Dur e Aziz Amna’s debut novel, American Fever, is a novel about daughterhood and motherhood, loneliness and geography, and the body and illness. Hira, at sixteen, leaves Rawalpindi, Pakistan, and her mother for the rural landscapes of Oregon, USA, having been selected for a year-long exchange program. In high school in the small town of Lakeview, Hira navigates the loneliness of having left home while living with mother and daughter Kelly and Amy, and eventually develops tuberculosis and must quarantine, returning home a month early from her exchange program. Navigating the complicated terrains of the US and Pakistan, girlhood and coming-of-age, and the loneliness of being away from home for the first time, American Fever is a compelling and poetic love letter to the archives of home for the immigrant.
I had been looking forward to reading Dur e Aziz Amna’s novel ever since I first read her short story “A Cold Heart” in Himal Southasian a few years ago. And serendipitously, I would read American Fever for the first time at the end of my second semester of graduate school, a semester that came with its own difficult health concerns for me. Before my first year of grad school, I had been at home because of the pandemic for ten months, before which I first left home for undergrad. And so when I read the description of American Fever, I read it obsessively. I took the book everywhere with me. I read it on the plane. I read it in the Amtrak. I read it in cafés in Northampton. I read it in cafés in Pune. I read it in my apartment in Northampton. I read it at home in Pune. I wanted to savour the novel, slowly, every word of it, but somehow found myself unable to put it away, reading it in one sitting, and then reading it again and again, as ritual, wanting to treat it as something sacred. In Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work, Edwidge Danticat writes: “The nomad or immigrant who learns something rightly must always ponder travel and movement, just as the grief stricken must inevitably ponder death.” (16) Hira shares this obsessive outlook too, when thinking about Kelly’s mother Hannah, who herself left Germany for the US—saying: “If it seems odd that I was fixating, almost obsessively, on Hannah’s foreignness, let me tell you one of my most dearly held orthodoxies—for anyone who leaves home, that becomes the most interesting story of their lives.” (149) The novel works obsessively too, in some ways, drawing you into what Hira is ultimately always seeking to do: “What else did I do in those days and weeks leading up to departure, when everything—friends, habits, the curves of the mattress—threatened to soon become memory? For months and years after, I would try to grasp at that—what it looked like, the thing that was lost. I would chase after the texture of that time and place, zeroing in on that summer, when I knew only one home, had parents who had seen everything that had ever happened to me, had a sibling with whom I shared every night and day, besides the murky years before he was born, which didn’t matter because my first real memory was Ammi leaving for the maternity hospital.” (39)
Opening in Rawalpindi at the end of Hira’s time in high school, Amna paints a vivid picture of the life Hira longs to leave. The girlhood she associates with the home that she leaves behind is framed within the physical landscapes of Rawalpindi, and the emotional landscapes of familial tensions and rivalries with friends. In Hira’s desire to leave is a kind of class consciousness too, negotiated within the spaces of Pakistan Hira occupies—her home, the orientation for the program, circles of friendship. And in rural Oregon, Hira must confront how class travels across borders, what her own relative privilege means here in Lakeview—that she is here, thousands of miles away from home, that going to college is a given, but then also that she is, ultimately, from the Global South, that her ability to leave is tied in some way to embassies still. Shifting then to the complicated friendships Hira develops in Lakeview with fellow exchange students to Lakeview as well as classmates who have never left Lakeview and will never leave Lakeview, the novel navigates the nuanced relationship between nostalgia and longing for Hira. Among her friends is Hamid, a fellow Muslim student from Oman, with whom Hira develops a friendship based on a shared kinship, of which Amna writes: “I’ve since learned to recognize the specific closeness that comes with being outsiders together. Yes, there is no shared history, but when you are new somewhere, you have no history to begin with.” (86).
American Fever is at its most poetic, and perhaps its most vulnerable and most deeply rooted, when it lingers in the spaces of Hira’s relationship with her mother. What does it mean for Hira to leave her home, to leave her mother? Ultimately, Hira’s respect and love for her mother, her mother’s desires and longings, her mother’s own complicated womanhood, are always central, even when she is harsh to her mother. Early in the novel, considering what beauty means, Hira declares: “I was beautiful because my mother was beautiful.” (28) American Fever is about lineage, about mothers, about what it means to be a daughter, to allow something, someone to shape your interiority and selfhood so deeply. When visiting Hira’s maternal grandparents, her mother asserts that she had to leave home for her independence, even though in her case leaving home did not mean leaving Pakistan. For Hira, leaving home means leaving her mother, leaving the nation, leaving the geography of Rawalpindi, leaving girlhood behind. Things that are once so disparate even within their shared geography become intertwined in a collective home for Hira, a life she has now left behind. Ending too on Hira’s mother, her own desires and longings, ultimately, the novel always circles Hira’s complicated, tense, but always loving relationship with her mother, examining how it exists inside and outside of the geographical home that she leaves.
Every sentence of this novel is so central to how this novel understands language and the word and the world. Closing the first act of the novel, that of Hira leaving Pakistan, Amna writes: “What of tomorrow? Perhaps if you imagine a moment long enough, it begins to exist outside of time. The chai is always pouring. The tree never dies. It is raining forever.” (46) Poetic in its examination of time and longing, American Fever is always pushing the boundaries of immigrant desire and longing, seeking to articulate all the complicated tensions of leaving. Of her friend Zahra, who is from the exchange program but from Pakistan, Hira says “I did judge her, of course I did. I just thought I had the right to. Wasn’t that the prerogative of a shared history?” (168) And this shared history is what makes the book so haunting, how even beginning with no shared history as outsiders as Hira says of Hamid still results in the development of a shared history—that by the end of the novel in a cyclical way, what Hira thinks of the ways her friends who she has grown up with in Rawalpindi understand her selfhood is also applicable to the friends she makes in Lakeview. Even in less than a year, there becomes shared history, and ultimately, they too have access to a selfhood of Hira—the first self Hira develops away from home. Hira’s archives of home become sprawling, superimposed onto that perpetual girlhood, that perpetual childhood “outside of time” that she longs for.
I texted a friend immediately after I read American Fever for the first time: “I think I just had the most spiritual/close to divine/sacred reading experience of my life.” I called my mother after, me in Northampton, her in Pune, and I read out sections of the text to her, and said I felt seen in text for the first time. Last year, once, while she helped me move into my first apartment, my mother had said to me that she enjoyed reading Jhumpa Lahiri when her and my father had just moved to New Jersey in 1999, and having read American Fever, I think I maybe now understand what she meant, what it felt like to have an experience so affective and lonely translated into language, and I will be perpetually drowning in the language of American Fever, reaching for it in my homesickness as Hira does for Faiz in her quarantine.
Vika Mujumdar (she/her) was born in New Jersey and raised in Pune, India. She received her BA in English and History from the University of Illinois Springfield in 2021, and is a graduate student in the MA program in Comparative Literature at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is the editor-in-chief of Liminal Transit Review.