Go Back to Where You Came From: And Other Helpful Recommendations on How to Become American
- By Wajahat Ali
- W.W. Norton & Company
- 272 pp.
- Reviewed by Jennifer Bort Yacovissi
- January 28, 2022
A funny, poignant appeal to our better angels.
Wajoo to his family, Waji to elementary school friends, and Waj in college, Wajahat Ali was under the mistaken impression that being born in America somehow made him an American. However, after many instances of “real” Americans helpfully inviting him to return to his place of origin — that would be Fremont, California — he realized that perhaps he didn’t entirely meet the criteria of what it means to be a true native son.
Thus, he has put together this handy guide, in the form of a memoir, to help others who find themselves in the same awkward position. Go Back to Where You Came From offers solid advice for Ali’s fellow travelers but ultimately isn’t able to overcome the one crucial hurdle demanded by populist America: You must be white to belong.
Ali includes a number of illuminating history lessons throughout, several of which remind us that the charge of non-whiteness has been levied against such serially reviled groups as the Irish, Italians, and Jews. But for Pakistani American Ali and his extended family — along with the millions of others whose skin contains unfortunately high levels of melanin — assimilation is an impossibility.
As Toni Morrison said, “In this country, American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.”
(A point brilliantly illustrated, as I write this, by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has just finished saying, “African American voters are voting in just as high a percentage as Americans,” inspiring the Twitter hashtag #MitchPlease.)
Clearly, what’s needed is a change in the narrative. Biting sarcasm aside about what it means to be “Amreekan,” that change is what Ali is agitating for in relating his family’s story. His father, Zulfiqar, came here as a college student soon after the passage of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, which opened the doors to some immigrants while intentionally closing them to others, notably Mexicans. Even so, Zulfiqar later came within hours of being deported because of a racist U.S. immigration official and was saved at the last moment through complete serendipity and an “Einstein” visa.
That little Wajahat had an odd name (picked by Dada, his paternal grandfather) was just the beginning of his otherness. Some of Ali’s childhood traumas could belong to anyone: allergies, accidents, and illnesses, painful shyness, and the horror of husky pants. But others were tied directly to his belonging to an “outsider” community, such as his accent and late arrival to speaking English (thanks to a large, multi-generational household that spoke Urdu), and his brown skin among the sea of white on the playground.
One of the ageless survival mechanisms of outcast, bullied kids is to develop their comic chops, and Ali honed his through years of painful dork-dom. Thanks to a teacher who loved his sci-fi riff on Robin Hood, Ali started to get over his terror of speaking in public and discovered his “super power” of storytelling. He scripted and filmed short movies with a buddy, which they screened for family and friends. In his senior year, he finally made it into his high school’s improv group and went on to do improv at UC-Berkeley.
Three things occurred during Ali’s undergraduate career that deeply affected the path of his life: He took a short-story class with Ishmael Reed, a two-time Pulitzer nominee and MacArthur “genius grant” recipient, who pressed him to write the play that eventually became “Domestic Crusaders”; 9/11 happened, which instantly made him a spokesperson for all things Muslim and gave him his first taste of being in the crosshairs of the nascent alt-right media; and his parents were arrested and charged with defrauding Microsoft.
As Ali relates, “My narrative was hijacked.” At 21, while still a student, he shouldered the entirety of his parents’ business, debts, and other responsibilities while they went to prison. It took him a year to raise bail to get them out; several years later, they lost their case and went back in.
Even as he earned a law degree and began practicing, Ali was often homeless, finding a couch or bed with family or acquaintances. More dispiriting was the glee and gheebat (backbiting) with which many in their seemingly close-knit community greeted the family’s downfall. The Alis’ enjoyment of model-minority status was officially over.
It was during this time that Ali finished writing “Domestic Crusaders,” a play about a Pakistani American family that, through his sheer personal dedication, had a record-shattering run at the Nuyorican Poets Café in Manhattan and found a diverse, appreciative audience.
This was also when he began to get op-eds, commentary, and other pieces published in media outlets large and small and was booked for speaking engagements nationwide. Eventually, he became a regular on CNN and MSNBC, where he was invariably introduced as a “Muslim journalist.” It was a major event when MSNBC’s Chris Hayes had him on to discuss current topics unrelated to Ali’s religion or ethnic heritage.
As harsh as the previous administration was on communities of color, Ali holds special ire for the predominantly white news media that gave the hateful bigotry and clarion calls to the troglodytes a shoulder-shrugging pass:
“[Trump’s] hate never affected them, so they didn’t care…There was no ban proposed on their community. Hate crimes didn’t spike that made them think twice about going to their houses of worship.”
He then points out that, from 1990-2014, the New York Times “portrayed Islam and Muslims more negatively than they portrayed cancer, cocaine, and alcohol…Cancer.”
It was during the nightmare of having his own 2-year-old daughter, Nusayba, diagnosed with a rare liver cancer that Ali felt a flicker of hope for America. Five hundred people offered to donate part of their liver, “the first time supply had outstripped the demand,” he writes. “There were people who volunteered their liver, their money, and their kindness who actively loathed my politics. I know because they told me.”
If only simple humanity like this could win out every time. In Go Back to Where You Came From, Wajahat Ali invites us to do our part to make sure it does.
Jennifer Bort Yacovissi’s debut novel, Up the Hill to Home, tells the story of four generations of a family in Washington, DC, from the Civil War to the Great Depression. Her short fiction has appeared in Gargoyle and Pen-in-Hand. Jenny reviews regularly for the Independent and serves on its board of directors as president. She has served as chair or program director of the Washington Writers Conference since 2017, and for several recent years was president of the Annapolis chapter of the Maryland Writers’ Association. Stop by Jenny’s website for a collection of her reviews and columns, and follow her on Twitter at @jbyacovissi.