The World Unseen by Shamim Sarif

A queer brown mixed-race woman in apartheid-era South Africa befriends an oppressed  Indian  housewife.

Yes, no cause is left unturned in Shamim Sarif’s  The World Unseen.  But Sarif has a lightness of touch that has the story chugging along briskly;  you soon forget this one could be a text for  Oppression 101 as you follow the fraught courtship of  Amina and Miriam.

(The cover shows a scene from the film of this book; Amina and Miriam are played by  Sheetal Sheth and Lisa Ray respectively. )

Pretoria, 1952, is a place where it is ” an offense for Blacks to eat in the same place as Whites.” Amina, who is of Indian descent,  runs a restaurant that flouts this rule, for she holds herself answerable to no-one, not even her family or the authorities. Besides running a restaurant (in an illegal partnership with a Colored man), she drives a taxi, and works at odd jobs mostly involving manual labor. And she’s lesbian.

Before I get on with the story,  it might be useful to note that under apartheid, the  South African population was classified into four groups: Black, White, Indian, and Colored. The Colored group included people of mixed racial descent. (According to Wikipedia,  “these terms are capitalized to denote their legal definitions in South African law”; I use these terms in the latter  sense. )

Miriam left India to marry a South African Indian who has internalized  apartheid so deeply that he no longer questions it.  Omar runs a store in a small town outside Pretoria, follows the laws of the land implicitly, and is happy to toss in his own racial biases additionally, for instance telling  Miriam that Blacks “would steal anything.”  So in Omar, we have a person who is discriminated against due his color perpetuating the very same injustices against others.  IDIOT!!!

The couple have two children, and that, more than anything else, has Miriam reconciled to her husband’s unconcern for her well-being.  Then Miriam meets Amina, and realizes that she might have another shot at happiness. But the penalties for pursuing this relationship are very high, and besides, there are children to consider.

The World Unseen works as well as it does because of two factors: excellent characterization, and unobtrusive, elegant prose that builds up genuine suspense as to the lovers’ fate. And Sarif achieves the near-impossible by taking on a topic (apartheid) that has been covered by many writers, and presenting it with such passion that this system still shocks the reader.  We all know how cruel and senseless apartheid was, but Sarif also shows its essential batshit craziness. When a policemen tells Amina she’s breaking the law by seating Blacks and Whites together, she replies that there aren’t any Whites in the restaurant. Then Officer Stewart says,

“…This is an Indian area. And Colored. …That means no Blacks.”

“They work for me.”

“And that is fine by me,’ the policeman replied…”But they shouldn’t be eating with you. It’s illegal.”

The 2007 film of the novel was directed by Sarif herself. Incidentally, Omar is played by Parvin Dabas,  whom I last saw in Monsoon Wedding.  Here’s the UK trailer for the film (Sarif is British btw).

The World Unseen by Shamim Sarif

The Women’s Press Limited, 2001

Genre: Literary Fiction ***

Iam entering this review for the POC challenge, as well as the GLBT Reading Challenge.

The Canadian Dream Deferred: Stealing Nasreen by Farzana Doctor

stealing100Every immigrant to the western world knows, or knows of, a cabdriver who was a brain surgeon or fiscal economist in his homeland. The narrative of the underemployed migrant goes something like this: lured by promise of fluid upward mobility and unfettered capitalism, professionals move west, only to find that their prior work experience doesn’t count. The educational qualifications earned in their homelands via sweat and blood (and sometimes an organ donation) aren’t recognized. Their alien accents and unfamiliar cultural codes further solidify entry barriers into the workforce.

Toronto-based writer and therapist Farzana Doctor takes a long hard look at this depressing phenomenon in her debut novel Stealing Nasreen. And yet, I was chuckling as I read, for Doctor’s clear-headed, witty narrative is never overpowered by the weight of the issues tackled. The novel’s other running theme-the (non-)acceptance of LGBT  South Asians by this community-is again a profound topic treated in a knowing, humorous manner.

Shaffiq Paperwala and his wife Salma have moved from Mumbai to Canada in search of the proverbial better life–Shaffiq, an accountant, felt his (Muslim) religion clouded his career prospects in India. Salma, a school teacher, was more sanguine, but was eventually persuaded to emigrate. The only employment Shaffiq finds in Toronto, however, is a janitor’s post in a hospital. Salma meanwhile works at a dry-cleaning outlet, and teaches Gujarati on the side.

In moving countries, Shaffiq has moved down the social ladder; as a janitor and a new immigrant of color, he is invisible to most eyes. Attempts to assert his former class or position are met with indifference or suspicion. In one scene,  Shaffiq, while taking out the recycling, finds a budget sheet with an accounting error. When he points out the error, the administrator informs him that the documents are confidential.

“…I’m not sure that cleaning staff should be scrutinizing them.”

“You see I am not really a janitor. Well I am here, but back in Bombay I did this kind of thing in my job-”

“Oh, well, I suppose I should thank you for noticing my mistake. But please, for future reference, you really shouldn’t be-” She frowns, not able to hide her irritation.

“You see I am an accountant,” Shaffiq adds, wanting her to understand. “That’s what I really am. I guess my eyes were just drawn to what used to be so familiar to me.”

