25 November 2014

Borderline by Allan Stratton

I really wanted to love BORDERLINE. I really did. A high-concept thriller about the intersection of national security and civil rights, a look at the stigmatization of people of Middle-Eastern extraction who follow Islamic beliefs, all told through the eyes of a teenaged Persian boy? This sounded like an amazing novel to me.

And in some ways, it was. The thriller part of the story captivated me. It was intricately plotted, kept me guessing, had me on the edge of my seat in several places. That part of the novel succeeded.

But the part that was most important to me fell flat. As the son of an Iranian father, I hoped to see myself reflected back, at least a little bit. And there was nothing. It felt like Sami could have been any "brown person."

Maybe my own experiences are atypical. Maybe my large extended Persian family - and the even larger circle of friends - is outside the norm. But I don't think so. There was nothing in BORDERLINE that I could identify with. Nothing that said Ah ha! That's me, too! And that was immensely disappointing.

Actually, that's not true. There was one point I wholeheartedly understood, and that's when Sami talked about how hard it was to fit in, how he changed his name to assimilate with his friends better. That, at least, was familiar. As a child I wished I fit in better, too. But it never occurred to me to go by my middle name.

I was a stubborn child.

It's hard to put into words what was missing. None of Sami's relatives entered into the story, but when I think of my own Persian-ness, family's the first thing that comes to mind. I am defined by my relationships to my family. My closeness with my ammeh, my father's sister. How his brothers are all different and all alike, too. The way we'd gather around and have tea together most any time of the day. How all the men would sit around a table and play cards at the drop of a hat.

There are a thousand smells and sounds associated with my Persian identity. Sumac and saffron. Onions sautéing for dinner. A pinch of cardamom in the teapot.

People speaking in Farsi. That was one of the strangest things about BORDERLINE to me: not once did anyone ever say anything in Farsi. That, more than anything, left me feeling empty. I don't speak the language (technically, I speak enough to tell people that I do not speak it well). But I recognize the sounds. I know the affectations and terms of endearment. I know a few choice insults. Even if I don't know what's being said, I recognize the language it's being said in. It's a strangely comforting thing.

I applaud Stratton for his bravery in choosing to write about Sami. But it didn't work for me. I didn't feel like my culture had been misrepresented, I simply felt like it hadn't been represented at all. That you could have dropped a pin on a map of the Middle East, said the main character and his family were from there, and nothing in the story would have changed.

All of us - readers and authors and publishers - need to do better.