feet."
This truth is so well-known among minority communities that we don't even discuss it. We've internalized this tough lesson completely so that we're often even tougher on those within our communities who don't appear to take it seriously enough. Some of us go even further, as Ali reminds us: "You will feel anxious when any other person of color succeeds in your workplace and threatens to take away your coveted token status. You will invest in the narrative of scarcity and believe there can be "only one" from your community — you — who can succeed."
As a Pakistani American born of immigrant parents, Ali grew up in the 1980s and 1990s Bay Area with immigrant family and friends who emulated "whiteness" as part of their "Amreekan dream" of success. Then, 9/11 changed everything. One day, Ali was your average woke, fun-loving student at the University of California, Berkeley. Next, he was trying to navigate Islamophobia, explain "Muslimonics," and deal with the shockingly swift incarceration of his parents for alleged wire and mail fraud.
Ali's major breakthrough happened when he found his voice as a writer. Ishmael Reed, one of his Berkeley professors, encouraged him to write a play because, Reed believed, Ali had a skill for dialogue and character. The play, Reed advised him further, needed to be about ordinary Muslim Pakistani Americans to counter the ugly stereotypes perpetuated in media. For Ali, the project became an all-consuming mission powered by the belief that "in America, if you aren't writing your story, your story will always be written for you. If you aren't telling your story, your story will always be told to you."
He hustled for funds and took his play The Domestic Crusaders from a low-cost "dinner dining experience" at an Indo-Pak restaurant in the Bay Area to the famous Nuyorican in New York City, where even the great Toni Morrison came to watch a performance. Along the way, Ali also worked at a solo law practice and wrote essays about politics and popular culture to support his multi-generational family after they were wiped out financially due to his parents' imprisonment. Writing led to activist speaking and media engagements and even some dealings with Hollywood.
The book begins on a highly amusing note as a response to Islamophobic hate mail and maintains a bitingly humorous tone throughout as a faux guide to becoming a true "Amreekan." Yet, Ali's coming-of-age experiences as a brown Muslim man are anything but hilarious. What emerges from these vulnerable and witty accounts of personal ups and downs is a larger picture of America's troubled, complex relationship with brown, Muslim, and immigrant communities. Ali doesn't pull any punches when expressing his righteous anger against things like the moderate Muslim trope, mass incarceration, systemic racism, socio-economic inequality, and more. Scathing political commentary about both Republicans and Democrats is supported with requisite data and historical facts. He leavens and seasons all of that skillfully with comedy, popular cultural references from the U.S. and Pakistan, and a deeply warm affection for the family and friends who've always been there for him.
Family and community also largely shape Ali's considered activism, given the various difficulties and tragedies they experience together. Even the aforementioned play that launched Ali's writing career is about a Pakistani American family vehemently discussing, and trying to come to terms, with post-9/11 American politics, racial and religious discrimination, classism, intergenerational conflict, sibling rivalry, and a sense of belonging. Ali reflects how, during the years of being broke, coping with OCD, dealing with drawn-out legal processes, and coming close to death, it often felt as if an unseen, "hidden hand from the ghayb (void)" always lifted him back up. This force, of course, was none other than his family and certain community members.
Last year, Rafia Zakaria, also a well-known Pakistani American writer and activist, gave us the super-smart Against White Feminism to "put the fangs back into feminism." Wajahat Ali's Go Back to Where You Came From is just as intelligent and incisive in its arguments against "whiteness" but focuses more, perhaps, on hope and heart. Both call for a more compassionate world through community and solidarity. For Ali, this means "a community of service that looks out for each other and helps those in need."
About two-thirds of the way into the book, Ali recounts a conversation with an uncle who had mocked his play initially and, after the NYC run, apologized. This uncle had lived in the U.S. for 40 years and been a model citizen. He had despaired about only ever seeing Muslim men depicted as terrorists or cab drivers in the media. Now, seeing Ali's writing success, he wished he had told one of his sons to become a writer. Ali writes that he rejects the nostalgia for the past that people like this uncle often harbor, still praising the likes of Rumi from 700 years ago, and asks them to invest in the Rumis of today who are dreaming of becoming poets or playwrights and just need a bit of encouragement. For those budding Rumis — of any age and any shade of brown or Black — this memoir reveals one possible path to their personal version of the "Amreekan dream."
Jenny Bhatt is a writer, literary translator, book critic, and the founder of Desi Books. She tweets at @jennybhatt.