A Review of Bushra Rehman’s Corona
By J. Andrew Goodman
Bushra Rehman’s Corona is a witty and moving story of liminal spaces and the narrator Razia’s abuttal with the thresholds of sex, ethnicity, and place. The novel follows Razia from her childhood in New York City and through her dangerous initiation to adult independence. She was expelled from her home after refusing an arranged marriage by her orthodox Muslim parents, and her long search for a new home frequently begs the question: What am I willing to compromise for freedom? After reading Rehman’s quick and elegant prose, the wide world seems intimate, awaiting the will of one displaced woman.
The title, Corona, refers to a poor neighborhood in Queens, New York, whose hegemony shifts generationally between different ethnicities—Italian, Puerto Rican, Korean, and Pakistani. Razia, her family, and nearest neighbors are Pakistani. They are unified by their faith and the generosity of Razia’s father. He is the owner and butcher at Corona Halal Meats. Their Muslim community holds two books in high esteem: the Quran and the tab her father keeps of goods he’s given away.
In one scene, Razia brings tea to her father and his friends, as she does every day at lunch. She notices her father always eats the least, takes his tea last, and cleans up after everyone, including the thoughtless imam. Razia is endeared by the small sacrifices her father makes for the sake of courtesy and the authority of faith. When he weeps during prayer, Razia feels closer to her father than before:
The azan came through over the loudspeakers. Men and women everywhere came out on the street. Everyone in the neighborhood tilted their heads and listened. Out of basement apartments and six-floor walkups, Muslim men started walking toward the sound, pulling their topis out of the backseats of their pockets.
The sun went down, and the clouds bent low over the buildings. I stood in front of the masjid and held my father’s hand. The light was turning pink and darkening, and I saw my father was weeping as a sleepy, blue light settled on everything.
Rehman softens the image of Razia’s father and displays the neighborhood’s solidarity, writing such moments with a deep reverence and tenderness that intensify our ambivalence toward Razia’s home.
Outside of Queens, as a young adult, Razia is defined by her romantic relationships. She substitutes the comforts of home with men, women, or drugs. She isn’t fortunate in the affections of men. Through a series of boyfriends, she travels the breadth of the United States—New York City to San Francisco and back to the Atlantic coast. Her first relationship after refusing the arranged marriage begins well enough; Razia and Eric escape the tumults of their respective homes, but their relationship deteriorates as they fail to hold jobs and as Eric becomes volatile and belligerent. Razia realizes the world she inherited is not fatalistic; she decides hunger and escape are more agreeable than abuse.
Razia is thirty or near thirty before she meets Ravi, a man she believes she can love despite his inability to always please her sexually. He is “on loan” from India, a decade-long student with a visa. He is heavy, hairy, and can answer questions with encyclopedic diction; he and Razia also share the same political views and maintain a moderate respect for their parents’ religion. During a sleepover at a mutual friend’s, Razia says Ravi looks good, even in traditional Muslim sleepwear. Ravi reminds Razia of her father and uncles, she confesses. Her childhood home is always on her mind, and Rehman’s writing makes the ugly, tan brick under the railroad tracks tangible upon utterance.
Finally, their relationship plateaus. Ravi explains he wants to see other women before he leaves the United States, but Razia wants them to be exclusive. She has, at last, found something she has been looking for. The moment has potential for derivative melodrama, but Rehman delivers the two lovers from each other with cool, comedic, and empathic dialogue. At every turn, there is an appraisal and a concession. Razia has to run shorter and shorter distances.
Razia eventually returns to New York, but not to the mythologized neighborhood she loves. She learns there are degrees of separation, and decides for herself how close she must be to her family and where she grew up. She will not agree to an arranged marriage, but to a truce, to the small comforts of conditional love. Razia’s home is as constant as the North Star. On clouded nights, when the oldest navigational tool is rendered useless, will we circle around it, lost, or stoop to build our fire.
Bushra Rehman, Corona. Sibling Rivalry Press, 2013: $14.95
J. Andrew Goodman is a recent MFA graduate from Murray State University and an intern for the independent literary publisher, White Pine Press. He currently lives and works in Louisville, Kentucky.