By Syeda Samara Mortada
Olive Witch by Abeer Y Hoque, is a personal journey and one of self-reflection. To start off, the description of Nsukka, a suburb in Nigeria and its landscape, from the green fields that Abeer and her sister Simi run through, to their daily life routine is too poetic and visionary not to be true to the word of Abeer’s actual childhood. However, the sudden shift of the story from narrative to (medical) report style writing, on many occasions jolts the reader, and makes them curious about the end result of the story.
Is it the lead character, Abeer herself who is admitted to a mental asylum? When we learn at one point that Abeer tries to commit suicide, that seems like a plausible option. But what demands praise is the neat way in which her story ties to that of her old friend Nneka, (whom she wonders about at certain points in the novel) and how she commits suicide; the life of these two girls who were once school friends in Nigeria is shown in juxtaposition, and even though both go through a period of crisis, one gets a second chance in life while the other does not.
Abeer’s constant struggles to align her philosophies and beliefs to that of her parents, and more particularly to her father’s, is what is common in the lives of many multi-cultural kids and certainly of South Asian third generation ones, whose personal lives are at constant odds to their public one–the latter exposing them partially to American culture, something their parents are completely oblivious about. However, at a later stage of the story, when Abeer decides to move to Bangladesh, the vibrant and at times exotic description of Dhaka–and also of rural Bangladesh–might be a step too far from reality, especially if you look at it from Abeer’s eyes, someone who has lived in America by herself, for most of her life. But she seems to mesh with the surroundings without even trying, making it her own: the domestic, bloodstained moshari-and-ceiling-fan life, that she is certainly not used to on an everyday basis becomes a part of her and that strikes one as odd.
What is most relatable, and a common problem for those living in the 21st century, is Abeer’s existential crisis and thoughts of feeling empty and lacking purpose. And that is a theme running through the novel. And how could it not? For a girl who has had to move with her parents from Africa to America, while growing up in a conservative Muslim family to be exposed to the American way of life and given the Bangladeshi roots that she identifies with (possibly more than her other counterparts, and her siblings), Abeer is simply left feeling out of place at most times. She reminds one of Brick Lane’s Shahana, or someone she could grow up to resemble at a later stage, especially because of her strong inclination to revolt in certain situations, while not being able to completely disregard her parents’ affiliation to their origins.
Although the beginning is slow, the book grows on the reader and makes one question if generation gaps are only a perception of ours, especially since parents become easier to relate to once we reach a more mature stage of our lives, as is the case with Abeer. Truly worth reading, at least in order to understand the constant struggles that multi-cultural (especially third generation) kids face and how they feel “foreign” everywhere, even in their own land–wherever that might be.
“La Kum deenu kum wa liya deen”: ‘To you be your way, and to me mine’ is my takeaway from this book, and that is probably how Abeer fits in seamlessly in Dhaka as she does in parts of Africa–without judging and without being judged by those around her.
Syeda Samara Mortada is a communications professional working in the development sector and a strong advocate of gender rights. She is the coordinator of Bonhishikha, an organization that works towards gender equality using arts as its main form and a regular contributor of Bangladeshi national dailies. Samara completed her MA in Women’s Studies from University of York, UK and BA in English from East West University, Dhaka.