Wajahat Ali has worn many hats over the years: journalist, lawyer, and playwright. He can now add memoirist to that list thanks to his upcoming book, “Go Back to Where You Came From: And Other Helpful Recommendations on How to Become American.” The book holds an eclectic mix of comedy, family history, popular culture, and political and social criticism. It makes for a gripping, sometimes-heartbreaking read, demonstrating the authorial skill that Ali honed writing for many an outlet, including The Daily Beast, The New York Times, and Inside Arabia.
Amazon’s listing for “Go Back to Where You Came From” introduces Ali as “awkward, left-handed, suffering from OCD, and wearing Husky pants,” a preview of the humor and honesty that underpin the book. The memoir opens in a way that few can claim to—with the author’s witty responses to Islamophobic hate mail. This introduction offers not only entertainment but also a snapshot of the type of injustice that the book intends to tackle.
Over the course of the following ten chapters, Ali explores the ramifications of topics such as classism, mass incarceration, religious intolerance, and systemic racism in the United States as a whole and within his immediate circles. “Go Back to Where You Came From” traces his parents’ immigration from Pakistan to the United States, his childhood in California, and his growth into an activist, writer, and family man. Along the way, the book provides Ali’s insight into themes as varied as friendship, love, mental health, and parenthood, anchoring them in his experiences.
Per the subtitle, the story sometimes bills itself as a tongue-in-cheek guide for people of color looking to achieve the American Dream.
Per the subtitle, the story sometimes bills itself as a tongue-in-cheek guide for people of color looking to achieve the American Dream—a goal that, as the book notes, often proves illusory. However, Ali’s memoir also gives every one of its readers an account of the ways that people of color encounter discrimination small and large, a reality to which the title attests so well even as this book informs Americans of all backgrounds.
No shortage of academics and pundits have attempted to address the questions about social inequality that Ali’s book raises. Even so, only a handful of authors can boast that they have blended their coverage of this subject with comedy, putting together a book that educates and entertains audiences all at once. Ali’s narrative unpacks the consequences of institutional racism with an effective combination of detailed analysis and original humor, making for a clear, concise breakdown of the everyday bias faced by people of color.
“Go Back to Where You Came From” has little trouble balancing its dual roles as a memoir and a call to action. The book’s heart shows most when it places Ali at the center of the story, recounting the moments and relationships behind his personal and professional growth. He seeds the narrative with relatable anecdotes, from the awkwardness of shopping for clothes with family members to the youthful calculations behind how best to express his feelings to a crush.
Halfway through the book, Ali mentions the praise that he received from the acclaimed author Ishmael Reed, his mentor at the University of California, Berkeley. Reed lauded Ali’s ability to write dialogue and characters, one of the book’s greatest strengths. Ali devoted particular attention to his parents, grandparents, and other family members, whose personalities shine throughout the book’s pages in the form of retold conversations, stories, and even a few prescient dreams. Ali’s relatives add to the memoir’s endearing depth and warmth.
Indeed, Ali’s family members star in some of the most heartfelt passages in “Go Back to Where You Came From,” such as the love story behind his parents’ marriage and Ali’s father’s compliments for the author’s first short story. The family also features in the book’s saddest moments; Ali writes moving, thoughtful accounts of several relatives’ deaths. Though his memoir employs comedy throughout, it never seeks to hide the challenges and tragedies that shaped key parts of his life. This frankness forms one of the book’s most powerful qualities.
Though his memoir employs comedy throughout, it never seeks to hide the challenges and tragedies that shaped key parts of Ali’s life.
Well-placed references to pop culture keep the narrative moving forward, connecting Ali’s experiences to his commentary on American society. In one clever, memorable juxtaposition, the book compares his family’s rapid financial and social downturn to the climax of “Avengers: Infinity War,” when Thanos disintegrates half of sentient life with a snap of his fingers.
Despite the hardships and wrongs that Ali’s memoir details, “Go Back to Where You Came From” ends on a hopeful note. The book’s final chapters argue that Americans can build a more just, equitable society through greater empathy and the embrace of multiculturalism. The memoir challenges readers to strive for this goal, relying on the guidance that the book presents. For, as the Amazon listing explains, “Ali offers indispensable lessons and strategies to help cultivate a more compassionate America.”
The author’s official website includes a testimonial from perhaps the memoir’s most famous reader to date, U.S. Congresswoman Ilhan Omar. “In prose at times hilarious and at other times deeply moving, Wajahat Ali chronicles a uniquely American experience,” she writes in her assessment of the book. “All will benefit from reading his story.” In keeping with Omar’s words, “Go Back to Where You Came From” indeed has the potential to captivate a wide audience with its union of wit and punch.
The book’s January release will inject much-needed insight into discussions about culture and politics.
As the rare memoir that any reader can enjoy, “Go Back to Where You Came From” has already achieved an impressive feat. The book’s January 25 release will inject much-needed insight into discussions about culture and politics. Ali’s readership will have the opportunity to reflect on his recommendations for righting the issues that his memoir highlights.
Funny, inspirational, and poignant, “Go Back to Where You Came From” asks its audience to join the author’s pursuit of social justice. After finishing this book, readers will likely find themselves hard pressed to refuse.