A Place for Us

A Novel
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INSTANT NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

Named One of the Best Books of 2018 by: Washington Post • NPR • People • Refinery29 • Parade• Buzzfeed • Real Simple

"Mirza writes with a mercy that encompasses all things."  RON CHARLES, Washington Post

"A Place for Us is a book for our times." — CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR

The first novel from Sarah Jessica Parker’s new imprint, SJP for Hogarth, A Place for Us is a deeply moving and resonant story of love, identity, and belonging

As an Indian wedding gathers a family back together, parents Rafiq and Layla must reckon with the choices their children have made. There is Hadia: their headstrong, eldest daughter, whose marriage is a match of love and not tradition. Huda, the middle child, determined to follow in her sister’s footsteps. And lastly, their estranged son, Amar, who returns to the family fold for the first time in three years to take his place as brother of the bride. What secrets and betrayals have caused this close-knit family to fracture? Can Amar find his way back to the people who know and love him best?

A Place for Us takes us back to the beginning of this family’s life: from the bonds that bring them together, to the differences that pull them apart. All the joy and struggle of family life is here, from Rafiq and Layla’s own arrival in America from India, to the years in which their children—each in their own way—tread between two cultures, seeking to find their place in the world, as well as a path home.

A Place for Us is a book for our times: an astonishingly tender-hearted novel of identity and belonging, and a resonant portrait of what it means to be an American family today. It announces Fatima Farheen Mirza as a major new literary talent.

Praise

Praise for A Place for Us:

“Absolutely gorgeous...Mirza writes about family life with the wisdom, insight and patience you would expect from a mature novelist adding a final masterpiece to her canon, but this is, fortunately, just the start of an extraordinary career…. Has a household ever been cradled in such tender attention as this novel provides?... As Marilynne Robinson has done with Protestants and Alice McDermott has done with Catholics, Mirza finds in the intensity of a faithful Muslim family a universal language of love and anguish that speaks to us all... In prose of quiet beauty and measured restraint, Mirza traces those twined strands of yearning and sorrow that faith involves. She writes with a mercy that encompasses all things.... Each time I stole away into this novel, it felt like a privilege to dwell among these people, to fall back under the gentle light of Mirza’s words."
Ron Charles, Washington Post

“Ambitious… a family epic that is textured and keenly felt… Mirza draws Amar’s lifelong struggle with the concept of unconditional devotion so poignantly that readers will find it exceedingly relatable. But so too is the mysterious whisper in his ear urging him always to return, no matter how far he strays, back home.”
— New York Times Book Review

“The thinking person’s summer read, a rich and layered tale about family and assimilation.”
— Entertainment Weekly

"[An] impassioned debut novel… Mirza is attuned to the subtle ways in which siblings and parents compete for one another's affection. A ruminative final section, in which the father addresses his wayward son, is a moving coda."
— The New Yorker

"The book dives into the lives of a Muslim-American family, opening on the eve of the eldest daughter's marriage, and examines the intricacies of a family straddling two very different cultures."
— Vanity Fair

A Place for Us is a stunning novel about love, compassion, cruelty and forgiveness — the very things that make families what they are…[Mirza’s] writing is gorgeous, unadorned but beautiful… a miracle of a book. A Place for Us is a major accomplishment, a work of real beauty and fierce originality.”
Michael Schaub, NPR.org

“In polished prose that zeroes in on domestic detail and, at its loveliest, recalls Jhumpa Lahiri, Mirza delivers a portrait of a family straining to hold its center amid rebellions both quiet and explosive.”
TIME

“A rich portrait of a fractured Muslim family…With unwavering compassion, this beautiful heartbreaker unravels the mystery of who may be to blame for Amar’s estrangement.”  
—People

"Magical."
— ELLE

“This is a richly detailed, immersive saga that hooks you from the jump and keeps you absorbed even as you spend decades with its characters. A Place for Us is a tender examination of identity and familial roles, of faith, and of what it means to be home.”
— Marie Claire 