“I see,” she says, with a frozen smile that tells Shaffiq that she doesn’t…”

Canada looked far better from far away; now, Shaffiq longs to crowd into “a city bus with a hundred Indian men” again. But just as he’s questioning his move to Canada, he encounters Toronto-born Nasreen Bastawala, a therapist in the same hospital. As a contemporary of Shaffiq’s ethnicity and a successful Canadian professional, Nasreen appears to be the Canadian migrant’s dream gone right. Shaffiq develops a fascination with Nasreen, and starts purloining small objects–a dropped earring, a discarded travel itinerary-from her workplace.

Nasreen is initially too preoccupied with her troubles to notice Shaffiq. She’s just lost her mother to cancer, her father seems increasingly needy, and her girlfriend (now her ex) cheated on her. But when Nasreen enrolls for Gujarati classes with Salma, her intersection with the couple takes on a unforeseen dimension. Salma is attracted to Nasreen, and the discovery that Nasreen is lesbian opens up a world of sexual possibility inconceivable in conservative India. All kinds of complications-all touching, all believable, mostly hilarious-ensue when Salma impulsively acts upon her feelings.

Doctor’s book is driven by the issues of the day, and such books, by their very nature are perishable. But Stealing Nasreen is first a novel, and only then a social manifesto. The book is energized by its characters, and Doctor has a real gift for crawling into her protagonists’ heads and recording their emotions. I was nodding in recognition as I read, finding echoes of myself and people I know in almost every character– Nasreen’s dietary habits, for instance, uncannily matched my own weakness for Jalapeno kettle chips followed by Nutella followed by more chips… The book thus engages the reader in a very personal way even as it indicts some of Canada’s (and immigrant communities’) failings. The story’s denouement, while featuring a too-long exposition by a secondary character, is as farcical and delirious as a Noel Coward play. And as in these plays, comedy is the leavening force for exploring serious issues such as marital discord, the repression of homosexuality in “polite” society, and class conflict.

Stealing Nasreen is published by Inanna Publications, a small Canadian non-profit feminist press. (Inanna, by the way, is the Sumerian goddess of sexual love, fertility, and warfare.) Stealing Nasreen reminded me anew why I love small presses so much. These folks are willing, even eager, to address the issues nice people don’t talk about.


This review appears in the current issue of Montreal Serai magazine. Do check it out–the theme is “Why Literature Still Matters”, and contributors include Jaspreet Singh and Rawi Hage.

February Flowers by Fan Wu

Seventeen-year-old Chen Ming is a studious, violin-playing first-year student at a university in Guangzhou, fresh off a farm into the big city. Miao Yan is worldly and cynical, an at-ease flaunter of boyfriends, and the oldest undergraduate at the university at twenty-four. An unlikely friendship is struck when the two cross paths.

Ming, whose world has hitherto been defined by the classes she attends and the books she reads, is fascinated by Yan’s insouciant familiarity with all things forbidden (which  in Ming’s case include smoking, drinking alcohol, and dating). In turn, Ming’s intellect, her ability to find contentment in her books, and her stable family background are the stuff of envy for Yan. The two girls are soon drawn into a fervent, consuming relationship, engendered at least in part by the hothouse intimacy that closed institutions often foster. (Ming, sharing a room with three other girls in an all-female dorm, with an eleven o’clock curfew and a warden to monitor incoming phone calls, compares her life to existence in an army barrack.)

California-based Fan Wu’s debut novel February Flowers would seem, at the first glance, to conform to every cliche concerning First Novels. There’s the coming-of-age theme, the first-person narrative (Ming’s), the protagonist whose background mirrors the author’s, the confessional tone etc. etc. But the coincidences are superficial; this novel soon reveals itself as a fresh, original work that strikes a fine balance between intimacy and restraint — and shatters several stereotypes along the way.

As narrated by the adult Ming, her younger self was more than a little in love with Yan. But the seventeen-year-old is too innocent to realize what her feelings might mean. Sex education is all but unknown in the China of the early nineties (the period when the novel is set.) One of Ming’s roommates, for instance, believes frequent masturbation leads to an early death. Upon seeing a picture in a porn magazine of two naked women kissing, another roommate decrees that homosexuals “have a mental illness” and guesses the women are American. Forced to admit (from the photographic evidence before her eyes) that the women are indeed Asian, the roommate decides the women must be Japanese, for the Chinese newspapers have informed her that “only capitalist countries have homosexuals.” Little wonder Ming is confused and nervous about her friendship with Yan.

Too often, in first novels, the author seems to have decided to tell all he has to say, or perish in the attempt. Wu, however, chronicles the evolution of the girls’ relationship with a delicate hand; the reader is subtly made aware of Ming’s gradual awakening (sexual and otherwise), and can only guess, even as Ming does, if there’s a lesbian undertone to the relationship between the girls. The characters’ sexual preferences, however, are but one facet of their multi-dimensional relationship. The author’s control of her subject matter is impressive, capturing perfectly the claustrophobia and obsessive passion that youthful friendships can assume without ever rendering Ming’s concerns as self-absorption.

February Flowers does have a few hiccups, the most glaring being a rushed ending that’s very much at odds with the measured pace of the rest of the tale. But the book’s flaws are easily ignored in the face of its many pleasures, including a vivid, insightful picture of the complications and contradictions of China in the nineties. The novel’s ultimate appeal, however, lies in the universality of its themes — the pain and pleasure of growing up, and the discovery of sex and the accompanying wonder and fear; few will not recall their own adolescent pangs while reading these pages.  


This review originally appeared in the Asian Review  of Books a while ago. I’m also entering this one for  Color Online’s Color Me Brown Challenge. Color Online is a great blog that  focuses on women writers of color. They have reviews, quizzes and prizes  and  much more…do check them out.