Book Reviews

Hana Khan Carries On by Uzma Jalaluddin


CW/TW

Content Warning: Islamophobia, hate crimes, racism, racism in the workplace, doxing, online bullying and harassment, depression, abusive parents, losing custody and visitation rights of children, misogyny, car accident, long term illness, food, and death.

Sneezy and I wrote most of this review prior to the attacks on Asian-American women, and Mohammed Anwar’s assault and death in March 2021. Please be aware that there are some  scary scenes in the book involving violence and the threat of violence, and be kind to yourself while reading!

Hana Khan Carries On is part epistolary, part coming of age story, and all heart. Hana, aka AnaBGR, an aspiring broadcast producer, podcaster, and storyteller, is struggling on several fronts. There’s the difficulty in breaking into broadcast in general, there’s her racist boss who presumes to be #woke, her family’s struggling restaurant, plus her sister’s risky pregnancy. What she definitely did NOT need on this list was Mr. Silver Shades to come sauntering in with his cute looks and witty banter, let alone his opening up a rival halal restaurant on the same strip.

As Hana’s cares pile one on top of the other, she tries to wrangle out what it means to be an adult, what it means to uphold her values, and maybe…maybe Mr. Silver Shades isn’t so bad after all.

Carrie: This book starts off with the Little Shop Around the Corner/You’ve Got Mail device in which two people are falling in love via non-face to face communication (in this case, via Hana’s podcast and text messages) without knowing that in real life they are personal and professional enemies. This device seemed unnecessary to me. The reader figures out what’s happening very quickly, the messages trail off eventually, and I thought that Hana’s in-person interactions with Mr. Silver Shades were strong enough to build the relationship without the text message plot device.

Sneezy: I actually enjoyed the text conversations between Hana and Mr. Silver Shades a lot. It was cute, but more importantly, it was pretty obvious who Hana was messaging. Without it, Aydin’s arc and their romance would have been a much harder sell for me. He was such a jerk in person!

Carrie: This is true – the messages did show his softer side. Overall I found Hana’s character development and the plot about the neighborhood to be more compelling than the romance. I wish them well, but at the end of the day I really want to know about everything else – the restaurant, the neighborhood, the family, and so forth.

The dialogue and characterization of the main and supporting characters is done so well – funny and sometimes heartbreaking. I loved the interactions between Hana and Mr. Silver Shades – and her parents, and her Auntie, and her cousin Rashid! I adored this ensemble cast. While I was never surprised by Hana’s love life, I was constantly surprised and delighted by the actions and choices of the supporting characters who are almost all layered and interesting.

Hana goes through so much but I never felt depressed by the book because it surrounds her with a strong support system and a powerful sense of humor. Never again will I attend a meeting without thinking “because of the DRAMA” which is so true of that kind of meeting!

This book is a love letter to romantic comedies, to family both found and otherwise, and to food. Sneezy, when oh when shall we throw caution to the wind and make biryani poutine?

Sneezy: I don’t know, but I want it right nooooow!!! Honestly, the first thing I did when I heard about biryani poutine was google it, CONFIDENT there’s AT LEAST a handful of joints that sell it in Toronto. When I couldn’t find any, I just about cried. Because it would have been so helpful to know a restaurant on another continent sells the thing I want. Seriously, someone get on that!!! What could be more Canadian than biryani poutine? (Oh, and if there’s anyone out there having biryani for the first time, buy extra raita. Boast about your spice tolerance some other time, just get the raita.)

All my sobbing over biryani poutine aside, all the food in this book is glorious and wonderful and I want to eat it all. More than drool inducing, there were so many beautiful, beautiful things layered into what food means. Like regionality, where the nuances of people’s backgrounds are reflected in their food, like how Hana mom’s biryani is recognizably from her hometown. Or memory, how our bodies remember tastes even when we think we’ve consciously forgotten. Or belonging, like how important it is for communities with food restrictions to have restaurants that cater to them. The book shows how important it is for the Muslim community in the city have access to restaurants they can trust to serve halal meat. This includes foods from their cultures and also local foods like halal bacon and burgers.

Spoiler

I was super annoyed with Mr Silver Shades saying the food Hana’s family sells was old fashioned though. In my experience, it’s a point of pride and, well, desperation, in Toronto to seek out restaurants just like The Three Sisters. And no matter what shape Hana’s family restaurant is in, it’s not his place to say shit about it. They’ve been in business for 15 years, they didn’t ask him, so what the fuck is he spouting? I was annoyed with the book for basically validating his jerkyness at the end, making it sound like he did have a point when what he needed was a loving bowl of Shut the Fuck Up Stew.

Also, I wish the book leaned harder into capitalism being the enemy. Hana’s family didn’t struggle with business acumen, they struggled with having enough time and resources. There were times when I felt like the narrative was almost blaming them for struggling and nooooo. Nooooooooo.

Carrie: Sneezy, that’s a really good point about capitalism, one that frankly I missed when reading the book. I thought Silver Shades guy gave them much needed, though unwanted, advice, and I didn’t think through the fact that the reason Hana’s family hasn’t upgraded their restaurant is not because it never occurred to them but because of a scarcity of time and funds.

