Ethnic Bias Is No Longer an Option: Five Books by Women That Look at the Melting Pot of Today's World

By Scharper, Diane | National Catholic Reporter, February 5, 2010 | Go to article overview

Ethnic Bias Is No Longer an Option: Five Books by Women That Look at the Melting Pot of Today's World


Scharper, Diane, National Catholic Reporter


Facing the challenge of recommending five women writers who can provide us with salutary insights into ourselves as we live in a world full of international tensions, I selected five who assure us we don't have the option of ethnic bias.

The most recent books by Alia Malek, Monica Ali, Marina Nemat, Jhumpa Lahiri and Jehan Sadat--biography, autobiography and autobiographical fiction--search inside the lives of immigrants to the United States and Europe from the Middle East, India and Bangladesh. Providing a fresh take on everything from raising children to living a good life, these books are authentic, engaging and well written.

In addition, these authors focus on people, places and circumstances that play important roles on the world stage. As such, their books are high on the list of required reading.

In A Country Called Amreeka, Malek offers vignettes about 10 Arab Americans living in the United States. She believes that Americans--especially post 9/11--know little about their Middle Eastern neighbors and explains that most of the 3.5 million Arab Americans are not Muslims. Most Muslims are not Arabs. Islam teaches that killing is wrong and preaches the Golden Rule.

The daughter of Syrian immigrants and a civil rights lawyer, Malek realized that immigrants' rights would be better served if they were given a name and a voice, something that she does admirably in this book. It includes the football player who faces racial profiling in Birmingham, Ala.; the homemaker in Baltimore who learns that her family in Palestine is being terrorized by Israeli invaders in the Six-Day War; the pastor of the Maronite cathedral in New York who worries about his flock as he watches the fall of the World Trade Center; and the Arab Marine who is torn between his brother Marines and the Iraqi people who brand him a traitor.

Ali was born in Bangladesh and raised in London, where she grew up feeling like an outsider, a circumstance that helped to inspire her first novel, Brick Lane. Ali peoples her second novel, In the Kitchen, with immigrants who staff an exclusive London restaurant and who lead troubled lives. The financial difficulties of Africans, Indians, Arabs and Eastern Europeans help to create the circumstances of the plot, while many English blame foreign workers for the country's economic problems.

As Ali tells a frenetic story about immigrants living in post-9/11 London where nothing is what it seems, her writing works its spell. She moves the story with brilliant bursts of activity that read like an adult version of Maurice Sendak's In the Night Kitchen.

Nemat's memoir, Prisoner of Tehran, describes the brutal torture she endured when she was 16 years old and wrongfully jailed in Iran's notorious Evin Prison, which is said to rival conditions in the Bastille during the French Revolution.

Born in 1965, Nemat spent her early years living in Tehran during the relatively peaceful reign of Shah Pahlavi. Nemat's Russian grandmother lived with the family and passed down to her granddaughter a love for the Russian language, the Russian Orthodox faith, and a strong sense of the spiritual. The last two play a part in this memoir as they helped to sustain Nemat, who took her rosary to Evin where, on her knees and unabashedly, she prayed the Hail Mary.

Now living in Canada, Nemat heard of many others (including several Americans) who had also been tortured in Evin and decided to dredge up her horrific experience in the hope of calling attention to the deplorable lot of other Iranian prisoners. …

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