“An affecting, authentic and artful debut by Fatima Farheen Mirza… Mirza's writing is poignantly beautiful…By the end of the novel, readers may wish that some characters had spoken up at critical junctures and that other characters had swallowed the words that irreparably altered the course of events. That we become so invested is a testament to Mirza's talent.”
— Associated Press

"A stunner, worthy of a place among the finest books ever written about an American family."
— Minneapolis Star Tribune

"If you crave a family epic, read A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza....In this stunning, gorgeous novel, Mirza looks at the crucial events in an Indian-American Muslim family from many perspectives."
— Refinery29

“One of the biggest books of the summer.”
— Bustle

“Fatima Farheen Mirza's A Place for Us is everything I love about family sagas. It traverses time and place, explores the conflicts between a parent's expectation and a child's desires, and, most importantly, introduces us to fully imagined, flawed characters whose relationships are deep, entangled, and rich in love. The story — which centers on an American Muslim family navigating the tension between tradition and autonomy — is told in fragments, jumping from one character to another, slowly adding layers to scenes by revisiting interactions from multiple perspectives. And Mirza renders this family with a gentle hand, lovingly, so that each character will make their way into your heart.”
— Buzzfeed

"A brilliant debut from Fatima Farheen Mirza... this is a story about hope, and about the ways in which, if we open ourselves up to forgive the flaws in those we love, we can better move forward toward a brighter future."
Nylon

“A complex narrative that dives into the fractured relationships that make up an Indian family as they gather for a wedding.”
— PopSugar

“Beautiful.”
—Daily Beast

"Highly anticipated."
— Parade

“Few novels so elegantly capture the complicated cultural dynamics of a modern American family quite like A Place for Us....Told from multiple perspectives, the story offers a nuanced look at what it's like to feel caught between two cultures, struggling to honor where you come from while attempting to fit in where you are. A devastating and deeply moving book.”
— Shondaland

"This affecting debut follows an Indian-American Muslim family as they assimilate into U.S. culture... Mirza’s expansive novel tackles everything from 9-11 to addiction, each moment offering a sliver of explanation as to how a family can become so fractured. Mirza writes about her characters with an incredible amount of tenderness, keeping readers invested."
Village Voice

"A Place for Us resonates at the crossroads of culture, character, storytelling and poignancy."
BookPage

"A hauntingly beautiful and poignant story of identity, belonging and perception. This first novel from Sarah Jessica Parker's new imprint, SJP for Hogarth, is as timely as it is stunning, and is the perfect launch for an imprint designed to celebrate literary fiction titles that will resonate with all readers, regardless of race, gender or experience."
— Bookreporter

“Fatima Farheen Mirza’s story brilliantly displays a path to mold old traditions with the new to examine love and identity.”
— The Margins

“Extraordinary in its depth and diligence... Mirza adeptly revisits painful dilemmas from each narrator’s perspective, revealing jolting secrets. Each complex, surprising character struggles with faith, responsibility, racism, fear, longing, and jealousy, while Mirza conveys with graceful specificity the rhythms of Muslim life, from prayer to wearing hijab, gender etiquette, food, holidays, and values, all of which illuminate universal quandaries about family, self, culture, beliefs, and generational change.”
— Booklist

"A California-based Indian Muslim family celebrates the wedding of daughter Hadia, marrying for love. Present is her estranged brother Amar, who hasn't easily mnaged the rough road between youth and adulthood, Old World tradition and America, and the novel effectively unfolds family tensions and Amar's swirling personal anguish."
Library Journal

“The debut of 26-year-old Mirza is the first book from Sarah Jessica Parker's imprint at Hogarth; it explores the spiritual lives of its characters with sympathy and passion. The title of the book echoes a song from West Side Story, itself a retelling of Romeo and Juliet. Here the warring forces are not two families but one, split by the tension between reverence and rebellion. The author's passion for her subject shines like the moon in the night sky, a recurrent image in this ardent and powerful novel.”  
Kirkus

“Mirza displays a particular talent for rendering her characters’ innermost emotional lives, signaling a writer to watch.”
— Publishers Weekly

"A Place for Us is a triumph and an inspiration. I wish everyone would read this novel. A chronicle of the shattered expectations and irreconcilable desires within an American-Muslim family, A Place for Us hums with a deep faith in an unknown future, reminding its readers that when we are lost, love gives us a map home.”
— KAREN RUSSELL, author of Swamplandia!

