Book: Amina’s Voice
Author: Hena Khan
Reviewed by: Hiba Nauman
Being a kid entering middle school for the first time is not easy. Studies, friendship problems and going through puberty make up a fairly tough time for every child, so just imagine being a Muslim minority in America on top of all that. This is what Amina Khokar, the young Pakistani-American protagonist of the book Amina’s Voice, goes through.
What fascinated me the most about this novel was reading about a young Muslim girl’s experiences in middle school that were so vastly different from mine. As a Pakistani Muslim, it’s hard to imagine what life is like for Muslim minorities in a foreign country.
Amina’s Voice is written by Hena Khan who herself grew up as a Pakistani-American Muslim in Maryland. Thus, it gives us an authentic look at a young girl struggling to stay true to her Muslim identity while trying to fit into American society at the same time.
Amina is just like any other 11-year-old: she has a family she loves, but is occasionally annoyed by it; she has a best friend who is slowly drifting apart from her, and a secret dream of becoming a singer. At the same time, however, her problems are unique to her identity as a second generation immigrant. Although this book is aimed at a young audience, the author never shies away from portraying Amina’s trials, such as when the kids at her school made fun of her for her clothes smelling of her mother’s desi cooking. Amina’s struggle with her identity is also shown through her love for singing while her conservative Thaya Jaan visiting from Pakistan believes it to be against religion and thinks America is destroying Amina and her brother’s values.
The book also explores the role of friendships in shaping a child’s character. We are introduced to Amina’s Korean best friend Soojin who wants to change her name to something more American after getting citizenship. Although Amina is also tired of having her name mispronounced (from ‘Amelia’ to ‘Anemia’), Soojin’s decision upsets her. Then there is Emily, their nemesis who ends up becoming a friend to both when they realize the true essence of friendship and its relationship to forgiveness.
Amina’s parents also attempt to walk the line between America and Pakistan. Her mother named her Amina because she believed it would be easier for Americans to pronounce while her father is desperate to prove to his older brother, Bhai Jaan, that is family is still essentially Pakistani despite living in America.
In this way, the author shows us a glimpse of life of an immigrant family, stuck between two cultures and being shamed for trying to conform to both.
However, despite the hardships, the author does show the positives in Amina’s life as well. Her family tries to encourage her vocal abilities by signing her up for a Quran recital competition at their local Islamic Center. We get a glimpse of the close-knit Muslim community in her city which is very supportive of each other. When a disastrous event happens, the author shows how the community members come together and become stronger in the face of adversity. Hence, despite the rather serious themes, the book contains a message of hope throughout. It is mainly written in a lighthearted tone that manages not to detract from the more somber parts of the story.
The themes of this novel will ring familiar to anyone who has read immigrant fiction before and though this story may not be anything original, the narration by a child makes it quite poignant.
“The words “Terrorists” and “Go Home!” kept flashing through my mind, and a flood of feelings – fear, anxiety, anger – clouded my thoughts. I am home. Where else would I go?”
– excerpt from Amina’s Voice”