Misbah Wolf reviews Untethered by Ayesha Inoon
By Ayesha Inoon
Reviewed by MISBAH WOLF
In the act of reading, an ostensibly solitary and intimate experience unfolds as a journey not just within the pages of one book but as an exploration of the myriad conversations that books engage in with each other. Books, whether intentionally or not, are in perpetual dialogue. This review of Untethered, penned by Sri-Lankan writer Ayesha Inoon, is composed in reflection of this notion, emphasizing how literature shapes, challenges, and informs our understanding of the world.
At the time of beginning to read Untethered, I was coincidentally reading the 1970s feminist science fiction novel The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin, and I began to see a conversation occurring between them. By juxtaposing Untethered with The Dispossessed, we unearth a rich tapestry of themes, exploring how contemporary post-colonial fiction intersects with feminist science fiction from the 1970s.
Untethered and The Dispossessed may initially seem worlds apart in genre and narrative, but they share a profound kinship in their exploration of clashing ideologies and the quest for knowledge unburdened by constraints. Le Guin’s work portrays two contrasting planets, one driven by anarchic feminist ideals and the other by patriarchal capitalism. This cosmic juxtaposition finds an unexpected resonance in Untethered, where Zia, a Muslim Sri Lankan woman, confronts the realities of religious and cultural clashes after she emigrates to Australia with her family. She moves from one set of intricate ideologies that value obedience, faith, inter-family loyalty and connection, caste and wealth systems to a world that values independence, the nuclear family, wealth, and white privilege—cross-overs from one planet—I mean one country—are inevitable.
As a reader with a culturally and linguistically diverse (CaLD) Muslim background and a personal history of defiance against authoritarian religious figures, I find myself simultaneously sympathizing with and feeling at odds with Zia’s character. I share a profound impatience for Zia’s liberation from the patriarchal confines of her religio-cultural background. I also see the wealth entitlement she inhabits in Sri Lanka, which is mostly taken for granted until she gets to Australia. I know deep in my heart that Zia and I could not be friends; I would seem like a working-class betrayer of faith. My impatience extends to Zia’s tolerance of her husband’s violence, which is juxtaposed with her husband Rashid’s own experience of oppression in a racist Australian culture that fails to recognize his qualifications. Rashid reminds me of my own father, who, despite holding a Masters in Business and Teaching, struggled to find work and was subsequently attacked in a factory, resulting in the loss of an eye. This occurred in the 1980s, almost 34 years before Rashid’s experience of discrimination. The ties that bind me to this story cross over from fiction to fact.
Zia’s journey in Untethered unfolds as a classic Hero’s journey, with Zia assuming the role of the Fool in the Tarot Deck. She ventures into an unfamiliar land, seeking to shed the safe yet restrictive bonds of her family in pursuit of a better life in Australia. This experience mirrors the Stranger’s journey in The Dispossessed, where one risks everything to impart knowledge to an ostensibly advanced society, only to uncover latent forms of oppression within this new planet of opportunity. Zia, having the new vast spaces of Canberra to explore is limited to catching erratic public transport until she gets her driver’s licence. For a large part of the novel, she is still trapped within the house, scrounging away with food to make meals that will bring comfort for her isolated husband, who is also undergoing his own forms of oppression.
Although Zia eventually finds support that encourages her independence, her husband also grapples with systemic oppression that favors highly qualified white individuals over equally qualified immigrants of color. Can you imagine if Rashid, Zia’s husband, was called Ray and hailed from England, Sweden, or New Zealand? Ray would likely transition seamlessly into a job commensurate with his skills and education. This aspect of the novel compels readers to confront the uncomfortable reality of racial discrimination in Australia, what ‘passing’ as Aussie looks and sounds like, and how tokenistic acts of ‘discrimination awareness’ are just that, when this society still continually validates and supports rich white privilege.
The novel introduces a cast of characters, such as the driving instructor and the independent single-mum friend Jenny, who serve as archetypes along Zia’s heroic journey. These characters, though seemingly alien to her, embody facets of her own identity and aspirations. One represents independence and love, while the single mother symbolizes the freedom to prioritize oneself over marriage. This intricate character development enriches Zia’s narrative.