A Place for Us is a radiantly envisioned, beautifully achieved epic about nearly everything that matters: love, family, faith, freedom, betrayal, contrition, absolution. Fatima Farheen Mirza is a magnificent new voice."
— ANTHONY MARRA, author of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena 

“This powerful, intricate debut is essential reading.”
— NOVIOLET BULAWAYO, author of We Need New Names

“This extraordinary, piercingly wise novel examines as profoundly as any book I know the threads of injury and grace that stitch together a family. Fatima Farheen Mirza has the passionate intelligence and moral vision that announce not merely an excellent writer, but a great one. I felt such gratitude reading this fiercely compassionate debut, and such joy at discovering a voice I will follow for the rest of my life.”
— GARTH GREENWELL, author of What Belongs to You

"The depth of the storytelling and the beauty of the language makes this debut novel by Fatima Farheen Mirza something to treasure. Highly recommended!"
— JOHN BOYNE, author of A Ladder to the Sky

“Fatima Farheen Mirza’s A Place for Us is a radiant debut. It accretes its power, beauty, and insight through its tender witnessing of private and family life. With her deeply compassionate view, Mirza dignifies terrain often desecrated by contemporary culture: maternity, faith, the bonds of community, the yearning for goodness, and our duty to others.  She shows us the destructiveness of our doubt in those we love, and the mercy of forgiveness.  Most wondrously, with this felt and moving novel, Mirza creates a place in which rebellion and reverence seem to embrace.”
— CHARMAINE CRAIG, author of Miss Burma

“Fatima Farheen Mirza’s A Place for Us is a work of extraordinary and enthralling beauty. It is so deeply imagined, so intimately attentive to and solicitous of the lives it follows, so artful in describing the inseparable human experiences of pride and resentment, humility and loyalty -- and, most of all, love – that it feels not as if we are reading a novel about this Muslim-American family struggling with tradition and culture, but as if we become actual members of the family. It is that immersive, that brilliant, that true.”
— PAUL HARDING, author of Tinkers

"Beautiful, intimate, tender. So vividly told the characters live and breathe."
— RACHEL JOYCE, author of The Music Shop

Excerpt

As Amar watched the hall fill with guests arriving for his sister’s wedding, he promised himself he would stay. It was his duty tonight to greet them. A simple task, one he told himself he could do well, and he took pride in stepping forward to shake the hands of the men or hold his hand over his heart to pay the women respect. He hadn’t expected his smile to mirror those who seemed happy to see him. Nor had he anticipated the startling comfort in the familiarity of their faces. It had really been three years. Had it not been for his sister’s call, he might have allowed years more to pass before mustering the courage it took to return.

He touched his tie to make sure it was centered. He smoothed down his hair, as if a stray strand would be enough to call attention, give him away. An old family friend called out his name and hugged him. What would he tell them if they asked where he had been, and how he was doing? The sounds of the shenai started up to signal the commencement of Hadia’s wedding. Suddenly the hall was brought to life and there, beneath the golden glow of the chandeliers and surrounded by the bright colors of the women’s dresses, Amar thought maybe he had been right to come. He could convince them all—the familiar faces, his mother who he sensed checking on him as she moved about, his father who maintained his distance—he could even convince himself, that he belonged here, that he could wear the suit and play the part, be who he had been before, assume his role tonight as brother of the bride.

***

It had been Hadia’s decision to invite him. She watched her sister Huda get ready and hoped it had not been a mistake. That morning Hadia had woken with her brother on her mind and all day she willed herself to think as other brides must—that she would be using the word husband when speaking of Tariq now, that after years of wondering if they would make it to this moment, they had arrived. What she had not even dared to believe possible for her was coming true: marrying a man she had chosen for herself.

