You know this man. He sits in the middle row of your classes, raises his hand meekly but talks in a voice akin to the sound of scratching on a blackboard. The man will ask you to please “repeat” yourself, please “speak louder”, erasing his privilege with an unutilised eraser. (If you’re smart, you know he’s choosing not to listen to you). He’s not a sexist; he says “please”, he asks you to “repeat” yourself because he values your voice, and he’s not (not) like other men. Little America’s Sharif Barkati is such a man, and Zain Saeed’s prose grants him a disintegrating pedestal.
The epistolary as a blueprint
Saeed exercises the epistolary form of storytelling through Sharif’s letters to his favourite novelist Laal Ghazali. These letters are directions before they are stories. Laal, along with the readers, is told what to expect. Although Sharif writes from prison, he spends far too much time asking the reader (who, according to him, is only Laal) to listen.
His promise is of a story that’ll sell in America. “This story, my friend – my story –” says Sharif, “has everything”, and it does. Saeed’s perhaps purposeful sketch of Sharif’s humblebrag outlines his character. It reeks of desperation, an exaggerated desire to amplify one’s voice; Sharif’s telling doesn’t show, but Saeed’s does.
This story, my friend – my story – has everything: there is blood, there is mystery, there is a man bursting through the chains of society, there is illicit love, there is suspense, there is sin and there is redemption; there are even lessons to be learnt. Scrap the rest of your books! They are saltless; it is time for the truth; that is why they will publish you here but not in America.
The cleverness of the prose lies in its evasiveness, its ability to unravel the bandages that gauze Sharif, like the Invisible Man after he’s beaten to death by a mob. And Saeed has Sharif do all of it: the bandaging, the beating, the unravelling. For a story where the narrator is a character, and I know it seems like we’ve read many of those, Saeed gives the narrator only the illusion of controlling the telling. And he doesn’t do this for an arguably insignificant trait as originality, but to underscore the significance of the epistolary: intimacy.
Perspective encompasses plot
Most of the fiction is seen from the first-person point of view. But there’s a fleeting shift after the arrival of Sharif’s big break: a “partnership” with TJ, a moneyed Pakistani-American, in the “form of a colossal compound on the Karachi coast, full of bars, cafes, clubs, and the people of Karachi strolling about, hand in hand”. The opportunity to stroll “hand in hand” is an immoral marriage of leisure and markers of affection (read: fornication), whose understanding is particularly crucial to the novel because the compound, the “Pyramid”, protests the ambiguous and conditional recognition of obscenity in Pakistani law.
Sharif doesn’t want America as much as he wants America inside Pakistan. He’s like that man who thinks starting a menstrual cup drive will solve sexism. (As if I want to hear how to put a cup inside my vagina from a cisman). Anyway, I digress. Saeed counters my annoyance with Sharif with one of the greatest gifts: a second-person POV prose that doesn’t try too hard.
He introduces the reader to the Pyramid like a concierge who clears his throat with vehemence so that you tip him. But the concierge isn’t juvenile, no; he coughs because he knows you’ll want to tip. As is often with this POV, it stirs the reader’s grounding in the fictional world, jarring them just enough to realise they’ve reached the lift hill of a rollercoaster. I’ll shut up; you should just read the quoted text.
It is overwhelming. You do not know what to do. Other visitors like you are scattered throughout this side of the compound, stationary, mouths hanging open. There are bright families walking hand in hand, licking white ice cream cones. Young men and women are sitting in circles, debating hotly. You catch the words “sex” and “bodies” being spoken loudly in those groups, and you tremble.
Desperate for some order, you look around, and see the one thing you understand – a food cart – and march towards it, bumping into shocked or happy people on the way, but you do not care. You understand food, it will make it all okay.
If I had to nit-pick, the only failure of the narrative is how it facilitates Sharif’s pretended understanding of class as a young boy. Although he writes in the past tense, his letters fail to acknowledge that he (now) knows why his first love, Laila, doesn’t sit up front with her chauffeur. (Even the character’s name is appropriate because Sharif’s obsession is akin to that of Majnun).
But he does acknowledge his obsessions and goes so far as to illustrate them as admirable confessions. And oh, Sharif’s virtue-signalling makes the reader wonder why he’s not a liberal arts student with a Twitter account.
It shouldn’t come off as a surprise that Sharif is a broken record. He consistently confesses his abstinence (“I did not drink or smoke up with them, but I did not judge either”). This, coupled with his word choices (he uses the word “appendages” to acknowledge penises), his use of language reflects his inability to escape the prison of what is acceptable, whatever that means.
But of course, he does say “fuck” – he must, or it’s a compromise on character. And Saeed refuses to do that, evident from the way the letters spend a sickly amount of words on why Sharif’s story is one worth writing.
By god, dear Laal, write my story, and I swear to you they will come flocking, friends and readers both, and may you then come find me and grant absolution for the sins of my past.
The novel shatters the American Dream, untangling the knots of what makes a nationality a commodity. Salespersons who sell this commodity aren’t here for your money; they’re here for your freedom, to save you from the so-called weight of the veil (“...please take my advice, think about casting these off your head soon. They’ll hold you back”).
Saeed’s dialogue cracks the exterior of the saviour: both domestic and foreign (“You need our help for that”). In his fiction, the media acknowledges any breach of religion as the return of colonialism, and perhaps it could be. But there’s danger in shrouding all semblance of freedom under the umbrella of history.
Clerics, politicians and university professors debated for hours and hours – a good thing, I guess, at least they were doing something – on the merits and consequences of such an act, on whether something like this could even be allowed. Some news channels, particularly the English ones, ran black-and-white reminders of the British, our colonisers, set to melancholic music.
What I loved most about Little America was a paragraph that exposes TJ’s office, which, like a panopticon, allows him to watch everyone. The insanity of the saviour, his voyeurism, peeks at us through that paragraph. I’m not going to ask my editor to quote it because you should read Saeed’s book. You’ll be doing yourself a favour if you read about something seemingly quotidian as freedom. But most of all, you’ll realise that the word “freedom” isn’t interchangeable with American.
Little America, Zain Saeed, Penguin Viking.