Review of Amriika by M.G. Vassanji
by M.G. Vassanji
I’m intrigued, because there are only 4 other reviews of Amriika on Goodreads as I write this, yet the book is over 15 years old. What gives? Is this just not one of M.G. Vassanji’s more popular books? Or did everyone read it back before Goodreads and hasn’t gotten around to re-reading/reviewing it now?
In any event, I’ve really enjoyed some of Vassanji’s other books, but Amriika did not work as well for me. Although the premise and some of the events are interesting, I didn’t get very attached to Ramji. He is very much a reactor rather an an actor in many of these situations, and I find these types of quiet, often male protagonists very tiresome. As much as I like Vassanji’s writing style and his keen awareness of history’s gaze, the characterization in this left me cold.
Amriika takes place over the latter half of the twentieth century. Ramji, of Indian descent but raised in Dar es Salaam by his grandmother, goes to the United States for university in the 1960s. He gets involved with the anti-war movement, falls for a girl who later gets arrested for domestic terrorism, then eventually drifts around until he marries, divorces, remarries (or at least moves in with someone else) and hangs around a magazine/journal that intersects with Middle Eastern and Islamic politics. He ends up talking to the FBI about a bombing, which he was not involved in but where he interacted with someone who was, and that forms the frame story around this narrative.
I often talk about how I “missed out” on the last part of the twentieth century and, as such, have gaps in my historical awareness for this era. So I liked seeing Vassanji’s take on things like the student protests and demonstrations of the 1960s and 1970s. In particular, I love how Ramji is disappointed in the way the privileged, mostly white American students take him up as an almost token symbol of his cause and have very little practical understanding of what it’s like to live in the “third world” countries they are claiming to fight for. He observes that these students only think of the Third World as a concept, of Africa as this abstract notion; they don’t understand or seek to understand the nuances of the cultures and countries that exist beneath these labels.
So Vassanji does succeed in portraying the complexity of politics within Islam. I’m reading this at a time when Islamophobia is increasing in North America, partly because of external factors, but mostly because politicians are unscrupulously fanning these flames in order to get votes. Amriika reminds us that Islamophobia is not new, that this problem has come up again and again over the decades—but in so doing, it also reminds us that vibrant Muslim communities within the United States are not a new phenomenon either. Muslims have lived in the US for a long time now, sometimes in communities that accept and welcome them and sometimes in less welcoming atmospheres. Regardless, it’s important to remember that this is not some new “alien” threat or invasion. I loved the little dig when Basu remarks of a Hindu woman’s groom: “He’s an American!” and someone else retorts, “And she’s not?”
That exchange, of course, illustrates that white Americans are not the only ones who view Muslim and Hindu groups as distinct entities within the broader American society. Contrary to the melting-pot ethos of the 1980s and 1990s, these groups maintain their identities—and they are often just as reluctant to allow their younger members to blend these cultural practises with more mainstream ideas. Vassanji captures, quite clearly, the tension that exists between people who want to preserve “the old ways” at all costs and people who want to question orthodoxy and establish new traditions.
All this sounds fascinating, I know, so it might seem unusual that I didn’t like the book. And that just comes down to the protagonist. Ramji is so bland. Or at least, the way in which Vassanji portrays Ramji and describes his actions makes him seem like a robot at times. He just kind of drifts through events, occasionally making a decision or reacting to someone else’s decision. But we seldom see much emotion from him; Vassanji often has Ramji reflect on his own emotional distance from traumatic events. It could be interesting, and maybe it is to some people, but I found it hard to connect to Ramji.
Amriika is not a bad book, and I see why the other reviews have praised it so much. It shows Vassanji’s typical skill and dedication to the subject matter, and there is a cultural lens here that is different from the way we usually think about these events. For those reasons, it might be worth reading. However, I was not a fan of Ramji, and that made my enjoyment of the book less than it might have been.