Amar had come as she had hoped. But when she was shocked at the sight of him she realized she never actually believed he would. Three years had passed with no news from him. On the day she told her parents she would invite him she had not allowed herself to pray, Please God, have him come, but only, Please God, let my father not deny me this. She had practiced her words until her delivery was so steady and confident any onlooker would think she was a woman who effortlessly declared her wishes.

Huda finished applying her lipstick and was fastening the pin of her silver hijab. She looked beautiful, dressed in a navy sari stitched with silver beadwork, the same sari that a handful of Hadia’s closest friends would be wearing. There was an excitement about her sister that Hadia could not muster for herself.

“Will you keep an eye on him tonight?” Hadia asked.

Huda held her arm up to slip rows of silver bangles over her wrist, each one falling with a click. She turned from the mirror to face Hadia.

“Why did you call him if you didn’t want him to come?”

Hadia studied her hands, covered in dark henna. She pressed her fingernails into her arm.    “It’s my wedding day.”

An obvious statement, but it was true. It did not matter if she had not heard from her brother in years, she could not imagine this day without him. But relief at the sight of Amar brought with it that old shadow of worry for him.

“Will you call him here?” Hadia said. “And when he comes, will you give us a moment alone?”

She returned Huda’s gaze then. And though Huda looked briefly hurt, she didn’t ask Hadia to share what she was, and always had been, excluded from.

***

As she glided between guests and stopped to hug women she had not yet greeted, it occurred to Layla that this was what she might have pictured her life to look like once, when her children were young and she knew who her family would contain but not what life would be like for them. She walked with a straight back and careful smile and felt this event was hers as much as it was her daughter’s. And Amar was nearby. She looked to him between conversations, tracked his movement across the hall, checked his face for any discomfort.

The wedding was coming together wonderfully. People were arriving on time. There was a table for mango juice and pineapple juice and another for appetizers, replenished as soon as the items were lifted from the platter. White orchids spilled from tall glass vases on every table. Little golden pouches of gifts waited on each seat for guests to claim. Huda had helped Layla make them and they had stayed awake late in the night, singing a little as they filled each one with almonds and various chocolates, tugging the golden string to seal them. The hall was grand—she had chosen it with Hadia months ago—and as she walked beneath its arches into the main hall she was pleased with her decision. It had been dimmer when they first saw it, but now it looked like the set of a movie, high ceilings and every chandelier twinkling so bright they seemed to compete with one another to illuminate the room. Men looked sharp in their dark suits and sherwanis, women dressed so that every shade of color was represented, light reflecting off of their beadwork and threadwork. Layla wished her parents had been alive to see it. How proud they would be, how happy to attend the wedding of their first grandchild. But tonight even their absence could not dull all she had to be grateful for, and beneath her breath she continued to repeat, God is Great. God is Great, and all thanks are to Him.

Just an hour earlier she had helped Hadia into the heavy kharra dupatta, whispered prayers as she clasped safety pins in place. Hadia had not spoken as Layla moved about her, only thanked her once, quietly. She was nervous, as any bride would be, as Layla herself had been years ago. Layla adjusted the outfit’s pleats, hooked a teekah into Hadia’s hair, and stepped back to take in the sight of her daughter. All her intricate henna. Her jewelry catching light. The swoop of dark hair that peeked beneath her dupatta, that particular and deep red.

Now she searched the crowd for her son. It felt unfathomable that just days ago she still had trouble sleeping when the darkness called forth her unsettling fears. In the daylight she could reassure herself that it was enough to see her son’s face in the photographs she saved, hear his voice in the family videos she watched—Amar on a field trip she had chaperoned, his excitement when the zookeeper lifted up a yellow python, how his hand was the first to shoot into the air, asking to touch it. It was enough so long as she knew he was still out there, heart beating, mind moving in the way she never understood.

This morning she had woken to a home complete. Before her children could rise she took out sadqa money for them, extra because it was a momentous day, then more, to protect from any comment about her son’s return in a tone that could threaten its undoing. She drove to a grocery store and stocked the fridge with food Amar enjoyed: green apples and cherries, pistachio ice cream with almonds, cookies with the white cream center. All the snacks she once scolded him for. Was she cruel to feel more happiness, greater relief, at his return, than for her daughter on the day he had come back for? Before Rafiq left to oversee arrangements in the hall—the tables brought in, golden bows tied to the chairs, the setting of the stage where Hadia and Tariq would sit—Layla climbed the stairs to their bedroom, where he was getting ready.