Furthermore, Zia’s character exhibits resonances with Jane Austen’s heroines, particularly evident in her admiration for Austen’s works. Austen’s novels consistently challenge societal expectations of marriage and advocate for female agency and independence. Zia’s reverence for Austen adds layers to her character, highlighting her desire for autonomy.
Zia’s early life in Colombo, marked by a clash between her literary passion and her parents’ traditional expectations of marriage, underscores the tension between individual aspirations and societal norms. Despite her inner disappointment, Zia complies with her family’s wishes, participating in traditional wedding preparations and embracing her role as a devoted wife. This conflict between personal desire and familial obligation serves as a central theme in the novel.
The novel navigates the complexities of familial relationships and societal expectations, highlighting the interdependence within Zia’s family as the bedrock of stability and identity. Yet, this interdependence also reinforces traditional gender roles, emphasizing the importance of procreation and adherence to religious and cultural norms. Amid these familial dynamics, the novel weaves a backdrop of political instability and religious conflict targeting Muslims in Sri Lanka. This context intensifies the family’s need to preserve their religio-cultural identity while living as a minority within Sri Lankan culture. It also fuels their fear of being targeted as Muslims. This motif drives Zia, her husband, and daughter to seek a new life abroad.
The extended family dynamic further illuminates the theme of otherness, as Zia’s mother-in-law quickly admonishes the darkness of Zia’s skin. Unfortunately, Zia was not “blessed” with her mother’s lighter complexion, instead inheriting her father’s darker skin tone. This difference serves as a poignant reminder of the deeper seeds of racism and the enduring caste system that associates lighter skin with higher status in many countries other than ‘European’. This insidious system, as I emphasize, persists across oceans.
In summary, Untethered is a masterfully crafted novel that deftly interweaves themes of cultural identity, feminism, discrimination, and the pursuit of independence. Through the lens of Zia’s journey, readers are confronted with the complexities of societal expectations, the strength of family bonds, and the enduring impact of discrimination. My personal connection to the narrative underscores the novel’s ability to evoke empathy and challenge readers’ assumptions, making it a poignant addition to contemporary post-colonial CALD Australian literature. And in Zia’s own story-making and telling, as she shares her cultural identity with her daughter, we witness her claim her power as a writer and a guardian of her heritage, enriching the narrative tapestry of Untethered with the echoes of her own voice, woven into the fabric of her family’s story.
The novel compels readers to reflect on their own experiences and the stories that shape them, ultimately urging us to confront uncomfortable truths about discrimination and otherness within this great unceded First nations land. And in Zia’s own story-making and telling, as she shares her cultural identity with her daughter, we witness her claim her power as a writer and a guardian of her heritage, enriching the narrative tapestry of Untethered with her coming home to her love of story-telling.
So, how much further can Zia rebel? What would be the last great act of emancipation from all-consuming ideologies of patriarchal power and belief? I’ll leave that decision up to Zia to make, and if she wants to have a conversation about the kind of faiths we might need to hold onto, and the ones that if we let go of, may mean re-writing entire narratives of belief, then I’d love to have one with her.
MISBAH WOLF, a multi-dimensional artist holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of QLD and post-graduate qualifications in Research Methods, resides on Wurundjeri land.She has served as a poetry reviewer for Hecate Women’s Journal and was a guest editor for Mascara Literary Review in 2014. Wolf is the author of Rooftops in Karachi (Vagabond Press 2018) and Carapace (Vagabond Press 2022), has been active in poetry for over 15 years, participating in festivals like Queensland Poetry Festival and the Sydney Writers Festival. She also contributed to the Melbourne Fringe Festival 2019 as a costume and art developer for theater. Wolf was awarded a Creative Victoria Grant in 2022. She performed her work, including a feature at La Mama Poetica and the Emerging Writers Festival and participated in a radio podcast in 2023. Explore her journey at www.misbahwolf.com, where she continues to engage in various artistic projects.