Stories of immigration are foundational in a nation of immigrants. Through these stories, we are reminded that most of us were once from somewhere else and though some of us might face obstacles, the journey is worth it, or so we are told.
Eman Quotah's debut novel, "Bride of the Sea," interrogates this narrative, offering a rich exploration of the costs of immigration and assimilation and the ways these test the bonds of family.
As the novel starts, Saudi nationals Muneer and Saeedah don't even mean to stay in Ohio, where Muneer is a college student studying journalism. With an American degree, he hopes to return to Saudi Arabia to work at his father-in-law's newspaper. The young couple have a bright future, but one winter, their marriage falls apart.
Saeedah, now pregnant, is no longer the flirtatious, wild teenager who, during their courtship, dared him to kiss her "like in an Egyptian film." Instead, she's grown aloof and restless. Coming home one night, Muneer finds her shoveling snow without a coat. Nights later, Muneer stumbles upon Saeedah stripping off her clothes and walking into a lake.
Divorce comes swiftly. Muneer returns to Saudi Arabia while Saeedah stays. Soon, there's pressure for Saeedah's return to her birth country with her daughter, 5-year-old Hanadi. So much so that she disappears, covertly driving away with Hanadi, crossing state lines and exchanging their names for more American ones. In their new lives, Saeedah wipes their names from phone books and corrects no one when they assume she's from a Central American country because of "her black hair and brown skin … but also the way she rolls her Rs."
As Muneer hires private investigators to seek them out, Saeedah is always one step ahead, eluding him for years.
These decisions will come to have consequences, especially later as Hanadi tries to get in touch with her Arab identity amid the Gulf War, leading her to a trip to Saudi Arabia, a place Quotah skillfully depicts in all its contradictions. Alongside laws banning women from driving are teenagers stripping off their abayas and drinking with U.S. soldiers and listening to the Smiths and Kate Bush — all against the backdrop of a place with a "blue sky like a vat of dye, the air like steam in a bathroom, the promise of sea to the west and carpets of sand to the east."
As the novel fluidly rotates between each family member's perspective, what emerges is a sensitive portrayal of becoming American — both the shedding of one's culture for the sake of fitting in and the difficult task of finding one's place, especially as an Arab American.
While Quotah should be praised for the fleshed-out development of Muneer (a sturdy and sensitive man who always has a plan) and Hanadi (who grows to distrust her mother), Saeedah is the author's most interesting creation, an enigmatic character who's full of quiet and frustrating surprises. One just wishes there was more of her point of view on the page, especially as the story becomes increasingly Hanadi's, whose questions about her mother remain unanswered.
Still, in a novel as much about finding one's identity as it is about family — the way they belong to us but at the same time remain unknowable — this sense of secrecy that Quotah imparts on Saeedah makes for a devastatingly honest novel.
The interconnectedness of our actions, the fallout of our choices — these things are the heart of "Bride of the Sea," a clear-eyed debut from a writer who doesn't shy away from the messiness of family life.
Eric Nguyen is a writer and literary critic. His novel "Things We Lost to the Water" is forthcoming from Knopf.
Bride of the Sea
By: Eman Quotah.
Publisher: Tin House, 312 pages, $16.95.