#DesiCraftChat: Wajahat Ali on living with one foot in the American dream and one in the American nightmare

Desi Books Ep 66 w/ Wajahat Ali Desi Books

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Hello and welcome to Episode 66 of Desi Books—news and views about desi literature from the world over. I’m your host, Jenny Bhatt. Thank you for tuning in.

In today’s #DesiCraftChat, we have Wajahat Ali discussing his new memoir, Go Back to Where You Came From. In this conversation, we talked about how he used gut-punching humor to tell a story about living with one foot in the American dream and one in the American nightmare—and much more.


Wajahat Ali is a Daily Beast columnist, a public speaker, a recovering attorney, and a frequent political commentator on television and podcasts. His essays, interviews, and reporting have appeared in The New York TimesThe AtlanticThe Washington PostThe Guardian, and New York Review of Books. He believes in sharing stories that are by us, for everyone: universal narratives told through a culturally specific lens to entertain, educate, and bridge the global divides.

Go Back to Where You Came From takes its title from just one of the many warm, lovely, and helpful tips that Ali and other children of immigrants receive on a daily basis. Go back where, exactly? Fremont, California, where he grew up, but is now an unaffordable place to live? Or Pakistan, the country his parents left behind a half-century ago? Growing up, living the suburban American dream, young Wajahat devoured comic books (devoid of brown superheroes) and fielded well-intentioned advice from uncles and aunties. (“Become a doctor!”) He had turmeric stains under his fingernails, was accident-prone, suffered from OCD, and wore Husky pants, but he was as American as his neighbors, with roots all over the world. Then, while Ali was studying at University of California, Berkeley, 9/11 happened. Muslims replaced communists as America’s enemy #1, and he became an accidental spokesman and ambassador of all ordinary, unthreatening things Muslim-y. Now a middle-aged dad, Ali has become one of the foremost and funniest public intellectuals in America. In Go Back to Where You Came From, he tackles the dangers of Islamophobia, white supremacy, and chocolate hummus, peppering personal stories with astute insights into national security, immigration, and pop culture. In this bold, hopeful, and uproarious memoir, Ali offers indispensable lessons for cultivating a more compassionate, inclusive, and delicious America.

I reviewed this book for NPR last month. I’ll read a bit from it: “The book begins on a highly amusing note as a response to Islamophobic hate mail and maintains a bitingly humorous tone throughout as a faux guide to becoming a true “Amreekan.” Yet, Ali’s coming-of-age experiences as a brown Muslim man are anything but hilarious. What emerges from these vulnerable and witty accounts of personal ups and downs is a larger picture of America’s troubled, complex relationship with brown, Muslim, and immigrant communities. Ali doesn’t pull any punches when expressing his righteous anger against things like the moderate Muslim trope, mass incarceration, systemic racism, socio-economic inequality, and more. Scathing political commentary about both Republicans and Democrats is supported with requisite data and historical facts. He leavens and seasons all of that skillfully with comedy, popular cultural references from the U.S. and Pakistan, and a deeply warm affection for the family and friends who’ve always been there for him.”

Among other things, we also discussed Ali’s now-famous play, The Domestic Crusaders, which can be downloaded from McSweeney’s.

Here’s Wajahat Ali now.


Excerpt from the interview:

Wajahat Ali: There’s a chapter in the book where I talked about how the American Dream becomes the American Nightmare after 9/11. First, 9/11 happens. It shatters the model minority stereotype. If any Muslim immigrant at that time thought they were white, this country reminded you: Nope, you’re the other; you’re them; you’re the axis of evil.

And then a few months later, my parents were arrested. And overnight, here are these, you know, suburban Pakistani immigrant parents, upper middle class, I would say, you know. Had money, they lost money, they had money, they lost money. Not F-U rich, but they had the suburban home, and they had the Honda and the Amreekan Dream, right? There were ups and downs in life but nothing like this. And overnight, I had a foot in the American Nightmare where both my parents were incarcerated. I had no money, I had to take care of my grandparents, because my grandmother’s . . . because I was the only child. We lost the home. We lost the assets. We lost the community. We lost the friends. We lost everything. My mom said it best, everything turned to dust.

And that American Nightmare represents the lived experience of so many Black and brown Americans. So many poor people in this country because this country incarcerates more people than any other country on Earth. And overnight, I think my parents realized, even though they did not articulate it, that no matter how good we were, no matter, you know, they went to the good schools, and they had the good house, and they had the good son who went to UC Berkeley. Overnight, this country can turn on you on a dime, and you’ll never be white, you will be the other.

And from that moment on, we tasted the Black experience. Ah, that’s what it’s like to be the other. Oh, we have always been closer to Blackness and brownness than whiteness. Oh, we should have actually made alliances with Black and brown communities. Oh, this is the multicultural coalition of the willing. Ah, I see. And we only were able to see it. some of us were only able to see it once the door to the American Dream was violently shut. And we were kicked out.

You’ve been listening to episode 66 of Desi Books—news and views about desi literature from the world over. I’m your host, Jenny Bhatt. Thank you for tuning in.

Today’s #DesiCraftChat was with Wajahat Ali discussing his debut memoir, Go Back to Where You Came From.

Episode 67 will be up shortly. Follow on Twitter @desibooks, Instagram @desi.books, Facebook @desibooksfb. Tag the accounts if you have requests or suggestions. Please go to the website if you’d like to sign up for the free, weekly newsletter. That’s desibooks.co. And please share this interview via social media so we can keep raising the tide of desi literature.

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