Kavita Nandan reviews Once a Stranger by Zoya Patel

Once a Stranger

by Zoya Patel


ISBN 9780733647079

A significant part of the success of a story is the degree to which we are moved by it in some way. Once a Stranger, a novel about the search for acceptance, is written with heart and an awareness of loss in the negotiation of relationships with family, history and home. At first glance, the novel’s structure and conceit seem too straightforward – the past and present are navigated by the sub-headings ‘before’ and ‘now’ and feelings are conveyed quite simply: ‘Ayat felt the loss as deep as a punch to her stomach’ (48). However, while the language may sometimes be humble, more so in Part One than in Part Two in which the metaphors of belonging and alienation deepen, the message is not.

This novel is told from three points of view, those of two sisters, Ayat and Laila, and their mother, Khadija. It is about their relationships with each other and to the new home, Australia. The central narrative is Ayat’s, the younger sister and daughter, who is separated from her family in Canberra as a result of the mother’s ultimatum that she choose between them and that other life: Melbourne and her white Australian boyfriend, Harry. Ayat is wounded by her mother putting Islam and its traditions above her. She is also hurt by her sister, Laila, who sacrifices their sisterly relationship to win the approval of her mother. Laila pursues the life of a “a good Muslim girl”. As a school girl she spends her time studying, accepting that there will be no sleep overs and no boyfriends. Afterwards she responsibly gets a job and enters an arranged marriage to a Muslim. At moments in the story, this binary is questioned – is Khadija really that blind? Is Laila really that one dimensional? Even her mother, at some point, wonders if her older daughter is supressing her real self.

The novel interweaves between the past and the present to show that the present can make sense in the light of the past. We learn that the girls’ father and Khadija’s husband, Ahmed, dies in a tragic accident, leaving their mother as the sole protector of her family and even more vulnerable in the new country. Both Ayat and the reader begin to understand to a greater extent, the mother’s strict choices. Would she have behaved as stubbornly with Ayat if Ahmad were still by her side? Khadija’s rigidity is also offered as being characteristic of the behaviour of a first generation migrant who persists in maintaining the culture and values of a previous homeland in the new country. The catalyst for reconciliation is a stark email from Laila to Ayat, telling her that their mother is very sick.

Once a Stranger is an inter-generational story of migration. On her first day of school when she feels rejected by the other kids, Ayat wraps her hands around her waist to make herself smaller, mimicking her mother who does this intuitively when she feels rejected by Australians. This gesture is a motif carried through the novel by mother and daughter. When Ayat experiences a lack of reflection of herself in others, it brought me back to my first days at primary school in Canberra, being one, out of the only three, non-white kids in the entire school. The distance between Melbourne and Canberra is eight hours but the gulf between Ayat and her mother and sister is far deeper. The micro narrative of the family’s rejection of Ayat is paralleled with the macro narrative of the rejection of this Muslim family by white Australians.

Part Two is more sorrowful and hopeful at the same time. For Khadija, Australia is still a foreign country: “Decades in Australia hadn’t changed Khadija’s allegiance. India was not just a country, it was an entire world that she had lost, one she wasn’t able to let go of.” (134)
This point of view is written with sympathy: “this was the place where her mother made sense, where her history became real” (167). When Ayat travels with her mother and sister to India, she has a greater understanding of her mother’s perspective. This helps Ayat to begin to forgive her mother and ultimately herself while at the same time realising that some differences are irreconcilable.

The novel suggests that migrants live with uneasy contradictions and not in a state of happy hybridity. They survive psychically by aligning themselves to one kind of cultural illusion or the other, whether it’s feeling at one with the crowd in India or, as Khadija does, wanting the solidity of Islam for Ayat, knowing that she didn’t wholly fit in, but with an edge of awareness. For all her stubbornness, Khadija knows that life is dynamic:

Children were always leaving, from the moment they were born. They exited her womb, and kept going, stepping further away from her with each act of independence until, eventually, she became to them what her own mother had been to her – the past. (233)

The experience of migration involves both loss and acceptance. This novel gives an important voice to young migrant people in an accessible and palpable way. It ends with the past and the future coalescing. Laila is able to acknowledge both the loss of all those years without her sister and the joy of her child. The novel ends positively with the hint that the youngest clan member, Aysha, may not have the same struggles, unlike her grandparents who found it the hardest to adjust, and her parents who are still negotiating their mixed identities. This is a story about the love between mothers and daughters. If Khadija can’t let go of her own feelings of not-belonging, she can accept that Australia is the way forward for her daughters.

Ayat’s boyfriend, Harry, while not being one of the major characters in the novel is worth mentioning here because of his symbolic weight: he represents the Other for the migrant or what the migrant is travelling towards – a new country and a new life. Both a feeling of homesickness and home are attached to him. Living with him reminds Ayat of the family she is separated from and being away from him when she goes to Canberra and India makes her feel like a part of her is missing.

It was a clever narrative choice to make Harry join Ayat in India, as his courage in making himself visible to her family is a trigger for Ayat’s acceptance of the different parts of herself. There are barriers between Harry and Ayat; Ayat for example is portrayed as being uncomfortable with Harry’s affections – people from an Indian culture are often brought up in a way that traps them between their own desires and their parents’ approval. But this dis-ease is what the novel is about. Harry is both her anchor in the new world and the difference she battles with:

But something in her was too fragile now. It was as though there was only space in her for Harry or her family. They had never existed alongside each other, and Ayat still didn’t know how to surpass the discomfort she felt at her dual identities mingling. She hadn’t had time to learn how. (195)

While the Rushdian sense of a happy mongrelisation and ‘contaminated’ migrant identity is helpful in contending the idea of mythic purity, living with disharmony is not easy. Ayat finds herself caught between the diverse worlds of family bonds, loyalty, past identities and the challenge of integrating into a new world. Canberra becomes as important a place as India in this journey of reconciling with family and country. Although, the specifics of my background maybe different, I felt many moments of recognition when reading this book and I believe that other migrants will feel something similar. A significant achievement of the novel is giving voice to the non-Anglo migrant experience. Once a Stranger’s narrative engagement with familial relations is a vital expression of the female experience of the effects of migration.
KAVITA IVY NANDAN was born in New Delhi, grew up in Suva and migrated to Australia in 1987 after the Fiji military coups. She completed a PhD in Literature at the Australian National University. She taught at both the ANU and the University of Canberra before moving from Canberra to Sydney in 2017. Besides being a writer, Kavita teaches Creative Writing at Macquarie University. She is the author of a book of poems, Return to what Remains (2022) and a novel, Home after Dark(2014). She is currently working on a novel, The Smallest Hands. Kavita has edited a book of memoirs, Stolen Worlds: Fiji-Indian Fragments and co-edited of a book of essays, Unfinished Journeys: India File From Canberra and an anthology of poetry and short fiction, Writing the Pacific. Her poetry, fiction and non-fiction are published in ABR, Adda Magazine, Asiatic, Island Review, Landfall, LiteLitOne, Mascara Literary Magazine, Meniscus Literary Journal, Mindfood, Not Very Quiet, Poetry D’Amour Anthology, Ross Spencer Anthology and Transnational Literature.