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Syed Afzal Haider
To Be With Her
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2010

Weaver's Press
USA Trade Paperback, First Edition
ISBN 978-0-984-37761-9
Publication Date: 11-15-2010
250 pages, $14.95
Date Reviewed: 12-11-2010

Index:  General Fiction

There is always room for change. In moments of optimism, we call it maturing, and we call a story of one who matures a bildungsroman, literally, a "formation novel." This is typically thought of as the journey of a young man from immaturity to adulthood, and in theory this happens only once in a life. But it is possible to re-mature if circumstances call for it — or if you deliberately change your circumstances by leaving not just home, but the country you call home.

Ramzan Malik may or may not think he has growing to do in terms of becoming a mature adult. But coming from Pakistan to America requires more than just the normal changes associated with growing up; this is not just maturation, this is metamorphosis. Just like in the movies.

Syed Afzal Haider's first novel, 'To Be With Her,' (Weaver's Press ; November 15, 2010 ; $14.95) is a rough and ready, funny and friendly look at acculturation as a bildungsroman, and in that sense, it's an archetype for an experience that is now particularly possible. Cheap travel and a desire for a good education bring Ramzan Malik from the movie houses of Pakistan to the reality of an America that in some way inspires the movies. Ramzan is a movie freak. They have informed his young adulthood in Pakistan and they permeate his vision of America. Once he is actually in America, a student at Mid-Western university, he finds that fantasy and reality have little in common, other than that both are very, very human.

Haider's novel is funny and gritty, with more than a touch of the absurd and the surreal. Part of the charm here is Haider's ability to pop back and forth between well-informed visions of Ramzan's childhood in Pakistan and his young adult life in America. Our perceptions are turned upside-down. Ramzan's youth is to him pedestrian and boring, but to us it is exotic and exciting. On the other hand, Ramzan sees America though an immigrant's eyes; our bland Mid-western landscape are fresh and new to him. Haider writes of everything Ramzan sees as if it were new and strange. The result is that readers feel the same away; our world is re-invented.

The sense of the fresh carries through to the characters as well. Haider uses movies and other American cultural references — as seen by the immigrant, now in America — to put people in a new light as well. Ramzan doesn't just fall in love with America, he falls in love with an American. Love stories play out on two levels here; in letters and in person. Haider's engaging plot speaks to the power of words for those in love. Readers will find his fascinating family and friends back in Pakistan equally engaging.

Haider is an editor for The Chicago Quarterly Review, and he manages to use those skills in his own work. 'To Be With Her' is a tightly written and paced novel in which maturation finds it has competition — acculturation. Ramzan's journey, while very specific and gritty, is something we have all undertaken at some point in our lives. The differences between growing up and growing American are not so great. And our own culture can seem bizarre and surreal even to those who grow up immersed in it. Change is undeniably accelerating. Every day, we wake up in a foreign country, and the first step we take that day will be a step outside of our own lives.

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