Before posting my thoughts of Ask Me No Questions, by Marina Budhos, I re-read the book. Luckily at only 162 pages and an Accelerated Reader Level of 4.8, the fast paced plot made for a quick read. Having read it in 2007, when it first came out, I recall having liked it, and could recall the basic plot, but absolutely nothing else. In hopes of finding a Book Club book I reread the novel to refresh my memory. With the passing of time, the book drastically lost it’s relevance. Although I know people that face the fear of deportation at every moment, I know people that registered and left as part of post 9/11 Muslim Registration Act, and still have been able to reapply and be reunited with their families on American soil; I think the young adults that once might have found themselves in this book have all grown up, and the new demographic as a whole doesn’t relate. And, unfortunately, because of the lacking depth of character and plot development, most students I doubt will find much to relate to in the book.
A Bengali family living in New York on expired visas seek asylum in Canada after 9/11. Told from Nadira, a fourteen-year-old girl’s perspective, the book details life as Nadira’s father gets detained at the Canadian border, her mother stays at a near-by shelter, and Aisha, Nadira’s older sister, and Nadira head home to New York to resume life, and carry on as if everything is the same. The premise of how to live with the constant fear of being found out, especially at a time when people were “disappearing” for no reason and without cause is a compelling story line. As the back of the book says “Suddenly being Muslim means you are dangerous- a suspected terrorist.” However, the characters don’t act or practice anything Islamic, perhaps that on some level makes the book more ironic that they are targeted for having come from an Islamic country and having Muslim names, but for me, it just made the characters seem that much more shallow. I never connected with the characters, any of them, and there are a lot of them. There are so many side characters that do nothing to develop the main characters, nothing to move the plot, and really take away from the bonding with the turmoil that Aisha and Nadira are feeling. One minor character is presented as religious and mosque going, and by default that the dad had given him some money to keep, implies the dad went to the mosque, but religion only shapes their lives in that they feel that is why they are being targeted. On the other hand, they don’t seem very “cultural” either, yes they live among many Bangladeshi families, but you don’t see their identity developed there either. Rebels to the norm are presented, but not articulated to reflect on who Nadira is and provide some resonance to her with the reader. The characters seem isolated even within their cultural and religious community, which doesn’t fit , perhaps had the immigration situation isolated them it could be overlooked and understood, but rather it just makes Aisha seem petty and whiny and Nadira clueless, one dimensional attributes that leave the characters flat on the page.
By the end of the book, the title of the book starts to feel like a cruel joke. I had so many questions, why did they leave Bangladesh, why didn’t that father stay working in Saudi Arabia, why did they feel living illegally was alright, what happened to various friends that disappeared, not because of deportation, they just stopped being mentioned, where did the mom get her strength from and what is her background story?
By and large the book is clean, a cousin has a boyfriend that she is regularly sneaking off with, but nothing romantic is described, they are sneaking off to do political activist work. Another character, a thug type, is shown to be able to acquire things illegally, and Nadira’s helps her friend Lily, discover that Lily’s dad is having an affair and has another family.
WHY I LIKE IT:
If I wasn’t look for a book to present to students, I probably would not have been bothered by a lot of the critiques in this post. But because, my hope is to find something the students can identify with and take pride in, I was harsh with my view on the story. There are redeeming qualities however, as immigration reform is still a hot topic, students need to be able to put their feet in someone else’s shoes to better understand an issue, and this book, for the age level, can provide that. As a story of two sisters having to put their differences aside to help each other and their parents, this book gives some insight. And naturally if I know of a student who has gone through a similar situation, I think they would benefit reading it, not in that they would agree or be inspired, but at least in feeling less alone.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
At the moment I don’t see me discussing the book, but I will definitely keep it on the book shelf in the library. If things change, the following websites are useful:
An article about immigration by the author, Marina Budhos
The first chapter of the book: