memoir · nonfiction

Book review: Concealed by Esther Amini

This week in my (Re)Introduction to Judaism class was our week to study Jewish history from Creation to the Enlightenment. Thousands of years of history in just an hour and a half, not an easy feat, and as the rabbi teaching the class said, “Jewish history is a bit of a misnomer. We have Jewish histories, plural.” And in a stunning bit of serendipity, this lesson showed up in my own life when I was offered a chance to read and review Concealed by Esther Amini (Greenpoint Press, 2020). After reading the premise of this new memoir, I leapt at the chance, because this sounded perfect for me, and it was. From the very first paragraph, I was hooked.

Esther Amini was born in New York, but her parents and older brothers came from a world away in Iran, Mashhadi Jews who spent their lives passing as Muslim in order to stay safe and alive, living as Jadid al-Islam, a kind of Persian converso. Outwardly, they presented as Muslim, their status as Jews a public secret; when tensions rose and the community stopped looking the other way, violence- stonings, robberies, assault, and murder, all sanctioned by the government- erupted. It was with this trauma that Esther’s parents lived, affecting their marriage, their outlook on life, and how their raised their children.

“Can we ever really know our parents?” Ms. Amini asks, before admitting the weight and sheer gravitas of this task. In this memoir, she recounts the struggles of her youth and young adulthood with parents whose volatile marriage and difficulty adapting to the cultural norms of their new home touched every part of her life. As she matures, she comes to understand her father’s fierce overprotectiveness and silence, her mother’s drive for independence and single-minded desire to stand out, while still acknowledging their faults and gathering the determination to stop the pattern of chaos with her own children.

A memoir of religion, immigration, family history, the challenge of reaching an adult understanding of one’s parents, and healing from the scars of the past, Concealed tells a story of a life lived with grace, perseverance, forgiveness, and the drive to shed the turmoil of one’s past.

I’d known there were Jewish communities in Iran, but Concealed was my introduction to what those communities look like. Extremely insular out of necessity, the community suffered greatly and lived in constant fear for their lives. It was after Esther’s brother David, then three, was burned on the ear with a red-hot fire poker by his teacher (who also screamed a terrible antisemitic pejorative at him) that Esther’s mother insisted that they needed to leave.

What fascinated me, however, was how much of the surrounding Persian culture and the lifestyle her parents had needed to adopt in order to survive, yet which they still carried with them to their new country. Early marriage for girls, as young as nine and to men twenty to fifty years older, was the norm in Iran (for the Mashhadi Jews, the reasoning behind this early marriage stemmed from the fact that minority girls and women ran a higher risk of being raped, which would then affect their chances of being married at all; thus, the earlier the marriage, the safer they would be, the reasoning went). While marriage at nine was, thankfully, out of the question, Esther’s parents made it clear that marriage, the earlier the better, was the only goal they had for her. Doing nothing to disavow her parents of the notion that graduation from high school was mandatory in America, Esther put all her effort into her studies, determined to make something more of herself than the anemic vision of her future presented to her by her parents. The book illustrates an almost stunning parallel: her parents sneaking and hiding their Jewishness in Iran, and Esther’s furtive studying, hiding books under the covers and reading with a flashlight, sneaking schoolbooks from her parents. The type of survival differed, but both types of concealment were necessary for each person to persist.

Her brothers were encouraged to study and work hard, however, a sexist stereotype that unfortunately transcends culture. “Stop thinking. No man will marry you,” her father told her. “Books are evil, they poison girls’ minds.” Her mother, herself illiterate, mocked Esther’s constant studying and desire to attend college. Her brothers, however, formed a team to educate and protect her, teaching her about periods, taking her bra shopping, serving as the knowledgeable, tuned-in substitute parents she desperately needed. “Es, create a mind you want to live with,” her brother David told her. And through hard work, trial and error, and the help of a good therapist, she does.

