Sarah Malik’s Desi Girl could have been ripped from the pages of my own life. Her story is almost parallel to mine, growing up in Western Sydney, attending an academically focused selective high school. Cultural consumption of such fare as Jane Austen and Sweet Valley High novels defined our self-perception and aspirations, and we each developed our own relationship with our culture and community after moving out of home.
Tonally, Malik’s memoir mirrors others’ texts in this genre, such as Mindy Kaling’s Why Not Me? There are moments in this collection of essays that feel Sydney-centric, vividly describing signature landmarks such as Flemington markets, with the hustle and bustle of fruit and vegie vendors, and Central Station, a hub that connects the arteries of the city’s outer suburbs and punctures the class divide.
Stories such as “Hijab Days” and “Love Marriage” explore the broader conflict that most non-Anglo first-generation millennials feel in upholding cultural customs while constantly under the Western gaze. These conflicts come to a head in the chapter “Can You Be a Muslim Feminist?”, as Malik details her experience of challenging the stance of the Muslim Society at the University of Technology Sydney on barring women from the presidency.
My favourite story by far is “Back to the Motherland”, where she details a trip to Karachi after 10 years for a family wedding. Malik’s filled with hope that this visit will provide the answers to her identity and can reconcile her relationship with Pakistan, which holds her history and heritage. She describes the complexity of navigating Karachi, her mannerisms marking her as an outsider, and the sliding-doors moment of imagining what life could have been had her parents stayed, while still being grateful for the opportunities her Western upbringing has offered her.
Malik’s life story is one of aspiration and ambition, both to expand beyond her occasionally restrictive upbringing, embracing Western values that resonate while also combating patriarchal and white constructs that are designed to inhibit women of colour, both through her career and in navigating society. In “The Newsroom”, Malik speaks to the old school tie that binds most workplaces and the desire to be recognised for the merit of her work, rather than seen as a tokenistic diversity hire – a phenomenon that is pervasive even outside the realm of journalism.
Through her experience, the Walkley Award-winning writer explores the first-generation migrant experience with heart, humour and incredible insight. Desi Girl leaves you with the conclusion that identity isn’t clear-cut; it’s informed by decisions outside your control that lead to your circumstance and deliver you to the culture you were born into. But it also evolves through life experience, enabling us to self-actualise as we gain more autonomy into adulthood.
UQP, 248pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 24, 2022 as "Sarah Malik, Desi Girl: On feminism, race, faith and belonging".
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