Rossomalai Reads: "Kismet" A Thriller by Amina Akhtar
If I ever die a mysterious and gruesome death in the desert wasteland which I call home, I know now that the ravens will be my witness. No one else may find my body but the ravens…they see all.
That’s the truth I learned from the phenomenal novel, Kismet, by up-and-coming Pakistani-American author Amina Akhtar. Kismet—spelled and pronounced the English way—is a social satire, thriller, and crime novel wrapped up into one glorious Southwestern gothic tale. “Glorious” is only one of the many words I can use to describe this incredibly clever, poignant, and cathartic tale about friendship, exclusion, grief, and the lengths some will go to in the name of healing.
At its core, Kismet is a novel about belonging, though in an utterly unexpected and often humorous way. The novel follows our heroine, reserved Pakistani-American Ronnie Khan, as she upends her uninspiring New York life to move to the majestic red sands of Sedona, Arizona on an impulse with her new friend and self-help “guru,” Marley Dewhurst. Confident, charismatic, and blonde, Marley is everything that Ronnie isn’t, something which both women are acutely aware of.
As Ronnie and Marley settle into the small, otherworldly Sedona, their lives quickly become intertwined with mystics, frauds, cultists, creeps, healers, parasites, microaggressors, appropriators, and, of course…murderers. And yet, Ronnie finds that she wants nothing more than to fit in the way that perfect Marley oh-so-naturally does. After all, Sedona is the new start Ronnie’s been looking for. So why does she feel so unwelcome?
I spoke with Akhtar about her social commentary and the role of racism in the novel. “I couldn’t write about the wellness industry without showing the hypocrisy,” she told me when asked about what inspired Kismet. “The way that white wellness culture has fetishized Indian culture is kind of ridiculous.” A single glance at a white-owned spiritual shop filled to the brim with temporary henna tattoos, Sanskrit wall decorations, Ganesha statues, and Namastay-In-Bed t-shirts (made in Bangladeshi sweatshops) is evidence enough of this.
But Kismet’s commentary goes further than common critiques of appropriation, showing the nuances between how Indians and Pakistanis are perceived and stereotyped in the Western World. “Part of the fetishization of Indian culture is the idea that, ‘Oh, they’re good. They do yoga. They’re peaceful. They're Eat-Pray-Love.’” Akhtar noted. “And then there’s the Muslims. People hear you say you’re Muslim and they immediately stop listening to you.”
Akhtar told me about how her own experiences facing discrimination as a Pakistani woman in the United States helped create some of the book’s conflicts and most powerful scenes. “Islamophobia in this country is probably one of the last socially acceptable forms of hate. Even people who I think are very intelligent and wonderful can be really Islamophobic. Someone once asked me if I was brought up to kill people.”
Despite the book’s clear mission in its social satire, Kismet’s critiques are skillful and layered, avoiding the common pitfall of didactic preaching. I walked away from the book thinking about the different ways in which abuse can manifest, who is the healer and the healed, and who is “worthy” of our sympathy and respect.
Unlike many South Asian-American fiction novels on the “Must Read” lists of today, Kismet eschews typical conflicts of love, marriage, immigrant identity, and family pressure, giving its readers a fresh yet still undeniably desi story. Akhtar noted, “Often times, Desis are seen as a monolith like, ‘Oh, you’re South Asian! You’ve got arranged marriages and chai and naan and there you go.’ And that’s not who everybody is. There are so many different ways to be desi.”
The eccentricities of the novel are a true testament to Akhtar’s words. I’ve never read a book that captured Arizona’s essence so perfectly, let alone one about a Pakistani woman’s life here. Kismet offers us a glimpse into the future of South Asian-American literature, where people like us can exist in every genre, and in every setting.
Representation, for Akhtar, needs to go beyond checkboxes and quotas. “It’s not enough to have people of different colors, races, ethnicities, and religions and to just let them into the room. We need to have a seat at the table. We need to be making decisions and all of that.” And a large part of that process involves supporting narratives that create unseen possibilities, like a South Asian woman battling cults and investigating murders in the 100+ degree wasteland.
If you are a fan of thrillers or just looking for a South Asian-American novel that isn’t another cutesy coming-of-age romantic-comedy (no judgment here—I’m a fan too), you need to pick up a copy of Kismet. Even if you don’t enjoy the novel as much as I did, you’re sure to come away from it with a newfound respect for the desert and wariness of all-you-can-heal crystals.
Rating: 5 out of 5 Rossomalais