‘I’ve tried to invest in joy’: Wajahat Ali on traumas physical, political and global
On the Shelf
'Go Back to Where You Came from: And Other Helpful Recommendations on How to Become American'
By Wajahat Ali
W.W. Norton: 272 pages, $27
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Wajahat Ali has spent much of his life narrowly escaping death and disaster.
The Pakistani American writer and political commentator tells the story in his funny and heart-wrenching new memoir, “Go Back to Where You Came From.” Growing up in Fremont, Calif., Ali was a chubby, comic book-loving boy with severe allergies, obsessive-compulsive disorder and a Harry Potter-ish scar on his forehead from when he was hit by a motorcyclist. “Unlike some of my peers,” he writes, “I could never blend and melt into the magical American pot.”
He developed life-threatening pneumonia. Then malaria. Later, congestive heart failure. His successful immigrant parents were imprisoned for alleged wire and mail fraud in an anti-piracy sweep, leaving their only son to provide for his live-in grandmothers at age 21. His daughter was diagnosed, at age 2, with Stage 4 liver cancer.
Despite all these personal hardships, Ali’s tale is a hopeful one. It is also a love letter to America, despite many of its citizens giving him the send-off in his title — to which he replies in his introduction: “Fremont, California? I’d love to, but I can’t afford the rent. I’m priced out. (Damn you, tech overlords!)”
Ali juxtaposes such humor with questions aimed like daggers at the cognitive dissonance of white supremacy. “In America,” he asks, “who (and what) are you when you’re both ‘us’ and ‘them’? When I’m a native but seen as a foreigner? When I’m a citizen but also seen as a perpetual suspect?”
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The 9/11 attacks were a turning point for Ali, a moment when his personal struggle became a political one. A senior at UC Berkeley outgrowing his awkwardness through improv comedy, he found himself instantly “transformed into an accidental activist.” He joined a Muslim campus group, generated right-wing backlash — and realized he had to “be perfect, because any flaw, mistake, errant word, or quote can and will be used against me and all my people in the court of public opinion.”
In the end, Ali’s book is about the power of storytelling to reroute history. He documents his journey to becoming a playwright and later a journalist while overcoming various crises, compelled by the desire to demonstrate that, as he writes, “Our stories, cultures, languages, religions, and lives were rich, infused with vibrancy that could benefit the world.”
I spoke to Ali over the phone, in a conversation edited for clarity and length, about his memoir, which will leave readers clear-eyed but hopeful that the terrors of Trumpism can be vanquished.
You’ve been on the receiving end of hate mail and right-wing media attacks since college. It’s something that could make a person really cynical, but you are able to find humor and light in the darkest places. How do you do that? Basically, explain your superpower.
Terrible things happen to great people, and great things happen to terrible people. And you can sit there and rage, but there’s only so much I can control. Some people measure success through suffering. “Look at how many arrows I have. Look how much I’ve suffered for you. Look, I’ve worked myself to death.” That’s the victim narrative — a terrible narrative. I reject that narrative. I’ve tried to invest in joy. And it’s like a muscle. Especially in the pandemic. I choose to be happy. I choose to build a Lego set with my kid even though I probably should be doing publicity for my book. Why? ‘Cause it makes me happy.
I’m not a crier. My wife thinks I’m a cyborg. I think you should cry. But I’m also antiquated stereotypical Spartan-brown-man-who-suffers-quietly. So I choose to laugh instead. It’s cathartic. It releases endorphins. And you can use it as a weapon against the universe or against those who are oppressors and making everyone else’s life terrible.
You explore the idea of a curse on your family and Islam’s concept of “nazr,” which reminds me of Mexico’s “mal de ojo,” or evil eye. The idea will surely resonate with many people who feel they can’t catch a break right now. Does the U.S. have nazr?