Her parents are mysteries, human contradictions whom Esther defies as a young adult, then endeavors to understand as she ages and then has children herself. Her father, harsh and reticent with a fierce protective streak, remains an enigma until she sees him through the eyes of a parent. Her mother, never missing a chance to create a spectacle, denied so much in her own life yet content to deny so much in her daughter’s, felt the world owed her, something Esther doesn’t come to terms with until late in her mother’s life. Maybe we can’t ever truly know who our parents our, but Esther Amini never stops trying, never gives up piecing together the puzzle of where she came from and how it affected her. Readers will triumph alongside her as she reaches hard-won conclusions and answers about the family she was born into.

Concealed is an intriguing memoir of not just one woman, but of a family, of a community, of the past and how it follows us all, and the effort it takes to grow and flourish beyond the places predetermined for us. Esther Amini is an absolute bastion of strength and determination, and her meticulous insight glows on every page of this book. If you enjoy memoirs, you won’t want to miss this original take on the genre spotlighting a community and a type of voice not often heard from.

Special thanks to Alessandra Scarpaci of Wunderkind PR and Greenpoint Press for sending me a review copy of Concealed.

Visit Esther Amini’s website here.

Follow her on Facebook here.

Follow her on Instagram here.

fiction · mystery

The Other Americans- Laila Lalami

Back to Book Riot’s 2020 Read Harder Challenge! They’re prompting readers to choose a mystery where the victim (or victims, as some mysteries go) is not a woman. Mystery isn’t really my genre (and I’ll go into why in a future post), but I really got lucky with The Other Americans by Laila Lalami (Pantheon, 2019). While the main conflict does center around an unsolved death, the story itself is about so much more than that- family, culture, immigration, war, post-traumatic stress disorder, friendship, conflict between generations…this is a complex novel that goes well beyond any kind of ‘whodunit.’

A restaurant owner and Moroccan immigrant is struck down by a hit-and-run after leaving work late one night, leaving his family in upheaval. Nora, a struggling musician and composer who hasn’t quite found her path yet, reluctantly returns home to a mother who has never fully accepted Nora’s career path. Maryam, the widow, has complex feelings toward her homeland, America, and her deceased husband. Coleman, the detective covering the case, is also making personal discoveries; Jeremy, Nora’s high school friend, has fallen hard for his returned friend, but he’s also carrying the weight of PTSD from the Iraq war, as well as the PTSD, alcoholism, and rage of a veteran friend; EfraĆ­n, an undocumented immigrant who witnessed the accident that killed Driss Guerraoui, is afraid to come forward for fear of what authorities might do to his family.

Told in alternating viewpoints (including that of the deceased), Ms. Lalani shows the complexities of life in America and the weight each of us is expected to carry, as residents, as citizens, as friends and family. Relationships are forged and broken, out of pain and fear. Some characters fit in better in their surroundings than others, and there’s a heavy pall of the culture of American individualism that hangs over nearly every scene. It’s increasingly difficult to cultivate and maintain relationships these days, and this is evident in the loneliness and the wrenching decisions each character must make.

The Other Americans is a mosaic of stories centered around the death of one central figure, and while the initial premise- who caused Driss Guerraoui’s death?- is a sad one, the novel advances far beyond that to showcase the struggles of all varieties of Americans- immigrants, those of the second generation, veterans, working class people, parents, undocumented immigrants, children going against their parents’ wishes after growing up in a country their parents don’t always understand… There’s joy and sadness, triumph and regret, and always the knowledge that one must continue to put one foot in front of the other despite any terrible circumstances life throws one’s way.

Despite the heavy subject matter, the novel doesn’t necessarily read heavy, although it wasn’t the most uplifting of choices during this strange time. I was rooting for Nora and Jeremy until they fought and he lashed out at her in a way that felt unacceptable to me, and to be frank, I was disappointed at how they ended up. If you’ve read this, I’d love to hear your thoughts on that, because I felt Nora should have had enough self-respect to shut him down permanently after the things he said to her.

The Other Americans was a surprise for me. It’s not something I would have picked up on my own, but despite its sadness, I deeply enjoyed it (especially the multiple first-person viewpoints. TOTALLY MY JAM. GIVE ME ALL THE MULTIPLE FIRST-PERSON VIEWPOINT BOOKS!).

Visit Laila Lalami’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.