There's a streetlight near my parent's store, and I hear the click, a shutter snapping as I round the corner. My gaze swivels up, but there's nothing. Just a white-eyed orb, a lamp, ticking. The dim sky floating behind. I shiver, tell myself it's all in my head. Nothing.
Click. Click. (5)
So begins Marina Budhos' brilliant novel Watched. This piece, published in September 2016, came on my radar after recently being selected as an Honoree Book for The Walter, or Walter Dean Myers Award. It could not be more relevant for our current climate.
Watched tells the story of Naeem, his father Abba, step-mother Amma, and step-brother Zahir - along with friends and extended family along the way making their path as immigrants to the United States. Naeem's father immigrated from Bangladesh and operates a store in Jackson Heights, New York City. Naeem joined him when he was ten after living with family back home for most of his childhood. Now a teen and navigating his way through the world - he faces the reality of surveillance and profiling in the post 9/11 world. Trying on different identities, he molds into various aspects of his surroundings, "no one thought I was Bangladeshi anyway. Some of the guys on the street called me Nino instead of Naeem..." (24). He runs the streets and thrives on the energy of the city, constantly moving as a way of survival, "We're both the same that way. We like to move. We don't stay long enough to say what hurts" (31).
All of his conflicting future visions stop short after getting caught with weed in his bag and his friend's stolen merchandise. He's presented with a few options by the cops, basically - do the time, or become a 'watcher.' What cops market to him as a career in intelligence, he soon realizes may not be optional:
At that moment, I realize this isn't a choice. not really. If I say no, I'm back to the station house, where I'm just another Queens kid with goofy ears and a lousy high school transcript, pressing thumbs on ink... I'm the failure son, calling Abba, his face worse than before, lines of grief running down his cheeks. Amma in the back of the store, silently crying. (81)
As his religious and cultural identity gets entangled in his work - he wrestles often with the choices he's making to spy on his neighbors, friends, and family. From seeing it as a justified super-hero post protecting his neighbors, "They are the tattoo on my heart; they are my electric circuits, lighting up my veins. They are my Gotham... every one of us yearning... It trembles through every one of us, the ambition, the striving, the want. And I must save them" (147). To questioning everything, "The thing about superheroes is it's all about layers, shadows. All the bad guys... they once were good. They wore skins of light. They walked on pavement like the rest of us, then something knifed them, deep" (215). The identity search continues as he truly comes of age and finds his center.
An incredible read from Budhos, and truly so important to add into our conversation nationally about how we deal with so many pieces of identity, stereotypes, religion, and freedom. Budhos explains that while a work of fiction, she was inspired by real issues and events. As she writes in the author's note, "My aim is to tell the human story behind the headlines, to explore the complicated choices and pressures teenagers -- especially Muslim teenagers -- face when their world is so riven and made precarious by violence, extremism, intolerance, and mistrust" (262). I'd say she definitely achieves that and more with this novel. A must-read and must-have for classrooms and libraries!