Suno,” she said, “will you listen? Can you not say anything that will anger or upset him?

She always found ways to speak around her husband’s name. First it was out of shyness and then it was out of custom and a deep respect for him, and now it would be unnatural; she felt obliged to avoid his name out of habit. He paused buttoning his shirt and looked at her. It was her right. She had not interfered with his decisions for so long. She pressed on, “Please, for me, can you stay away from him tonight? We can speak tomorrow, but let us have this day.”

The previous night, when Amar first arrived, the two of them had been amicable. Rafiq had said salaam before Layla took over and guided Amar to his bedroom, heated him a plate of dinner.

For a moment, she wondered if she had hurt Rafiq. Carefully he clasped the button at each wrist.

“I will not go near him, Layla,” he said finally, dropping his arms to his sides.

***

When he met his father’s eyes from across the crowded hall, Amar understood that an agreement had been made between them: they knew who they were there for, and why they would not approach one another beyond the expected salaam. Amar looked away first. He still felt it. His anger, and the distance it caused. It was as if something had clenched in him and could not now be loosened.

Amar had played a game during the first few conversations when asked what he had been doing lately. A painter, he said to one guest, of sunsets and landscapes. The look on their faces amused him. To another uncle he said engineer but was annoyed by how it impressed him. Once he said he was pursuing an interest in ornithology. When the man blinked back at him he explained. Birds, I would like to study birds. Now he spoke without embellishment. He excused himself from conversations shortly after they began.

He stepped out beneath the arched doorway, past the children playing, past the elevators, until the shenai quieted. He had forgot- ten what it was like to move through a crowd feeling like a hypocrite, aware of the scrutinizing gaze, of his father expecting Amar to embarrass him, anticipating the lie he would tell before he even spoke. He walked until he found himself standing before the bar on the other side of the hotel. Of course, no one invited to Hadia’s wedding would dare come here. The sound of the shenai was so far away he could catch it only if he strained to hear. He took a seat beside two strangers. Even that felt like a betrayal. But taking a seat was not the same as ordering a drink. He leaned forward until he could rest his elbows on the counter, lowered his face into his hands and sighed.

He could hardly believe that, just the night before, he had managed to walk up to the door of his childhood home and knock. What had surprised him was how little had changed—the same tint of paint at nighttime, the same screen missing from his old window on the second floor. There were no lights on. Wide windows, curtains drawn, nobody home. Nobody would know if he decided to step back into the street. It was a comforting thought—that he would not have to face his father or see how his absence had impacted his mother. The moon was almost full in the sky and as he had when he was a child, he looked first for the face his schoolteacher had said he could find there, then for the name in Arabic his mother always pointed out proudly. Finding them both, he almost smiled.

He might have walked away were it not for a light turning on in Hadia’s room. It glowed teal behind the curtain and the sight of it was enough to make his chest lurch. She was home. He had made his life one that did not allow him to see or speak to his sister, to even know she was getting married until she had called him a month earlier, asking him to attend. He had been so startled he didn’t pick up. But he listened to her voicemail until he had memorized the details, felt sure some nights he would return and on other nights knew no good would come of it.  Her lit window and his own dark beside it. One summer they had pushed out their screens and connected their rooms by a string attached to Styrofoam cups at each end. Hadia assured him she knew what she was doing. She had made one in school. He wasn’t sure if he could hear her voice humming along the string and filling the cup, or carried through the air, but he didn’t tell her this. They pretended a war was coming to their neighborhood. This was Hadia’s idea—she had always been brilliant at thinking up games.

They were in an observation tower making sure nothing was amiss. Blue bird on branch, Amar said, looking out the window before crouching down again, over. Mailman driving down the street, Hadia said, lots of letters, over.

That night their father had been furious to find the screens dis- carded on the driveway, one of them bent from the fall. The three of them were made to stand in a line. Hadia, the eldest, then Huda, then Amar, the youngest, hiding a little behind them both.

