An American novel that brings in South Asian characters but in a way that is still intriguing and problematic
It is a common and legitimate complaint that minorities don’t play any meaningful part in American movies and literature. Often they are reduced to clichéd roles and accents, especially if they are from South Asian countries. For that reason alone Rachel Cantor’s recent novel Good on Paper is worth looking into.
Shira is a single mother of a young girl after she got pregnant during her trip to India. She lives in a bohemian neighbourhood of New York city with cafes and bookstores, and though she has an academic background in Dante and Italian, she makes her living doing temp work. She is attracted to Benny, the good-hearted rabbi and owner and editor of a small literary magazine, and it is via him that Romie, a poet who is a Nobel laureate, solicits her skills to translate a longish poem of his into English.
This is where the novel acquires an intellectual register as Shira accepts the assignment for a handsome payment and begins to detect clues to her own personal life in Romie’s narrative. As her complicated friendship with Benny turns sexual and romantic, she decodes that her dying mother had ditched her father to run away with Romie, which explains the poet’s obsession with Andi, Shira’s daughter, who has been adopted by Ahmad.
Ahmad is gay, originally from Pakistan, went to school with Shira in Italy, when he had a crush on her. He was married and has a son. His wife, hijab-wearing and conservative, ditched Ahmad when he came out and moved back to Pakistan. He is a successful academic and all three live in a place provided by the university where he teaches. Both Shira and Ahmad keep their love life outside the apartment while Andi believes Ahmad is her biological father. Just as her relationship enters a tortuous motion with Romie and Benny, so it does with Ahmad as he wants to move to the suburban landscape of Connecticut with the mind of having a bigger house where his son from Pakistan could perhaps join them. Being a truly bohemian person, Shira can’t see herself living in the sterile suburbia without cafes, bookstores, jazz and museums and poetry readings and so on. The child is drawn to what Ahmad wants to offer: bigger house, better schools, large and safe spaces to ride bicycles. In their short battle, the child becomes a pawn and as Shira becomes insecure that Ahmad might end up getting custody over her biological child, she discloses to Andi that Ahmad is not her real father.
As the reader reaches the last pages, the issues have been resolved. Shira’s found love with Benny, has reconciled and forgiven her mother and Romie, and struck a compromise with Ahmad, who remains Andi’s legal father.
The novel has been described by various authors and in several reviews as whip-smart . . . a bustling tale of love, family, language and flight . . . vivacious . . . erudite . . . garrulous . . . and so on. This is all true but it ends up making the reader not trust Cantor as almost everyone including the narrator, the protagonist, the supporting characters speak and express themselves in the same tone and register. There is no difference between the speech of Shira and Ahmad, or even Andi. Even when Cantor brings in the side tracks of Dante and his love for Beatrice, the poem written in Italian by Romie to be translated by Shira and problems that arise from the disparities between two very different languages, the text is driven by the same whip-smart and smarty-pants and anger/sarcasm laden force. At least in those moments the readers might want the prose to slow down, be ponderous, perhaps a bit somber, introverted.
The choice of the name Ahmad also shows lack of imagination, scuttled by her desire to denote and emphasise his Muslim backgound. Cantor further falls to what some might call latent orientalism when she paints Ahmad’s female relatives with extremely conservative brush. Not every conservative woman in Pakistan wears a hijab, and yet by the same token many liberal-minded women may have trouble accepting they had married a closeted man.
Cantor digs a hole for herself when she tells that Ahmad’s wife, Mirabella (a very unusual, laughable name for a Pakistani and/or Muslim woman) was "forced by her brothers" since she had no agency of her own being a conservative woman, and though Mirabella was "in purdah . . . had gained access to the Internet through her cousin Shamseh (again not a Pakistani name), who’d finagled a laptop from her parents, saying she wanted to write ghazals"
Shamseh ends up connecting to people all over the world, falling in love with a nongendered performance artist. She translates Shakespeare’s sonnets and presents them to her parents as her own ghazals even though their format is different. Pay attention to this gem: "No one seemed to recognize that they weren’t, strictly speaking, ghazals". Whatever that means! When Shamseh reveals to Mirabella her lesbian desires, Ahmad’s ex-wife "thought her desires entirely normal" because she is "intoxicated with the thought of escaping purdah".
Despite all that I find objectionable in the novel, the most intriguing element is the character of a gay Ahmad itself. What is Cantor saying? In other words, what is she saying about America and to a persistent theme in American cinema and literature of a missing father?
Cantor’s choices with regards to Andi’s two fathers, both legal and biological, are intriguing and problematic. Although the novel does not go much into the details about Shira’s affair(s) in India, even if it could be a good topic to unravel India as a backdrop of sexual fulfillment for a westerner, the reader is willing to understand her reasons for not pursuing some kind of a relationship with Andi’s biological father or even his family. The marriage of convenience that brings Shira and Ahmad under the same roof (though it makes sense since Andi has a South Asian father), sheds light on the novel’s reluctance to introduce a mixed couple. While it is okay to sleep around with a brown person, even if one ends up getting pregnant and keeps the child, it is not yet conceivable to have Shira find love with a man of a South Asian and/or Muslim heritage. That privilege is reserved for Benny who is Jewish and White.
The construction of a gay Ahmad thus ends up serving two functions: that he is a victim of a conservative Muslim/Pakistani culture; second, it is Shira’s liberalism that allows Ahmad to have a fatherly experience. Having a gay Ahmad takes care of the chances of Shira and Ahmad pursuing a married life.
I find it commendable that Cantor has created a character which is missing in American fiction, yet I find it disconsolate that by creating a gay Pakistani character she unmasks Shira’s white feminism only concerned with its own liberalism and feeling the need to paint Ahmad as non-bohemian and his female relatives as conservative and narrow-minded. The novel would have benefited from Cantor’s generosity in those two areas.