Americans are Punny People, by Razia Fasih Ahmad
Book Review by Patricia J. Esposito
As early as the prologue to Americans are Punny People, by Razia Fasih Ahmad, I was charmed. As the author relates how she came to write the book, she takes us on a journey of creativity—what she calls explorations and explosions—and we’re ready to take that journey with her…into a book of humor, insights, and imaginative anecdotes about everyday living.
The chapters are divided into Ahmad’s experiences with people, things, relatives, ideas, tests, places, health, and finally the grave, and each section begins with a short introduction that philosophizes on the topic in Ahmad’s friendly and humble style that makes us feel fondness toward our human connections and condition. From the misunderstandings of long-married couples to people’s universal bemusement with weather reports to the meaning of the phrase “starting over,” the chapters shift not only in subjects but in tone, from light humor to dark satire to winsome storytelling. My guess is that different chapters will appeal to different readers more or less dependent on what each of us brings to the book, what insights and humor most reflect our own experiences as well.
I enjoyed the book’s structure, offering insights at the start of each section, such as distinguishing “things” as either necessities or luxuries, and then delving into the various kinds of things in a manner that seems governed by whatever has taken Ahmad’s fancy. We begin to see that it’s Ahmad’s imagination that created the need for this book. An imagination that doesn’t stop asking, “but what if,” that can develop a relationship between machines and their creators, in which machines are shown to have intellect and a less than friendly agenda, or imagine the “truth” about those purveyors of junk mail, “people agonizing over your problems” so much so that they mail you constant solutions. Part of my delight in the book comes from watching what the author has deemed curious enough to explore, such as fences, literal and figurative, surprising us what all she uncovers.
The humor often comes through exaggeration, in taking an idea to its extreme, like how to make bulletproof vests popular or create game shows from junk mail or assert the birthright of cockroaches. There are laugh out loud moments, particularly, for me, in her discussion if in-laws, in which Ahmad names relatives by character traits that we all clearly recognize: Ms. Foresight, Cousin Smart, Ms. Misery. There are also quieter moments, in which Ahmad sheds light on human interactions and fallibilities within the many aspects of our everyday lives.
Ahmad displays an obvious love of language, creating her own puns throughout, such as discussing the “whether” in “weather,” and also a love of curiosity. When she’s brought down 1,120 feet into the earth, without being told what she’s there for, she reveals a person willing to take the ride, to observe with open mind and active imagination whatever comes before her. There are poignant moments, such as when she tries to read the faces of the people returning from this 1,120-feet journey below earth’s surface, to search for disappointment or excitement, finding only mystery, and then becomes one of the returning faces herself.
Anecdotes abound, from insights into learning new languages, getting plastic surgery, or handling confessions at the gravesite to meeting strangers who beg favors or arguing with a spouse about the strangeness of the creative mind. It’s hard to imagine what Ahmad hasn’t covered, yet I’m sure her mind has already thought up much more. This is the kind of book I’d like sitting on a side table, something easy to pick up and read for short moments, a break in the day, a delightful rejuvenation when the everyday world might seem boring, because Ahmad seems never to find it so.
Razia Fasih Ahmad has published some twenty books in Urdu, from novels to travelogues to short stories and poetry. She has won the Adamji Prize, Ahmad Nadeem Qasimi Award, and the Urdu Board Award. Her books can be found in the Library of Congress and in universities.