Jabeen Akhtar Interviewed by Neha Kirpal for LBBD
Young author of the hugely successful book, “Welcome to Americastan”, Jabeen Akhtar was born in London to Pakistani parents. At the age of two, she moved to the U.S. with her family and three older siblings. Currently, she lives in Washington D.C.
Jabeen works as a speaker with the state department’s Citizen Dialogue program, which sends Muslims and Pakistani-Americans abroad to speak to journalists, students, leaders, and government officials about life in the U.S. Previously, she has also spent seven years writing and publishing federal regulations for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The book is a reflection of her own life – of the chaos of growing up as a Pakistani immigrant in America. It has several laugh-out-loud moments and is very contemporary and easy to relate to. Its protagonist, Samira, is a girl just like her, caught up in the confusion of the western world she encounters outside and the traditional conventions she has observed growing up at home.
She shared her impressions of Delhi, amongst several other aspects of her interesting life.
Neha | Have you been to Delhi before? If so, what has been your experience of the city?
Jabeen | I was in Delhi for the first time during my book tour. I adore Delhi. The friendly and casual vibe, the monkeys, the street markets, the food… oh, the potato pakoras and fresh cane juice I had! I would come back anytime, if Delhi would have me.
Neha | What are some of your favorite places to eat/hang out/shop in Delhi? Any particularly favorite market/restaurant/bazaar/area? Any friends/other memories attached to the city that stand out in your mind?
Jabeen | My favorite spots were the Parliament building, Dilli Haat, and roaming about Chandni Chowk at night. An experience I will never forget is being inside the library of the Pakistani Ambassador’s residence. It was in that snug, dark-wood library that Jinnah, Nehru, and Liaquat Ali Khan approved and signed the partition plan for India and Pakistan drafted by Lord Mountbatten, the last British Viceroy. The historic relevance of that library was palpable. My father’s entire family, like that of tens of millions of other Hindus and Muslims, was mutilated and torn apart during partition, and I kept staring at him, staring at the room where it all began.
Neha | If you were to write a book about or based in Delhi, what would it be about?
Jabeen | The sight of hundreds of stray dogs living off the streets was heartbreaking and resonated with me. I would write a novel focusing on one gangly, but loveable dog and his perspective on life, including his hardships, search for shelter and love, his canine gang of friends, and the kindness of humans who laid out water for him at night. I would entitle it, “Delhi Dogs”.
Neha | What was it like growing up as a Pakistani-American in the U.S.?
Jabeen | Pretty uneventful, which would surprise most people. There is an image of America being an openly hostile environment to Muslims and immigrants. But America is a big place. Sometimes racism is present, many times it’s not. My father had a very different experience when we immigrated here in the 1970s, but for me, there are very few acute instances in which I have been confronted by racism. I lived and breathed bland American suburbia. If I was ever treated like an outsider growing up, it’s not because of my Pakistani background. It was because I was the weird loner sitting in the back of the classroom.
Neha | How much of Samira’s character is influenced by you?
Jabeen | There are hints of me in her character, such as the way she travels with trash bags full of clothes… a few details here and there. But our personalities are different. She’s more uptight and concerned with reputation than I ever was. I didn’t want Samira to be me. The novel is certainly inspired by many personal experiences, but if I found myself drafting a passage that too closely resembled my life or my reactions to life, I would erase it. There is a joy to fiction writing that is missed if it’s mirrored too heavily on reality-which is the joy of conjuring your own world.
Neha | Have you ever personally been a target of racial discrimination?
Jabeen | Overall, I can’t say that I’ve ever been discriminated against by an institution, or give you an egregious example of personal discrimination, and I’m very lucky for that. But the title of the novel is inspired by an incident in my personal life. I was at a convenience store filling my soda cup, and I could see the clerk keeping a very watchful eye on me. I paid and was halfway through the door when she said, “Welcome to America” in a very unwelcoming manner. I was so baffled by the comment that I got in my car and drove down the highway before realization hit. In the novel, it was important for to me to convey this aspect of racism-confusion. When you’re going about your business and a racist comment comes from out of nowhere, you’re going to feel confusion before feeling hurt, offended, or angry. In the novel, Samira (eventually) manages to think of a witty comeback to her racist. The witty comeback I thought of that day consisted of driving back to the convenience store and punching that woman in the face. Alas, I never did it.
Neha | It’s hard to believe that someone who spent seven years writing serious stuff like environmental regulations for the U.S. federal government could write a book as hilarious and light hearted, while at the same time, insightful as this one. How did you get the idea of the story?
Jabeen | Thank you for saying that! The idea started with news articles about the FBI Terror Watch list-this widely ridiculed and useless list of suspected terrorists that the U.S. government will not amend. My own brother’s name is on the list. I’ve been too broke to travel recently, but maybe my name now appears on a no-fly list. You never know. As far as the novel is concerned, one day I wondered how much worse the fallout would be if someone of Pakistani origin whose name is on the list committed a crime of passion versus a white American, and the story was born.
Neha | What has been your experience of visiting Pakistan? Did you visit often during vacations as a child with family?
Jabeen | I have only visited Pakistan once. We did not visit often as a family because of work and school obligations. This is a fact of U.S. life that is repeatedly ignored in South Asian diaspora novels. The characters are always returning to the homeland. I wonder how they get so much vacation time.
Neha | Tell us a little bit about your parents and three siblings.
Jabeen | My mom is a retired psychiatric nurse turned full-time cat rescuer and my father is a financial consultant. Both were born in British India and had not been back since, so being able to bring them on my India book tour was an incredible, meaningful experience. I also have three married, highly successful siblings. They are all older, and I rely on them to feed me. I basically go from house to house eating everything in their kitchens.
Neha | How much has Pakistan changed over the years, from your earliest memories until today?
Jabeen | Since I didn’t grow up there, I can’t really say. But it seems that the Pakistan my parents feel a deep nostalgia for-a once cosmopolitan country, whose government supported religious tolerance, education, and the arts, no longer exists in many ways. Climate change and environmental degradation have also ravaged the cities. In Lahore, the crystal waters and lush gardens my parents remember from their college days have been replaced by desiccated, polluted terrain.
Neha | Where do you think the Pakistani community in America is headed?
Jabeen | It’s difficult to say. There was an initial galvanization of community spirit in the days following September 11 that seems to have dissipated, which isn’t surprising or necessarily negative. Perhaps there is little continuing need to galvanize, politically. In addition, young Pakistanis who are a part of the internet age feel a greater connection to a global community. But I see Pakistani entrepreneurship thriving every day.
Neha | We believe you are working on a second novel. What is it about? Have you thought of writing a sequel to “Welcome to Americastan”? What is one to expect next from Jabeen Akhtar?
Jabeen | I’m always working on something! My next novel centers around a bunch of young Washington, D.C. bureaucrats competing for a mid-level promotion. I like to trade in pettiness, bitterness, and dark humor, so these elements will be prevalent throughout the novel. I may do a follow-up to Americastan one day.
Neha Kirpal, the interviewer, is the author of ‘Wanderlust for the Soul‘, a book about her travels.