Pull up a chai and get ready for Intrepid’s first book review for Written in the Stars by Aisha Saeed!
First things first: The cover is a gem. A teenage girl with long, dark hair looks wistfully up at a crescent moon. She’s bordered by a stunning, jewel-toned blue and purple pointed arch.
“They will accept us one day,” I insist… “One day, we’ll show them there’s another way to look at all of this. I wasn’t exactly planning to fall for you. I just did. It’s going to happen to them too.”
By the end of senior year, 17-year-old narrator Naila has finally convinced her parents to let her go to college and become a doctor. Her parents, conservative Pakistani immigrants, have let their daughter make more or less her own choices, except for one: Years ago, they told Naila that while she could choose her clothes and her career, they would decide on her husband.
The one knot in the plan is that Naila has already fallen in love with Saif, the dreamy boy on the soccer team, and they have been secretly dating for a year.
When the secret gets out (in a spectacularly nasty blowup), Naila’s parents book a last-minute summer vacation to Pakistan. As the summer passes, Naila becomes slowly aware that her parents have an arranged marriage in mind – and that they don’t plan on her leaving Pakistan anytime soon.
On Naila and bicultural identity
Naila is the center of gravity of this book. Saeed breathes into Naila the voice of an extremely smart, self-directed young woman who is forced to confront the opposition of duty to family and duty to self.
Although majority of the story takes place in Pakistan, her narration is reflective of an upbringing mixed with her parents’ home traditions and the American culture she grew up with. Naila speaks fluent Urdu and wears a lengha to prom. Even when she is in the direst straits, her bicultural identity is not fractured, but a source of wholeness.
Although she doesn’t agree with her parents’ restrictiveness on dating (restrictive meaning don’t even think about it), she’s sought to understand where they’re coming from. Naila considers their disparate values in a conversation with her mother:
But how can I explain that I see the world a little differently and my way of looking at the world isn’t bad, not if it means their daughter has found someone she loves, someone who makes her completely and unbelievably happy?
Honestly, it stunned me at times that Naila doesn’t outright rebel against her parents. Instead, she’s grown up with a deeply rooted respect for her heritage. She’s an example of how growing up bicultural does not mean replacement of one culture with another, but is rather the formation of an integrative identity. Her level-headedness turns out to be a source of power and stealth when she is navigating Pakistan.
On Pakistani Muslim American adaptation
As huge a fan as I was of Naila, there were times when I just could not understand her parents. I often had to suppress chagrin, trying hard to remain open-minded to her parents’ decisions.
Like, why is family honor such a big deal? Why does Naila have to serve all the chai tea all the time? Why can’t she just choose her own husband because Saif is a dream and a half!?!??
Anyway. Hoping to deconstruct my ethnocentrism (if Naila can strive to understand her parents, why can’t I?), I took to a sociological study.
Canadian sociologists Arshia Zaidi and Muhammad Shuraadi studied attitudes toward arranged marriages among young Pakistani Muslim women living in the United States and Canada, in 2002. They explained the more community-oriented values that Pakistani Muslim families negotiate when they move to Western societies. Studies show that Muslim immigrant families often compromise their old ways of life to adapt to the framework of the new, individualistic Western culture. By the time that Naila is 17, her family has encouraged her leave home for college and pursue a career of her own choosing. This may not be the case in a more traditional Pakistani family in Pakistan.
Young Pakistani Muslim women who grow up the US and Canada (the real-life Nailas) often try to seek more autonomy. Living in the US at least, it’s hard not to acknowledge ideals like economic independence and individual liberty. In spite of her parents’ home values, Naila still grew up believing in marrying for love. Her classmates’ obsession with talking about prom dates led me to reflect on how much of American high school life revolves around romance – and how much friction this can cause not only for a first-gen American like Naila, but also her parents who don’t want to see their culture lost in a daughter they love.
Okay. Fine. I kind of empathize now. But let’s talk more about…
On arranged marriage
All that being said, the hardest negotiation for me as a reader was decentering myself from a deeply instilled sense of American individualism when it comes to beliefs on marriage. I tried to control my horror as Naila’s parents push her inescapably deeper into this unwanted situation. I often found myself thinking, How can they do this if they love her?
According to Zaidi and Shuraydi, arranged marriages are made to fulfill religious and social obligations; the family’s interests come first. This is governed by the abiding conviction that parents truly know best about the child, and the family’s, well-being.
With my bias owing to a fiercely individualistic upbringing, I still can’t say that I agree with Naila’s parents. But at least I understand. Although Saeed presents an authentic portrait of them, Naila at last decides what’s best for her, asserts her power, and takes her life into her own hands.
Don’t be too taken in by the sweet, whimsical cover: This books gets very dark, very quickly. No turn is predictable. Without giving too much away, I feel responsible for signaling a trigger warning for rape. Naila’s ending is not unambiguously happy, and that’s okay. Saeed treats trauma not as something with a neat conclusion, but a longer pathway to making peace.
The cover depicts a point in the book, close to the very beginning. Naila, freshly arrived in Pakistan, rekindles family relationships and absorbs her Pakistani life like heat from the sun. On her first night, she finds the stairs that lead to the roof of her family home:
I’m struck by the silence on the rooftop. And the stars. They number more than I ever thought possible. For a moment, I am speechless.
In Written in the Stars, Saeed paints a first-gen Pakistan American girl’s relationship with her heritage that is fraught, complex, and honest. Saeed herself, as she writes in her Author’s Note, trusted her parents when they matched her with her husband. She writes that she now enjoys a long, happy marriage of equals. But Saeed also sheds light on the reality of young woman in arranged marriages that may not have been so lucky, or landed in more dire situations like Naila’s. In Naila, she gives these young women (to whom she dedicates this book) voice and strength.
This is no ordinary YA romance. Written in the Stars is a thrilling must-read that handles questions of duty, personal agency, and cultural identity powerfully and with incredible nuance. It challenges some readers’ considerations of their own cultural practices and is a gift to the real-life Nailas.