I always love partnering with Inkberry Books from Niwot because they always hook me up with the coolest books!
This week, I took a look at Mohamed Asem’s Stranger in the Pen and I thoroughly enjoyed it!
(By the way, click here to check out my vlog!)
This is a nonfiction memoir of Asem, mostly focusing on his experience of being detained at Gatwick Airport in the UK. However, this storyline is intertwined with other anecdotes of his life: including failed attempts at love, tensions and reflections about family, and his international travelling.
The most frustrating part of the story was his detainment–travelling through airports is already frustrating, and the possibility of detainment is a somewhat scary but distant thought to most. However, considering that this story takes place in 2016 shortly after the attacks in France, it unfortunately isn’t all that surprising that Asem was stopped and questioned. (I know I wasn’t all that surprised when my little-ethnically-ambiguous-self was stopped for the first time ever around that same time!) What is surprising is why–in fact, it’s so surprising that the “why” is never fully explained and is left as a bit of a mystery.
Asem had an apartment in London, even though he wasn’t necessarily a resident and even though his student visa had/was close to expiring, his previous travels around the same time went essentially without a hitch. So, like many frequent travellers in and out of the UK, he wasn’t expecting to be stopped for long at all. Then, after not one, but two rounds of interviews, it sounds as though he was essentially ignored and made to stay at the airport overnight, waiting for a third round of interviews!
Asem uses somewhat of a cyclic storytelling organization. While taking readers through his present experience of being in detainment, he brings in other anecdotes as well. This creates a feeling as though while seeing him being detained, readers also get to understand his headspace. Asem paints pictures, dreams really, of interactions with family and rehashes old interactions with people. I thought this was a really interesting technique because reflection on our past is such a human thing to do. It only amplified the feeling of his frustration and loneliness.
Even though it was somewhat difficult for me at times to fully register these shifts in story focus (it isn’t focalization since it’s all his perspective), I really liked this addition for a couple of reasons:
- I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I’d be super engaged if it was just a story about a guy being frustrated about airport detainment.
- I think we’ve all been in a few situations where we’re so alone with our thoughts that we start thinking about our past, our future, or both…so this made the experience that much more realistic and potentially relatable.
In terms of organization, the book is divided into three parts–the prologue, the middle, and the epilogue. I enjoyed the prologue because it threw readers into the story: a man just comes home from being detained, on one hand, how can he ever get back to normal life? On the other hand, he already has things to do and people to see; he barely has time to pull himself together. The prologue was also great because it sets up the book in that in it, Asem goes to meet an aunt and cousin, the cousin was livid upon hearing about his ordeal and insisted that he write his story so that others see that it (detainment) happens arguably more often than one might expect.
The middle part, the bulk of the story, is Asem’s detainment. He describes, very detailed, how he was coming back from Norway and didn’t expect much out of the return but then how everything changed. It almost felt like a play-by-play in that readers see the whole experience (with the exception of the final interview), all the missing pieces are put into place and you really start to feel for Asem and his situation. It kind of reminded me about all the arguments around immigration, about those who “do it the right way” versus those who don’t. His story isn’t exactly that, but it isn’t far from it. I think this was a really powerful story because of the amount of sympathy it potentially can create.
I’ll admit that I didn’t care for the epilogue quite as much because it takes place far after the detainment incident. In it, Asem describes his experience of going back to his family in Kuwait to visit, collect some personal items, and take care of paperwork–he has both a Kuwaiti and US passport. While there, he gets pulled into a card game that, while it gives some further context into his overall experience/situation/life, seemed a little superfluous.
At the same time, however, these reflections did round out Asem as a “character” and gave a sense of closure to his story.
So, overall, I would recommend this book. It was a riveting, emotional read that definitely held my interest the whole time–I wanted to find out if he’d ever get his damn third interview and how it’d go! It was also a great read because even though we hear about detainments, this is such a personal story that it evokes a sense of sympathy for people in those situations.
The pacing was great, the detail was well done, and the overall story was just really well communicated. On top of that, it’s a short but engaging read, I really can’t think of any reason why you wouldn’t like it.