Sneezy: And Carrie, I agree with what you said about the ensemble cast! It made the community aspect of the book really resonate for me. I really appreciated the deep exploration of the shapes communities take across cultural diasporas as families are found and lost. Although my background is from a different corner of Asia than Hana’s, I related to her feelings of both yearning for the family structure she doesn’t have, and also feeling leery of her relatives from overseas coming to live with her family and inserting themselves into her family structure unexpectedly.

Spoiler herein

There was also a really poignant exchange between Hana and her Khala near the end of the book that I think people who are part of any diaspora would understand. It certainly made me ache.

Another thought occurred to me. “Is that the real reason you came back? It wasn’t for my mother or the restaurant at all, was it.”

She didn’t answer for a long time. “We are so far away in India. You didn’t even know my real name when I arrived. Tell me, Hana, how strong can blood ties remain when they stretch across an ocean?”

All relationships require work and commitment, which becomes more difficult to do the further away people are. The story also explores the way found families are made and how they group together to create a community. All the beautiful ‘slice of life’ bits of Hana’s small, mundane interactions with people in her community really gave the story weight for me. When they pulled together to support each other, grieve together, and celebrate together. The book captured what it means to be part of a community in a close knit neighbourhood and it really moved me.

Same with found families as well. I love how the book showed how found family is just that, family. You love each other, bicker and snicker together, fuck up and apologize, and you put up with each other in ways you wouldn’t with people that aren’t family. Hana’s relationships with her two best friends, Yusuf and Lily, were just like that. Hana knew their strengths and faults, called them on their shit, and knew she could count on them for support.

Hana’s anxieties about growing up and ‘what it means to be an adult’ were seen in her fear of losing her found family. Life certainly changes as time continues, but I wish the book was more explicit in showing how all families can have strong ties as long as we put in the work. I think everyone has such anxieties to some degree; I know I certainly did. Learning that all forms of love can continue across space and time if both sides are committed and respect each other was one of the best things I learned. I would have really liked to see Hana realizing this instead of thinking the ways connection changes means losing love in a relationship.

Carrie: I agree with everything you said, Sneezy, and this book did such a good job of balancing joy and sadness…and really good food.

It’s a good thing that this book has so much love and humor because it also deals with very painful themes, especially around racism and islamophobia, and the way those things can be experienced as microaggressions, as internalized racism, as terrifying moments and threats of violence, and as a kind of background hum, the kind of thing that makes Hana blame herself for being physically assaulted because she wishes she had “chosen a color [of hijab] that blended in better.”

Sneezy: sigh This book is amazing, and is one of the few new books I read beginning to end since 2020 began, but it definitely has very, very heavy moments.

Trigger warning for racist attacks

Soooo Islamophobes act up in this book, and it was horrible. I really appreciated how the book captured how, despite experiencing everyday racism and knowing that people with your background or look like you are targets of violence, it’s still shocking, terrifying, and draining to experience being directly attacked or having hate speech sprayed all over your neighbourhood. Violence of any kind isn’t normal, and no one should ever experience it.

It’s also hard to know what to do. Is it safer to be silent, or safer to speak out? Is it irresponsible to be silent? Would speaking out make a difference? Is there a point in calling the police? When you’re part of a marginalized group, especially when you and the people around you exist at intersections of marginalization, there are no definite answers to these questions.

That said, the book also showed how marginalized people’s lives are not about their marginalization. We all got shit to do, dreams to live, and however other people obsess or fixate on the fiction of our ‘otherness,’ our lives aren’t about them and their imaginations of us. The book also showed how resilience and tactics for organizing can be as joyful as they are effective. This story perfectly captures that and had me bawling sad then happy tears.

Carrie: One thing I noticed about this book is that I kept thinking about for a long time after I finished reading it. I wonder how everyone is doing. I feel very much that they are real people doing real things off the page – which is a real tribute to the author’s ability to create layered, vivid, realistic and compelling characters.

Sneezy: Oh, definitely! This book made me miss my friends in Toronto and brought me back to what it felt like to live there. Aaaah I’m going to message them after I finish writing this!

Carrie: I give this book at least a B+. It scared me, helped me grow, made me mourn for a character I barely encountered on the page, and left me invested not only in the central romance but also in the community. The only possible thing holding it back is that I was never that interested in the romance.

Sneezy: Oh…right, there was a romance. I liked it, and I did care about it, because it felt like my friend Hana was telling me about this boy she met and her rollercoaster of emotions. But I wasn’t immersed in the romance the way I’d want to be if I’m reading a book for the romance. Hmmm I think this book is a B+ for me too. It had some weaknesses, but was honest and compelling.

Carrie: I also loved the sense of place. Although I’ve never been to Canada, I felt right at home in this book. Sneezy and I did a lot of squeeing over this story, just…not so much about the romance element, which was – eh, fine. Reader beware – this book will make you laugh and cry, but above all, it will make you so, so hungry!!

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