Go Back to Where You Came From

Wajahat Ali narrating his book “Go Back To Where You Came From,” excerpt from chapter 7, pages 166 and 167, in which he helpfully explains that people do not need to understand every single moment of a story in order to empathize with protagonists.

Wajahat Ali is my favorite American this week. I’m loath to admit that I wasn’t already following him in The Daily Beast, The Atlantic, The New York Times, WaPo, Guardian, etc, but I’m loving his memoir, “Go Back to Where You Came From.” We share so much! Affinity for the Bay Area, his left-handed and Scorpio -ness, like my dear eldest, his pride is his family’s values for Hondas and hippie sympathies, and his hilarious recollections of his awkward wallflower tween years. And as a white, economically privileged lady, I deeply appreciate his labor to explain his superpower: person-of-color exceptional Daft-punking through life. I am grateful to him for telling his story.

The excerpt I’ve pulled out here comes from a chapter in which he describes the bootstrapped success of his play, The Domestic Crusaders, about a Pakistani American family, a play full of culturally specific, authentic details, which enjoyed great success among brown and white audiences alike when Ali produced the play at UC Berkeley, and San Jose State University, and Mehran Restaurant. With positive reviews from local and international press, Ali received interest from agents, producers, etc eager to bring the play to additional markets. They just had a couple notes: lose the Urdu and Arabic, and cast Ted Danson as the immigrant father. The Pakistani immigrant father. Face-palm.

The book is full of stories like this about the conundrums faced by brown Americans, and the impossible expectations of “The Whiteness”: Be ethnic, but not too ethnic. Work harder for less money. Be entrepreneurial, but not too successful. Be a citizen (and good luck with that). Above all else: Be Moderate.

Much of the book is comedic as it explores the particulars of those contradictory expectations, expectations that are familiar, expectations which we see for their impossibility, and which we liberal gora scratch our heads at, not understanding why they still persist when they are so obviously unachievable. I find myself reflecting on the function of humor as a vehicle for critique. In Ali’s book, the humor is both disarming and elucidating.

But make no mistake: it’s not all ha-ha’s. Ali might have a great way with humor, but America’s persistent xenophobia is not funny. Its impacts on families and communities are not funny. Also not funny: his family’s experience with incarceration and community alienation and losing everything. Nor the parts about facing deportation, and various health crises, and sudden deaths. And although none of these things are funny, when Ali shares his specific experiences of these injustices, misfortunes, and saddnesses (all experienced at tremendously higher rates in communities of color compared to white folks), I am immediately empathetic because I feel I know him, and I have seen how much we have in common, even if I don’t understand all the things.

Wajahat Ali’s appreciation for and description of cultural specificity invites readers to connect and learn from his storytelling.

Wajahat Ali’s website

Find his new book in a local bookstore

or in a nearby library

or listen on Audible

Or be a hardcore fan and do all of the above because you really appreciate the work and want to boost its performance on all the channels (and maybe also maybe because you have the ambition to read books on paper but live the kind of life that actually doesn’t offer much room for that…)

Photography of page 167 from Wajahat Ali's book "Go Back To Where You Came From." Emphasis added to the quotation that reads: "I don't need to understand everything to empathize and be hooked." The quote refers to Ali's affection for the movie "The Godfather," and how Ali appreciates the movie and empathizes with the protagonists even though the characters occasionally speak in Sicilian, a language Ali doesn't understand.

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