Book Review: Corona by Bushra Rehman (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2013)

Corona is a poet’s novel. Bushra Rehman’s narrative voice is strong and musical. It leaps off the page and speaks directly to you, as if you were catching up with a long-lost friend. In a series of linked stories, Rehman paints a vibrant memorial to small treasure neighborhoods tucked deep in the outer boroughs of New York, capturing the intricate vein work of Corona, Queens from its alleyways, streets, and blocks to its network of railway tracks. Even when her young Pakistani American protagonist Razia Mirza is not in New York City, when she is out on the road vagabonding through America, she carries her childhood—a cocoon of friends, cousins and uncles—with her. Rehman offers us an honest sketch of Razia, as we follow the travels, mistakes and chance decisions that shape this flawed and beautiful main character.

Corona brings a new topic to the table of South Asian American literature; this is not a book about model minority aspiration and assimilation, but a book about fierce individualism and noble poverty. Razia does not achieve what other female protagonists of South Asian American novels do. There is no medical or finance degree, no job, and no white boyfriend or husband to ease her into an upper class American life. Instead, Razia falls in and out of love. She doesn’t always make the best decisions. She has one step in the present and a few in the past. Razia doesn’t know what to do next. And those are the very real traits that bring us a novel that is more friendly, more human and more relatable.

In many ways, it is the noble poverty with which Razia grows up that shapes her willingness to choose wandering over a settled life. Razia’s father owns a “Gosht Dukan” (a halal meat market) in Corona, and his generous nature leads him to keep a notebook full of names of people who owe debts to him that he never collects. Lacking a proper play area, Razia and her friends find odd luxury in an old couch they discover among grapevines in a neighbor’s backyard. It is through this assemblage of discarded things and quiet loyalties that Razia creates a new sense of home--one that is about coming into one’s own and coming into womanhood as a Pakistani American.

Most strikingly, Rehman has produced a novel of constant movement. Not only of geographic space, but of faces, names and love objects. Although love stories are found in several moments in the novel, I found the most romanticized moments of love in her sketches of the relationship between parent and child: the butcher father and his affection for his daughter Razia; the mother who sends her daughter out to join the line of those waiting for illicit bread from an abandoned bakery truck, her face pressed against the window of her apartment as she watches from above. Despite tracing Razia’s breaking away from tradition and family, Rehman draws a beautiful and nuanced relationship between rebel daughter and parents.  In Corona, what is torn apart always comes together—less neat and with loose threads showing at the seams, the scar marks and the stitches that keeps together the patchwork tent that Razia takes shelter under.

This fragmented, musical novel should be taught in classrooms because it breaks the prettiness of memory, brings irreverent humor where it should, shows the crisscross of ethnic neighborhoods in New York City, and celebrates love in the midst of violence. The abject and the desirous occupy one place in Corona. Rehman breaks the bicultural stereotypes of immigrant childhood and adds a pluralistic rainbow for readers to choose from. Will Razia make it through heartbreak? Will she make it in her 30s? Scathingly honest and vulnerable, Rehman’s debut novel is, if anything, about healing and re-piecing the jagged parts of life for one Muslim American woman making her way in a post-9/11 world.

 

 

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