Zara Hossain is Here
Zara Hossain is Here
I know that feeling well. It’s a sense of encroachment on someone else’s space, an unbelonging that never goes away, no matter what you do to fit in. And although I love my life here, it takes just one person like Tyler to make me feel I can never fully belong. I don’t want to believe that the color of my skin, my beliefs, and my native tongue will forever brand me an outsider, but Tyler makes that seem like a real possibility.
“Zara, maybe it’s best to lie low and let the administration do their job,” Abbu says. “Hopefully, Tyler will stop, now that we’ve formally complained.”
Ammi nods. “You know, beta, our green card process is still going on and who knows how long that will take. The way things are these days, we don’t want to draw attention to ourselves.”
After all these years, they still have no peace of mind when it comes to their lives here.
“Don’t worry, Ammi,” I say in what I hope is a reassuring tone. “It’ll be fine. Now that Mr. Trevino is aware of all this, I’m sure Tyler will back off.”
“Yes,” Abbu says, leaning over to rub Ammi’s shoulder. “Don’t worry too much, Nilufer. It will all be okay.”
“I’m going to go do my homework,” I say, picking up my plate and carrying it to the sink. “Do you want me to do the dishes?”
“Nahin Chanda, you go and study,” Ammi says.
Abbu’s already clearing up. “I’ll do the dishes. Nilufer, why don’t you go and put on that new Fawad Khan movie? I’ll join you as soon as I’m done here.”
Back in my room, my mind swirls with the thoughts I can’t say out loud to my parents. The worry about our immigration status always sits just below the surface, tarnishing everything good in our lives. We try to remember that our lives are so much better than many others and we are grateful, but it’s hard sometimes, always waiting for the other shoe to drop.
My father is a pediatrician, and that affords us certain luxuries I go to an expensive private school and hope to go to an Ivy League school after I graduate. But beneath all that positivity is the shadow of still being on an immigrant status. It means everything can be taken away from us. Anger surges through me at the thought that it may only take one phone call from Tyler’s dad to Homeland Security to put us all a risk of being deported.
I try to shake off the frustration of knowing that I have to be the one to back off when it’s Tyler who’s being a racist jerk. Right now, the only thing I can do is focus on school and hope that we get our green cards soon. It’s been eight years since we applied, and it’s taking a toll on us all.
Zara is a high school senior living in Corpus Christi, Texas. This is the only home she’s known since her parents emigrated from Pakistan when Zara was just a baby. In general, Zara enjoys a privileged and happy life, but there is always trouble just below the surface, given that she is one of very few Muslims in the community. Tyler has often made bullying and degrading remarks but then chooses to vandalize Zara’s locker at school. This escalates to graffiti being painted on her home and a violent confrontation. Zara and her family are faced with a seemingly impossible situation. Returning to Pakistan and their former life may suit her parents, but doing so will put Zara in a new environment, far from her friends and her hoped-for college years in the United States of America.
Zara is a strong-minded main character with an inherent sense of right and wrong and the desire to stand up for what she believes and to speak out against what she perceives as injustice. She is a Muslim at a Catholic high school which immediately sets her apart from her peers. As well, she is bisexual which also puts her outside what many see as ‘the norm’. Readers watch as Zara grows and matures and faces intolerance and other challenges head-on.
Sabina Khan creates an interesting cast of secondary characters. Good friends Nick and Priya are always ready to support Zara, and love interest Chloe adds a softer and gentler voice to the novel, contrasting with Zara’s more outspoken and activist personality. Khan also describes two very different sets of parents, with Zara’s mom and dad being absolutely supportive of her choices while Chloe’s more conservative and religious family has difficulty accepting her as she is. Zara’s parents also present readers with a look into their culture, using their own language at home and seemingly cooking and eating wonderful food on almost every page!
There are many controversial and difficult topics within this young adult novel, making it both timely and thought-provoking. For readers with less experience, the difficulties of immigration, xenophobia, and applying for Green cards within a convoluted and difficult system are clearly described and greatly add to readers’ understanding of the challenges faced by those who emigrate in search of a better life. Bullying, an important theme, gradually grows into vandalism and then gun violence, showing how quickly mean-spirited people can escalate events.
Zara’s parents help readers reflect on the important question of ‘where is home?’. They have had successful lives in the United States, and yet they feel that returning to Pakistan will place them with friends and family where they can easily fit in once again. They feel unsafe and uncertain in Texas and look forward to more personal security. On the other hand, Zara, despite being very familiar with her Pakistani roots, has only known life in America and has worked hard towards going to university and securing her future. The choices are difficult and seem insurmountable at times during the book.
Zara believes so strongly in her opinions that there are times when she is rather long-winded and her ‘speeches’ take on a somewhat moralistic tone. As well, there are hints that Tyler might be sorry for the trouble he has caused and perhaps there is more to his story than just being a hate-filled bully. This is another theme altogether, one that, perhaps, could have been explored in more depth.
Khan makes excellent and well-argued points in Zara Hossain is Here, and her author’s note lets readers know that her own experience was something very like Zara’s. Current events on our news often revolve around racism of one kind or another and our seeming inability to change. Zara represents a new generation which perhaps will see more clearly and be able to right the wrongs of the past.
Ann Ketcheson, a retired high school teacher-librarian and classroom teacher of English and French, lives in Ottawa, Ontario.