In brief: Sami Shah’s story, from growing up in Pakistan to covering breaking news as a news producer and then moving to Australia as a stand-up comedian.
The good: Sami writes very well, with honesty and wry satire. It’s interesting and funny.
The not-so-good: It was all over too quickly!
Why I chose it: Interested as my grandparents are also migrants (who also lived in the same town as Sami and his family for several years). Thanks to Allen & Unwin and The Reading Room for the ARC.
Pages: 282 (ARC)
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Setting: Pakistan, America and Australia
When a book makes you laugh on the first page, you know you’re on to a winner. With I, Migrant, Sami Shah tells us a story that is shocking and violent but ultimately full of humour and hope. It’s a story that allows the average Australian to compare how peaceful and relaxed day to day life is here with that for someone in Karachi, Pakistan where it is accepted that you will be robbed at gunpoint and it’s nothing to do your school exams as bombs fall.
Sami starts his story with one that has happened to many Australians, especially if they live in the country – swerving to avoid hitting a kangaroo while driving. It’s a powerful opening, especially as many country Aussies have had drilled into them from before they can drive – hit the kangaroo. Don’t swerve. (Yes, that is true. Better to hit the animal than to swerve at high speed and do more damage to yourself). As Sami points out, it wouldn’t have looked very good if he’d hit the kangaroo, being a migrant and killing the national emblem. Secondly, what is he doing, dying by kangaroo after surviving suicide bombings and guns in Karachi? The introduction sets up a story that is very, very difficult to put down.
Sami tells the story of different parts of his life, not in a chronological fashion, which is refreshing. He jumps straight into his time working at Dawn Network, a 24 hour news channel in Pakistan and covering Benazir Bhutto’s return to Pakistan. It wasn’t a pretty event, which led to death and destruction across the city. Life is frenzied for Sami, who needs to think on his feet constantly, hence the Red Bull and cigarette or three. Life is crazy and chaotic but the one thing that shines through is how stoic the people of Karachi are. Bombs mean that city roads are closed? Take another route. Had your phone and wallet stolen at gunpoint? Carry on. It’s a bravery that I can’t even begin to imagine. Later, Sami Shah becomes Pakistan’s first stand-up comedian, showing the people how they can laugh at themselves and their situation. Still, it’s not a full time job and he must work at a soul-sucking job by day and create comedy by night, testing out jokes on the game Second Life (there are some really funny descriptions of this game and I’m wondering why I never got into it).
Things are beginning to change in Pakistan and Sami becomes bitter. His regular newspaper columns are more rants that entertainment and he has his wife and daughter to consider. It’s decided that they should try for a visa to Australia. After a long, long time, they are allowed to come to Perth, but must reside in rural area for two years. Easy – they’ll live in Mandurah, which is practically a southern suburb of Perth with beach, canals and public transport close by. Unfortunately, their plans don’t quite match the reality of the mining boom and the growing popularity of Mandurah so the family move to Northam. This is where I became particularly interested, as my grandparents (also migrants to Australia) lived in Northam (north east of Perth) for some time. As a kid, I never thought all that much of the town (except the famous swans in the river). It was interesting to read Sami’s reflections on it, such as the lack of nightlife and the reaction of the local people to the immigration detention centre out of town. Work isn’t easy to find for Sami, but he finds a niche in Perth’s growing comedy scene. Later, he is interviewed for Australian Story, a television show about real people and events in their life and interest grows in his story, leading to this book. I’m really glad he wrote it – I got to understand more about Karachi and its politics in addition to understanding what it was like to come to Australia as an outsider. It’s really not easy – there’s a lot that the average person doesn’t realise about the red tape to come to a new country. Sami and his family should be congratulated – hope you stick around, mate!