It’s fascinating to me because [a similar concept] exists in every culture. Everyone realizes that we as a species are trained to sometimes delight in people’s misery. And even when we have everything, we self-loathe. In the case of America, what a remarkably powerful wealthy country that has found ingenious, obscene ways to destroy itself during a pandemic. Maybe we got the world’s nazr because we caused so much havoc around the world. We nazr’d ourselves. You’ve seen front-line workers paid crap money, drivers, teachers who just want to sacrifice. On the other hand, you’re seeing people selfishly, arrogantly promoting death because they want to go to the buffet with their friends. And you see us hoarding free medication, vaccines, like the wealthy white man who sits on gold. That’s where you get the nazr of the world.
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Can we nazr the fascists and neo-Nazis?
My mom used to joke about this: “How come nazr only affects us and people who are struggling? How come it doesn’t affect the Trumps or Epsteins?” There is an Islamic point of view on this: God has given them this world and only this world, and their time is short. This ephemeral time is their playground, and after that, it’s done, there will be a reckoning. Another aspect that is not religious: You don’t know what people are going through. Maybe they have everything from the outside, but maybe their children don’t love them, nobody loves them. They live this entire life and can’t come near to elevating themselves to being their best version. They won’t know selflessness, they won’t know compassion. Isn’t that a loss?
When you described your personal calamities, I kept thinking about how trauma manifests in the body. Was it hard to revisit the most traumatic moments of your life?
When my parents were in jail, I was fight-or-flight for a year. Once my parents came out, my body crashed. That was the first time I had a moment of rest. When you’ve been running, running, running and you rest, your body realizes, I don’t have to survive anymore, I can conserve energy. That’s when you feel the cost, the pain, the wear and tear, the scars. And the name for those scars is trauma.
My father once said, “I feel you have a lot of trauma,” and I just got so offended: “Trauma happens to people who really suffer, people who live in the inner city, in marginalized countries, people who are raped or incarcerated.” I saw it as a weakness. And then my wife, who is a family medicine doctor and a specialist in trauma, she says, “You’re so traumatized.” The acceptance of that has been a 20-year journey. Trauma shatters an otherwise coherent narrative. We’re storytelling animals; we need to put everything in a sense of order. This book created the narrative arc not just for me but also for the story I wanted to tell about America.
What do you see as the most hopeful thing that’s happened to you?
My daughter’s alive. Some people say, looking at your daughter every day is a sign that God is cruel and the universe is vicious. The forces, whatever they may be, gave a 2-year-old Stage 4 cancer and a very small chance of living. That’s one perspective. Another, the one that my wife and I have: Terrible things happen to people all the time. How do we choose to respond to this moment? A community came, mostly strangers, and gave money, prayers, time. Over 500 people, mostly anonymous, stepped up to be a liver donor.
I see it as a strange microcosm for what’s happening now: A pandemic comes out of nowhere, it’s unfair; it has flattened us unequally, [but] it’s coming after all of us. How do you respond? We’ve seen people politicize it for wealth. But we’ve also seen people help. We see all our sins, our warts, our pride, our success. This has been a beautiful X-ray of this country. Some people chose to witness it, and some chose to take horse dewormer or drink their own piss instead of the vaccine. Can we emerge as a better country? There’s potential. I think we’re in “Empire Strikes Back,” and I am hopeful we can get to “Return of the Jedi.”
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People who loathed your politics offered to help your daughter. You repeatedly explore that tension between good and evil — how people can have both impulses. How do we reckon with it?
What’s very difficult for us to realize is, [evil people] don’t have horns on their head. They’re people. The hope is, sometimes some people can change. Sometimes bad people won’t change. That’s what I tell folks who think we’ll come together in bipartisanship, uniting over fried chicken and obesity and bad spelling and ignorance about geography. Nope. Some people won’t. And the majority has to move forward. The door will be open. If you’re pro-life in the sense of being anti-death, pro-vaccines, pro-multicultural democracy, then jump on board. If not, the caravan will move forward. And the dogs bark.
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