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a blocky illustration of two young women facing away from each other.

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Once A Stranger
Zoya Patel, Hachette Australia (available now)

Raised in a strict Indian Muslim household by their widowed mother, sisters Ayat and Laila couldn’t be more different. Two years older, Laila is responsible, dutiful, loyal; Ayat, a flurry of creative energy and tempestuous moods. But it’s not their wildly different personalities that see the two grow apart. It’s their choice of who, and how, to love: Laila decides to have an arranged marriage just as Ayat breaks from familial and cultural norms to enter a relationship with a white, non-Muslim man. Six years go by without contact between Ayat and her family until finally Laila reaches o­ut. Their mother is dying.

Told across both sisters’ perspectives, Zoya Patel’s debut novel, Once a Stranger, is asynchronous and looping, a back and forth between Before and Now which reveals both the events that rent the sisters apart and their cautious attempts to bridge the distance. It isn’t a neat split. The now portions slip into vivid memory and the before sections gallop into the future, leaping across years to relate how the now came to be, following the logic of affect and emotion, rather than of temporality. This complex structure is well counter-balanced by Patel’s style which is simple and direct. She favours undisguised metaphors, the concision of adverbs and contextual signposting to orientate readers through a narrative which progresses quickly but unhurriedly, its two timelines stretching towards and out from a definitive rupture, each propelled by the inescapable fact of it without feeling entirely circumscribed.

This rupture is made the more vivid through the text’s polyvocality: Once a Stranger is told from both Ayat’s and Laila’s perspectives, with occasional interjections from their mother, Khadija and (towards the end) from Ayat’s partner, Harry. With this structural dialogue, Patel makes concrete the cultural disconnection around which the narrative pivots: the sisters become synecdoches of the perspectives they represent, Laila hewing close to and remaining firm in her Indian-Muslimness and Ayat pulling away into a pan-(white)Australianness, understood not so much as a culture but as its absence. Patel writes both positions sympathetically: Laila is clearly happy with how she has built her life, and Ayat has achieved the freedom that she longed for. Yet both sisters are haunted by disconnection, unable to slip unchallenged into Australian culture nor entirely connect with the culture from which they have been dis-located.

The novel’s two timelines stretch towards and out from a definitive rupture, each propelled by the inescapable fact of it without feeling entirely circumscribed.

This tension is much explored in a robust cohort of recent works including Patel’s own 2018 memoir No Country Woman, more recent books like Omar Sakr’s Son of Sin (2022) and Shirley Le’s Funny Ethnics (2023), even the multi-Oscar-winning film Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022)—all works which explore intergenerational migrant life and the complex negotiations between migrant parents and their diaspora children. Works, too, which exemplify how in such circumstances, family becomes its own specific cultural context, a hybridised space with its own specificities, a potential shelter but, equally, a potential prison.

Patel uses the familiar arc of a reconciliation narrative to dig into this tension, progressing the plot along familiar generic conventions—the initial, difficult meeting; a begrudging decision to try; the family taking a trip together and returning to a long-left home (in this case, Gujarat, India). But she refuses to follow its script entirely. Instead Patel offers an interesting and thought-provoking alternative, one that neither of her protagonists can engage with but which remains, like a burr, knotted into the story: Khadija seems to not want to reconcile, and reconciliation may in fact be harmful to her. In one telling scene, Khadija imagines how she wants to spend her remaining years, deciding she isn’t interested in reconciling with Ayat and would prefer to spend as much time as possible with Laila’s daughter Aysha. Later, Khadija’s health severely deteriorates after a stressful first encounter with Ayat. Although the text does not linger on the ethics of reconciliation in these circumstances, Patel is clearly aware of the complexities of estrangement and resists an easy answer. She peppers the text with moments in which it feels genuinely unclear whether the sisters are acting in Khadija’s (or the family’s) best interests, a tension which reaches an acute, yet unremarked, pitch at the denouement. Patel’s choices here are a bold move against the conservative impetus toward familial unification no matter the cost and a frank acknowledgement that often, there is no easy reconciliation of cultural perspectives.

While Patel is careful not to claim that any position is the correct one here, it’s difficult not to feel sympathy for Ayat’s perspective—not because her views are more cogent but because she is the clear authorial voice throughout, her perspective alive and troubled, and seeping into the other points of view. For Ayat, feeling estranged from her Muslim and Gujarati heritage, ‘culture’ becomes a neat label to designate that which does not feel hers, to separate herself from it and avoid engaging with it. If everything is because of ‘culture’, Ayat never has to think more deeply about it, and in doing so, risk sympathy for its logics. Thus, a recurring feature of the book is the appeal to culture as an explanatory refrain: ‘This was just how things happened in their culture,’ ‘This is our culture,’ ‘the path laid out for them by their culture,’ or ‘In their culture…’. Ayat deploys ‘culture’ as an explanation and a foreclosure rather than understanding it more generously as something akin to, as Jamaican cultural theorist Stuart Hall describes, ‘conceptual maps’ through which people interpret the world and make it sensible: not so much a reason as a way of looking at (and for) reasons.

For Ayat, feeling estranged from her Muslim and Gujarati heritage, ‘culture’ becomes a neat label to designate that which does not feel hers, to separate herself from it and avoid engaging with it.

Ayat’s distance to culture is not shared by Laila and Khadija and so, when their behaviour is explained as and by ‘culture’ in this broad way, they lose something of their dimensionality. This is where Ayat’s voice and worldview leak across the pages most clearly: Laila and Khadija are seen through Ayat’s eyes, even when we are seeing through theirs. Khadija is often written in terms that, although paying homage to her strength and resilience, are perhaps dismissive of her multiplicity: a strict, unbending woman whose key defining features are her strength of will and commitment to her culture. Similarly, Laila reads as though she is written by Ayat and is flatter for it. For example, when Laila decides to have an arranged marriage, her motivations are obscure and obscured by an Ayat-like call to ‘culture’. She explains her decisions simply with ‘This is what we do,’ her words mirroring Ayat’s when Ayat explains taking one’s shoes off before entering a house as ‘just a thing we do. It’s part of Islam…’. Parsed through Ayat’s perspective, Laila’s desires are overt—a good job, a marriage, a child—but they issue from nothing more than convention. It’s a shame because Laila is, I think, the book’s most decisive and contradictory character, the only person able to integrate her two worlds intentionally and proactively.

Yet at the narrative’s best, Patel mobilises the ambiguities of immigrant life to great effect, avoiding both the self-consciousness of over-explanation and the dismissiveness of appeals to ‘culture’, as when she writes about Khadija’s husband convincing her to allow the dog inside the house so long as it doesn’t enter the room in which they pray, or when Ayat, meeting Laila for the first time in six years, thinks ‘So, she still doesn’t wear the hijab’. In scenes like these, Patel shows readers the expectations and negotiations that constitute migrant life and, in very few words, reveals plenty about her subjects and all the contradictions and ambivalences between them. They are clever scenes, full of casual intimacy and loaded with meaning, as rich and complicated and sharp as the women whose lives they describe.


The KYD New Critics Program 2023 is supported by the Victorian Government through Creative Victoria.