Not To Be Overlooked
By Alicja Baranowska and Katie Simpson
Not To Be Overlooked introduces a variety of wonderful but lesser-known books to assist readers in finding their next great reads. This week’s column covers reviews of a YA fiction title by Alicja, Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know, and non-fiction work by Emily, The Good Immigrant.
Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know by Samira Ahmed
Published by Atom, August 2020
Samira Ahmed’s Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know is one of my favourite YA books. I read it for the first time last year, but during my recent trip to a bookshop, I spotted this title again. It is definitely one of those books you could re-read again and again, each time discovering something new. Samira Ahmed’s writing is just so rich.
Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know combines the elements of romance, mystery and historical fiction, making it a blended and unique piece of YA. Set in Paris during the summer, the main narrative follows Khayyam, a young girl from Chicago, whose roots surpass that of the US. She is American, French, Indian and Muslim, and her identity is clearly defined by all of those countries, cultures and religions. Samira Ahmed’s book follows Khayyam as she tries to uncover a two-century-old mystery, while also exploring her identity, figuring out what she wants and who she really is.
Brooding over the boy she has left at home and still being upset over a failed art history essay that was meant to guarantee her place at college, Khayyam doesn’t expect this summer to change her life. But then she meets a Parisian, a descendant of famous Alexandre Dumas, and together they set off to uncover the forgotten story of Leila, a Muslim woman whose path intertwined with Dumas, Delacroix and Byron. We see a glimpse of Leila’s story both through Khayyam and Alexandre’s discoveries and the short chapters incorporating the narration from Leila’s perspective, seeing her story in the 19th century. Through that, we witness Leila’s story almost as if it has been happening now, giving it a sense of immediacy as well as underlying the importance of it, because we know that Leila has been forgotten in history.
Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know has lots of elements of a classic YA summer romance, with feelings developing between Khayyam and Alexandre and the complications that have arisen as a result of their private lives. But, both characters remain raw, honest and truthful to themselves, while learning more about their life, roots and identities through their friendship and the mystery they uncover.
Samira Ahmed has a new book coming in September, Amira & Hamza, that promises to combine a fantasy adventure with Islamic legends. While the book is aimed at a younger audience, it definitely looks like something worth reading.
The Good Immigrant, edited by Nikesh Shukla
Published by Unbound, May 2021
Anita Rani noted that she “want[s] everyone to read this book” and I wholeheartedly agree with her.
With twenty-one different essays from writers, actors, comedians and more, The Good Immigrant takes a stark, stinging and sometimes humorous look at representation from all angles.
Comedian, Nish Kumar both laughs and despairs at being labelled a Muslim in a meme, despite never being involved with the faith. Writer, Nikesh Shukla analyses the importance of misusing language after a group of students repeatedly taunted him with the word “namaste.” Actress Miss L. shares the harrowing moment she was told she would only ever be “the wife of a terrorist” by her drama teacher. Teacher Darren Chetty reminisces about the children in his primary school class saying, “but I thought stories had to be about white people.”
Chetty’s essay struck a chord with me, because I felt pure sadness at the fact that a Year 2 class, filled with children aged 6-7, who will be the future of this country, didn’t even question why the stories being read to them only included white people.
Every single essay in this book has opened my eyes to sides of racism that I wasn’t even aware of. I’ve learnt about the caste system in Indian culture, how the British imposed classifications on Indian people to create a concept of respectability. My eyes have been opened to the fact that Chinese people are more likely than any other minority group to be subject to racial harassment. I’ve come to understand the impact of tokenism that ethnic minorities are facing in creative careers.
The nail has been hit on the head with the title, if you want to be accepted as an immigrant in Britain, then you better be a good immigrant and to be a good immigrant means working ten times as hard to earn your place in society.
Reni Eddo-Lodge, author of Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, writes “respectability politics is the dogged belief that if Black people just shape up, dress better and act right, racists would suddenly have a dramatic change of heart and stop their racist ways.”But this isn’t down to them, it’s down to us. So, when Anita Rani says everyone should read this book, she’s right, because we need to cut the racism, cut the slack and cut the divide in this country.