The benefits of being a middle child

A review of Manzoor’s memoir

By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly

“I owe my life to two strokes of incredible luck,” writes Sarfraz Manzoor in his memoir. “I was not born female, and I was not the oldest son.” Manzoor discusses his life in a Pakistani immigrant family living in Luton, England. In his father’s rigid household, the first son would follow into the father’s work. The daughter would remain on her best behavior until she found a man to marry.

Relief from such expectations allowed him breathing room to find identity within Western influences. He identified with singer Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen,” and Bruce Springsteen.

Manzoor is a longtime television and radio reporter writing his first book. His writing is casual, and no matter how far-reaching his tales are, his writing is warm and dryly humorous.

At one point, Manzoor’s infatuation with Springsteen takes him across the ocean to America, where he works as a door-to-door salesman.

In America, Manzoor finds glare, noise and cultural confusion. An Englishman by nationality and a Pakistani by ethnicity, he finds that many of the Americans answering their doors do not know the difference. Some do not care.

His “otherness” confounds him, especially since he no longer has strong ties to his own culture. Manzoor writes that before college, he had “virtually no Asian friends … (high school) was almost entirely white, and when I was around Asians, I tended to feel a bit of a fraud.”

His neighborhood, Bury Park, sounds oddly similar to Springsteen’s old residence of Asbury Park, New Jersey. Manzoor’s devotion to Springsteen begins at college with his friend Roops, who is a carefree and insistent Sikh, fond of fun, girls and ripping off his faith-mandated turban.

Roops doesn’t spare a thought for the skin color or family religion of his friends. “You must love Springsteen,” Roops says. This is his only faith. Manzoor, after some uncertainty, joins him in that faith.

Manzoor admits that an American rock star does make an unusual figure of worship to a UK-immigrant Pakistani. However, Springsteen possesses an astounding power to unite. To Manzoor, Springsteen’s music forms a searchlight for lost and lonely souls. The long stories in his songs draw drifters closer.

Manzoor’s love of stories gets him through difficult nights, especially when his mother sinks into despair over the loss of her husband. Ms. Manzoor can’t even find a support group for Pakistani widows. “Since Asians are known for their extended families and respect for their elders,” writes Manzoor, “there were no groups in Luton of (that type). It was assumed there wouldn’t be a demand.”

A lifetime of tight deadlines and space limitations leave Manzoor with the enviable power to say a lot with a little. The book benefits from his constructions and ever-present humor in the face of adversity. His distinction, confidence and his salvation through rock ‘n’ roll grant his book a spot near the top of the list of Asian immigrant writings.

Manzoor reaches for Springsteen to manage his chaotic feelings. “Independence Day,” which is simultaneously Springsteen’s declaration of independence from his father and a gesture of tenderness for the same man, plays on Manzoor’s stereo while he thinks of his own father’s quick illness and death. The song embodies a conversation Manzoor would have liked to have with his own father.

Manzoor superimposes Springsteen’s songs over his own life to build a pathway forward for himself. Springsteen should be flattered. ♦

“Greetings From Bury Park: A Memoir,” is by Sarfraz Manzoor. It is published by Vintage Departures, a division of Random House, Inc., New York. $13.95.

Andrew Hamlin can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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