Review: The Borderland Between Worlds by Ayesha F. Hamid

Hamid was a child of six when her family emigrated from Karachi, Pakistan, and came to the U.S.

Her memoir, The Borderland Between Worlds, is a tale of alienation deriving from cultural imperatives, socio-economic class conflict, parents vs. children, between friends, and ultimately, the self. Even the self-alienation has permutations. Shall I live within my own values, or conform to others? Dress for myself, or for others? Live for myself, or for others? What, really, do I feel? Though such dilemmas are common among first-generation immigrants, Hamid’s temperament, best described as, “Beware, nothing is certain, and the end is always near,” exacerbates and sculpts typical immigrant, adolescent, and gender conflicts into high relief.

Written in a clean, spare style that doesn’t intrude on the tale of navigating psychic and emotional conflicts arising from culture clash, it is intimate and candid without being self-pitying. I read the book’s 132 pages in a single sitting—not simply because of its clear exposition, but because I liked this person and wanted to see how she extricated herself from the obstacles in her young life. She turned them into challenges, and while her difficulties sometimes caused her to flag, she pushed through, relying mainly on a love of learning and formal education. (That, all by itself, can set one apart from less driven peers.) Throughout the book, you are cheering for this girl and later, woman, whose character prevails over pain and despair, yet not without battle scars—which is why many memoirs are written.

Hamid is generous regarding the U.S., deferring to its diverse culture and the difficulties presented by a free, capitalistic society, and worlds different from the paternalistic, highly controlling orientation of her parents. Though I expected it, she never mentions, or at least doesn’t dwell on, anti-Muslim prejudice. Given that much of the story is post 9/11/2001, I found it unusual that she didn’t experience the hostility, or if she did, it didn’t impact her, of if it did, she didn’t discuss it. On the other hand, she and her family come off as secular, their Pakistani cultural values and traditions more dominant than any religious expression.

Memoir is typically written with many things in mind. Among others, they include catharsis through conjuring emotional memory in order to re-experience it and apply a more mature, retroactive perspective; or to even scores for long ago injustices; or for posterity; or to connect with an earlier self, resulting in the sense of life as continuum; or to teach; or out of love of writing; etc. No matter its provenance, the reader of memoir is treated to intimacy with a real, actual life. Connection is the reason we read, and the good writer succeeds at creating it.

I have only a few minor quibbles about the book. In one passage, relating an incident of a family illness when the author was a small child in Karachi, a point of view slip occurs, i.e., conversation and actions are described that defy belief they could have been directly witnessed and remembered in such detail by the author. It in no way undermines the rest of the story, which takes place within the author’s direct experience or ken.

Also, there are a few words that eluded the editor’s eye—amuck vs. amok, click vs. clique, peaked vs. piqued, and a few others. Such errors are not unusual in a lengthy writing, and here, only minimally interrupt the story being told. Nor do they diminish the charm of the author’s candid disclosures of her emotional vulnerabilities. Considering one of the author’s double majors was French, and who read Proust in the original, she may smack herself in the forehead to learn of these. As a man who speaks one language versus the author’s three (that we know of), the reader is well served to give these minor lapses a mulligan.

This book should be read by everyone between the ages of twelve and twenty-five, as well as those seeking acquaintance with a strong and intelligent woman, extremely likable person, and fine writer.

Well done, Ms. Hamid

Lanny Larcinese 9/22/2020