In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Chinese-American journalist Angie Chuang was charged by her editor with putting “a human face on the country we’re about to bomb.” What began as one of Chuang’s signature human-interest stories, albeit one made more urgent by geopolitical catastrophe, quickly catapulted her into the midst of a family—a tribe really—and then a country that were not her own, and yet, to her surprise, felt intrinsically so. For four years, as her own immigrant family splintered under the rising pressure of her father’s deteriorating mental health, Chuang embedded herself in Afghanistan’s charismatic Shirzai family, seeking a story not only for her newspaper, but for her own life. The result is The Four Words for Home, winner of this year’s Willow Books Grand Prize in Prose.
The Four Words for Home, the “memoir of two families” that grew out of that newspaper profile, is populated by a large, far-flung cast of characters. The portrait of the Afghan family in particular is rich, compassionate, and compelling. Take, for example, this scene in the Shirzais’ compound in Kabul, where with one gesture a young woman reveals much about sex in a country that cuts the steamy scenes out of western movies:
“You’re nervous today,” I said. “And pretty.”
“Inginir,” [Rochina] said, using the family’s nickname for her husband—the Pashto word for “engineer” was used to describe an educated man—“is coming home today.”
Then, turning to me so only I could see it, she took her delicate hand, balled into a fist, and bit down on her pinky knuckle. She gasped softly, feigning breathlessness, grinned at me, then returned to stirring the stew.
This was sexier than all of the deleted scenes from the [Afghan version of] Titanic combined.
Almost spontaneously, Chuang finds herself in sisterhood with the women who live behind veil and curtain.
Once Chuang gets to know Shirzais on both sides of the world and across gender and generational lines, there is no settling for one human face to represent Afghanistan. The family includes the bachelor-patriarch Daoud, who brings six teenaged nieces and nephews from the old country to live with him in the U.S., where he raises them with the help of two younger brothers and the crisp English of Peter Jennings. Opposite this first Shirzai to emigrate to the U.S. is the last, Laila, a graduate student struggling to navigate a top-secret relationship with a lapsed Catholic named Tim. Also set in contrast to one another are two male cousins, one raised in the U.S. (an aspiring playboy who makes a move on the author), one raised in Afghanistan (a man with whom protocol requires that a female reporter not make eye contact, and yet they share an electric-for-being-illicit gaze through a camera lens). For the author, who, having long since abandoned journalistic convention, openly longs to be a member of this family, such encounters with eligible Shirzai bachelors are hardly casual. Meanwhile, opposite the living Shirzais is the palpable presence of Mohammed, Daoud’s disappeared brother, whose political role in Afghanistan’s history underscores the point that, while this may be a personal book, interested with interpersonal relationships, it is no less political for it.
More nebulous than the richly rendered Shirzais are the members of Chuang’s own immigrant family. As Daoud Shirzai did in Afghanistan, the author’s father grew up “can’t-afford-shoes poor” in Fujian, China, and then Taiwan. He so distinguished himself academically that he, like Shirzai, was recruited to the U.S. for graduate school. The author and her brother were subsequently born and raised across cultural lines, from Chinese schools to top American colleges. But the Chuang family’s efforts at living out the American dream are complicated by the pendulous mood swings—likely bipolar disorder—that her father refuses to acknowledge or address. His increasingly erratic behavior, countered by the need to keep up appearances (mental illness, Chuang explains, is taboo in Chinese culture), isolates the family from relatives in both the U.S. and Taiwan and from one another. This sense of estrangement is how Chuang explains her impulse to seek out a new sort of home for herself and her initial infatuation with the Shirzais.
Chuang’s own identity and her unique vantage point as a woman of Asian heritage make her as intriguing as the other characters in The Four Words for Home, and engender a triangulation of perspective as well as privileged access. From the U.S. to Afghanistan to Taiwan, gender and ethnicity afford Chuang access to places another writer simply could not go—namely behind the curtain of Islamic gender protocols and into rural Afghanistan, which at the time of her reporting was becoming increasingly distrustful of outsiders generally and Americans specifically. (Even so, her presence results in threats to the family.) Not only can Chuang empathize through her own cross-cultural experience, she can “pass.”
This notion of passing is crucial to the book: passing, or almost passing, for an Afghan in Afghanistan; for a member of the Shirzai family; her Chinese-American family’s efforts to pass for living out that American dream; her father’s failure to pass as stable; her efforts as a reporter to pass for objective once she feels personally attached to the family; and others. Taiwan as a whole is depicted as a country trying to pass for another, having “borrowed and improved by imitating China, Japan, and most of all, the United States, both a paragon and a foil.”
The Four Words for Home is an immigrant story concerned with assimilation, immersion, affectation, simulation, and, of course, as the title promises, translation. With its large cast it embodies a sense of exclusion from the new country and estrangement from the old, a study in longing and belonging.
“Coming to Afghanistan, I had begun to know the boundaries between seeming and being,” writes Chuang. “I had been grasping for the knowledge of exactly what it was like to lose Mohammed, as if it would finally seal my insider status with the Shirzais. The grapevine could stubbornly cling to the apple tree in the courtyard until the two were nearly indistinguishable, but they would always be two, not one.”
There are many reasons to read this engaging book, not least among them the persistent historical imperative for people in the U.S. to better understand Afghanistan. But I pose this as the most crucial: Angie Chuang’s The Four Words for Home is precisely the sort of book the literary community is referring to when diversity of voices comes into question. This isn’t a book written about the immigrant experience, or about the female condition in post-Taliban Afghanistan, but an empathetic and lived experience of a writer situated uniquely at an intersection of one and another, of here and there, of insider and outsider. There are too few books like it.