• February 4, 2023

‘Home Is Not A Country,’ By Safia Elhillo : NPR

Home is not a country by Safia Elhillo

Home is not a country was absolutely a book I read for the title. It appealed to me as a third cultural child who has lived all over the world, constantly searching for what home could mean and how I could create it for myself. But it also felt like a love letter to anyone who’s ever been an outsider or looking for their story, no matter where they came from.

Nima is a first-generation Muslim teen who feels trapped between her life in America and her dreams of her home country (which is unnamed but suggests it is Sudan). After losing her father before she was born, Nima is preoccupied with the life she believes was taken from her. She can’t help but think about her homeland, and when she is bullied and labeled a terrorist at school, she tries to get as close to this old world as possible. Her story captures a familiar nostalgia for the places we come from but which we never really knew. It’s a tapestry of life in small moments and the revelations we have about our past over time.

[Nima’s] The story captures a familiar nostalgia for the places we come from but which we never really knew. It’s a tapestry of life in small moments and the revelations we have about our past over time.

Safia Elhillo wrote Home is Not a Country as a novel in verse, with poems that will make you drop your toes on 14, feel invisible, and desperately want another life. Nima feels a strong connection to the spirit world; She thinks constantly of Yasmeen, the name her father wanted to give her and which she sees as a more graceful and confident version of herself. When Nima aches for her other half, she resents the life she has been given and loses herself in search of Yasmeen and the old world.

The book grew up outside of my own country and looked very familiar to me. Nima’s story reminded me of my younger self, of how frustrated I was about not belonging to either world, examined my family history for answers, and slowly realized that I couldn’t change the life that was given to me – but I could choose to belong for myself and feel complete with who i am.

It took me some time to get into the narrative, which slowly introduces the characters through vignettes from Nima’s life. It felt like a book of poetry collecting moments that seemed to get stuck in time, so I carefully enjoyed every detail and observation. But then the story quickly changed tone, leaving me delighted with the adventure that was unfolding and making me rush through the pages.

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From the start, Elhillo introduces elements of magical realism that quickly take over the story and transport the reader into a completely different world. They surprised me when they revealed what would happen if Nima’s dreams came true. It helped me ponder how we feel so confident at a young age that one decision or twist of fate would solve all of our problems. But in reality, what we want doesn’t usually come out the way we expected it to. Home isn’t a country that felt the most memorable because it explored that tension between our fascination for the what-if and distracted us from enjoying where we are.

Most of all, the book captures in an exquisite way how the questions of where we come from can take over our lives. It’s a portrait of perspective holding up a mirror to show that we can ultimately tell our own stories and choose to see them differently. With heavy eyes from reading until late at night, I finished Home is Not a Country feeling like walking out of a movie theater into the sunshine, where the world feels brighter and more inexplicably hopeful than when I last left.

Nayantara Dutta is a freelance writer, poet and strategist. You can find them @nayantaradutta.



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