About halfway through reading this one, I started texting my friends. I said, “I really wanted to like this book, because hijabi protagonist! Muslim fiction! But it’s so. damn. shallow.” I was feeling really bummed, because up until about halfway, Sofia Khan is Not Obliged read like Malik had just wanted to write about Bridget Jones, but with a hijab. There was really nothing very unique to the Muslim experience other than a few jokes. Which – I don’t expect Muslim fiction to be moralistic (I prefer it when it isn’t, actually), but what’s the point of just replicating secular fiction and making some cosmetic adjustments?
But, I ploughed on, and although I do still think there are a few problematic things about it, it became clear that the shallowness at the beginning was a deliberate feint rather than a tone-deaf burble.
things i appreciated
1. that it offered a multi-faceted view of Muslims – like Austen’s Emma, Sofia is as bad at reading people as she is at understanding herself, but she does try to be accepting of all the varieties of Muslims and Islam she encounters – the “fundos”, “beardies”, the ones who drink and sex up, and she has great sympathy for the marginalized within Muslim communities.
2. incredible insight into the threads of South Asian family, particularly in-law issues! Polygamy, love marriages and divorce, and their complexities are also lent some depth – no moralistic ruminating on their goodness or badness, just an acknowledgement that they are very very complicated. And human.
3. the relationship between Sofia and her Prince Charming is SO TEXTBOOK ROMANCE. And I mean that in a good way! It was slow-burning and familiar – reminded me of Meg Cabot. It was really in the interactions in this relationship that I began to have a sense of who Sofia really was as a person. Not who the other characters told me she was – but who she showed herself to be through her actions.
4. I liked how Sofia slowly began to deepen in character, just like the book she was writing. As she thought more about things, she took them on, and her faith expanded and deepened as well. Whereas at the beginning of the novel it just felt like she was Muslim because she was supposed to be, and putting on the hijab was dealt with very flippantly – which very much felt like a cop-out.
5. I liked that Sofia herself was inconsistent in her faith, and that her practice changed and ebbed and flowed with the events happening around her. She tried, but she definitely wasn’t a perfect Muslim. Those moments were real to me. It spoke to the fact that you can believe something, really and truly, and still not always live up to those beliefs and ideals 24/7, 365.
things i didn’t
1. the characterization of Sofia herself – it felt inconsistent and I never quite got a sense of a distinct Sofia Khan. Everyone kept saying she was argumentative and strong and bolshy and all that, but it seemed to me she never really stood up for herself, mostly because she didn’t know what she stood for. A case of please show, don’t tell, I think.
2. while the shallowness was a deliberate feint, the concept was better than its execution. There wasn’t enough foreshadowing/hinting of depth in the first half of the novel for the concept to really gain steam.
3. 2011 – was Whatsapp a thing in 2011? Felt like an anachronism. Even IG wasn’t as big back then as it is now, so it felt weird that they were referenced in a 2015/2016 way.
things i was on the fence about
I really enjoy some chick-lit – Sophie Kinsella’s Shopaholic series, to me, is a triumph of voice and tone in the genre. Sofia Khan is very British, very familiar in its flippant tone, and it is humorous, but the depth and heart missing from the first half of the novel means that the book didn’t feel as emotionally cohesive as it could have.
“God, Emma asks a lot of questions. I find this to be a problem. Not the questions, per se, just the assumption that I have answers. I’m not an anthropologist.”
“There are the men who’ll marry a hijabi – but then expect her to move in with a hole-in-the-wall, or think she’s going to be this weird paragon of traditional values.” I sighed. “And then there are the men who are all, ‘You’re living in the west – what’s with the hijab?’”
“I looked at Naim’s friend request and wondered about extracted moments of my life being available to him.” (Isn’t this how we all feel when we accept a request on social media? You can trust people you know well to know you are more than what you post – but others know only what you show them, so you have to be more careful about what you show.)
“I’ve obviously heard this story before, but sometimes I forget that beneath her ever-present need to clean and do something, there’s an immigrant woman – full of stories about death, and washing clothes in a cold climate.”
“I hear it all the time about marriage. You must be patient with your husband. If he asks for five curries for dinner or wants you to live with his parents, then you must comply. If he wants his shoes licked clean, then why do you think you have a tongue? Oh, I don’t know – maybe to have an opinion? Worse is when people start using Islam to tell you to be a bloody doormat.”
“Always be around the people that see the best in you. Gives you a fighting chance of maybe one day being that person.”
“I didn’t know I had to explain my life to people as well as go through the process of actually living it.”
“People are nuanced.”
It took me too long to get into it, but the second half of the novel really did redeem the first half (could have maybe been cut down to a third?).
I’m really looking forward to reading the next book in the series – The Other Half of Happiness out on 6 April – and to a more distinct Sofia!
#muslimshelfspace on twitter. all the yeses.