Wajahat Ali’s new book is a personal story of how the pursuit of the ‘American dream’ can be different for those on the brink of marginality
With its long, contradictory title, Pakistani-American political commentator and public speaker Wajahat Ali’s Go Back To Where You Came From and Other Helpful Recommendations on How to Become American stands out as a creative anomaly. The title possesses the ability to repel and beckon readers by skillfully weaving an oft-repeated call for deportation with a begrudging invitation to become an American. What’s more, the book seems to fall into the category of a memoir that carries the spirit of a self-help book. As a result, it promises a crucial combination of insight and experience.
Discerning readers may find themselves intrigued by the seemingly paradoxical nature of the title and the duality of its focus. The more visually-inclined might be drawn in by the cover image, where the book’s title appears as a pink neon sign planted against a blue brick wall. The overall effect is that of a forbidden portal that bears secrets and must be thrown open.
What lies behind the door is equally captivating. In a deceptively simple manner, Ali dissects the challenges of Islamophobia, immigration and white supremacy that plague modern-day America. Go Back To Where You Came From is, therefore, a personal story of how the pursuit of the ‘American dream’ can be different for those on the brink of marginality. Ali’s memoir is arguably a response to the turbulent Trump years. It acts as a counter to the post-truth realities that have imprisoned the humanity of an America that was once an egalitarian utopia.
However, the book doesn’t tackle these complex subjects through the use of high-flown jargon and a focus on academic precision. The strength of Ali’s work lies in its ability to capture the reader’s attention with its sparse, accessible prose.
The introductory section of the book has been spared from dull descriptions about the tragedy of America’s ‘other’ as Ali chooses to include excerpts of the fan mail and letters that he regularly receives.
A vast majority of these missives are soaked with racial slurs and other forms of hate speech. The author welds each letter with his characteristically witty responses to the sender. When a ‘fan’ asks him to “go back to where [he] came from”, Ali replies that he cannot afford the rent in Fremont, California, as he didn’t listen to his mother and become a doctor. In another exchange, the author belittles the sender’s claim that he is eliciting a “race war against White people” by asking if he was referring instead to a “rice war”.
Ali adopts a linear trajectory while highlighting the key events that have moulded him into the person that he has become. Yet, he avoids a predictable retelling of his story.
At its core, the introductory section possesses a light-hearted candour that prevents Go Back To Where You Came From from becoming yet another boring treatise on the immigrant experience. Steeped in rib-tickling humour, the opening section allows the insights in Ali’s memoir to emerge as hard-hitting realities rather than cold facts.
Be that as it may, the underlying premise of the book – immigrant struggles in a hostile country – does come across as a tad derivative. For decades, migration has remained a popular theme within mainstream discourse and publishers have readily lapped up fictional and autobiographical accounts that are even remotely linked to the theme. Ali’s account also contains the somewhat cliched reminiscences of Pakistan-born parents adjusting to life in a new land in their quest for the coveted ‘American dream’. The art of ‘code-switching’, a trick that allows children from immigrant backgrounds to adapt to their surroundings by using separate avatars, fuels his interactions with family and friends. References to the 9/11 tragedy and terrorism also exist in abundance. Yet, all these ingredients seem less contrived and tropey in Go Back To Where You Came From. Instead, they are markers of the author’s personal struggle to come into his own. This is primarily because Ali’s memoir bears a refreshing sincerity as he is equally at ease with exposing his own vulnerabilities and those of his community.
The author doesn’t shy away from exploring the dark, depressing core of his own psyche – a key ingredient of a strong memoir. At times, he finds comfort in optimism, which is perhaps the only solution to survive in post-Trump America. As he revisits a turbulent phase encountered by his family, Ali reflects on the “forceful and painful shedding of [his youth]”. Though the author admits to being haunted by memories, he states that the experience has left him “wiser, older, scarred, but alive”.
Another striking aspect of the memoir is its compelling structure. Ali adopts a linear trajectory while highlighting the key events that have moulded him into the person that he has become. Yet, he avoids a predictable retelling of his story. Each chapter is laced with a diverse range of ideas while retaining the format that readers may expect from a captivating self-help book. The inventive use of catchy subheadings in every chapter adds value to the text and renders it all the more engaging.
Laden with rich details about contemporary realities, Ali’s memoir uses the immigrant experience as a lens to understand the pitfalls of modern American society and politics.
Go Back To Where You Came From and Other Helpful Recommendations on How to Become American
Author: Wajahat Ali
Publisher: WW Norton and Company
The reviewer is a freelance journalist and the author of Typically Tanya