“You instigated this?” his father said, looking only at him.

It was true. It had been his idea to push out the screens. Hadia stared at the floor. Huda nodded. Hadia glanced at her but said nothing.

His father said to his sisters, “I expected better from you two.”

Amar had sulked to his bedroom, closed his open window, sunk onto his cold sheets. Nothing was expected from him. And though Hadia never pushed her screen out again, he had, every few years, until his father gave up on repairing it entirely.

“Have you changed your mind?” the bartender asked him.

Amar looked up and shook his head. It wouldn’t have been so bad to say yes. It might have even been better for him and everyone else. A drink would calm his nerves, and maybe he could enjoy the colors and the appetizers and the sorrowful shenai. But he had come home for his mother’s sake, his sister’s sake, and this night was the only one asked of him.

His phone buzzed. It was Huda: Hadia is asking for you, room 310.

All day he had feared his sister might have only called him out of obligation, and suspected that maybe it was that same sense of duty that had brought him back. Now something swelled up in him, not quite excitement or happiness, but a kind of hope. He stood and stepped back toward the music. His sister, surrounded by close friends and family, was asking for him.

Reader's Guide

1. How did you interpret the title of A Place for Us? Does this “place” refer to family, culture, community, or religion?

2. Through the nuances of her writing, Fatima Farheen Mirza depicts complex, multidimensional characters. How were different sides to her characters’ personalities revealed? How do you reconcile Amar’s behavior with Amira with the anger and resentment he holds toward his family?

3. Did your opinion of Rafiq change or develop as the narrative progressed? Did you become more sympathetic or understanding of the father portrayed early on in the novel when, in the final section, the novel switches to his first-person perspective?

4. Layla at one stage advises Hadia to be mindful of the ways she treats and teases Amar, for his childhood experiences will impact the rest of his life. Layla warns, “One day the joke will not be funny. If you always leave him out, if you always tease him and hurt his feelings, soon you will not know how to be any other way with him, and it will affect his personality. Your relationship. For his whole life, and the rest of yours.” Can you recall any moments from Amar’s early years that affected his personality or the course of his adult life?

5. From a young age, Amar fears that he has a “black stain” on his soul. What do you think was the root cause of this fear? Why do you think he questions his own inherent goodness, and how does self-doubt affect his behavior?

6. Hadia comes to see the watch she received from Rafiq, an heirloom that was her grandfather’s, as a symbol of the competition between herself and Amar. How might the watch also be symbolic of their complex relationships with their father?

7. How did you interpret other recurring images or symbols in A Place for Us, for instance, the moon, Layla’s garden, or the black box that Amar received as a birthday gift?

8. In his late teenage years, Amar strives to prove himself as a worthy partner for Amira Ali, deserving of her parents’ approval. Where else did you see characters behave in certain ways, compromising their desires and making major life decisions, to please their family and community? How did this affect their personal happiness?

9. When her children speak English instead of Urdu, Layla fears that they will gradually lose touch with their heritage. As they moved toward adulthood, how did Hadia and Huda depart from certain aspects of their culture? What others did they uphold? You might consider rituals, customs, or gender roles.

10. At Hadia’s wedding, Amira mentions that her brother, Abbas, had been a “moral compass” for her parents. What lessons did you see children teach their parents (and grandparents) in A Place for Us?

11. Toward the end of the novel, Rafiq admits with regret that, as a result of his rigid religious practice and strict adherence to rules, he had failed to impart to his family an understanding of God’s kindness and mercy. How do you think his relationship with Amar would have changed or improved if he had come to this realization when his children were young?

12. Were you angry with Amar for leaving his parents and sisters, or were his actions justified? Did you blame Rafiq, Layla, or even Hadia, for contributing to Amar’s decision to move away from home and cut off communication with the family?

13. In the final section, Rafiq expresses his fear that his grandchildren will experience the effects of racist hate and violence, which Amar had been exposed to in school. Do you think that A Place for Us, depicting the personal lives of a Muslim family in America, has an important social message?