Upon completing the last page of Good Intentions by Kasim Ali, I close the book and have a sudden urge to throw it on the floor in front of me.
Not because it’s a bad book — on the contrary, it’s an excellent one, earnestly depicting the nuances of South Asian culture and the prejudices and customs deeply engrained in it, even in the UK. But what Ali frustratingly uncovers in his story is the fact that these prejudices continue to impact young South Asians, and can threaten to drive a thriving relationship to its tragic breaking point.
Ali’s debut novel follows the romance of Nur and Yasmina through a series of chapters that go back and forth in time, switching from past to present tense. Along with chronicling the deeply romantic moments of this young couple who meet in university, Ali homes in on the conflict that threatens the very foundation of their relationship, stated bluntly in the last sentence of the first chapter: “Yasmina is Sudanese. She’s black.”
Good Intentions, which releases on March 8, gives readers a glimpse inside the mind of a young Pakistani man who is afraid of how his parents might react to his black girlfriend. Nur’s friend Imran sums up how racism has impacted their culture over generations when he tells him: “Everyone is racist, right? We’re born into a racist society. It’s there from the very beginning, this unconscious set of ideals that worm their way into your mind.”
From fair-skinned Bollywood actresses being cast in leading roles to skin-lightening cream ads plastered on billboards, the cultural stigmas related to darker skin are difficult to overlook. “I’ve had conversations with my South Asian friends and my black friends for years, about the way we speak about skin colour and all of these really messed up colonialist ideas that we can’t seem to let go of. We’re stuck in this thing and nobody seems to want to talk about it – people get uncomfortable when you bring it up,” Ali tells The National.
Ali reveals he has been writing novels since he was 18 – two or three a year, facing numerous rejections from agents. So while it may have only taken him six weeks to write Good Intentions, he says that the accurate length of time is the eight years of experience that brought him to this project. Ali penned Good Intentions between March and April of 2019, and a year later, in the thick of the global #BlackLivesMatter movement, the book was acquired by Fourth Estate in a five-publisher auction.
Mental health from a male perspective
Nur’s hesitancy to tell his family about Yasmina is the elephant in the room of their relationship, and the source of his severe anxiety. “It’s so clear to me that Nur is so trapped in his own mind,” says Ali, who incorporates discussions around panic attacks, self-harm and suicide into the story. “I didn’t want it to overpower the narrative, but I wanted to talk about male mental health because I think quite often, it gets swept under the rug,” he says.
Nur’s large, sprawling family is overwhelming, and because of his secret relationship, Nur feels he is letting them down. As a Pakistani man himself, Ali can empathise with some of Nur’s conflicted emotions. “When we get to these family gatherings and we see our families in their entirety, we love them, but at the same time we know that we don't fit the mould that our parents and our elders built for us. We are disappointments to them in some kind of way, and that’s quite a heavy burden,” says Ali.
Yet, we also tend to underestimate our parents — a theme Ali highlights in his book. “Sometimes we talk about our parents as being a product of their time and their environment — we think that we have all these ‘progressive’ and ‘liberal’ ideas of the world and that our parents are not going to be accepting of those opinions,” explains Ali. “I really wanted to talk about the difference in politics between our parents and us and the gap between those dimensions, but I also really wanted to talk about giving our parents a chance to change with us.”
Representing modern and multidimensional Muslims
Good Intentions is certainly an unconventional Muslim love story, as Nur and Yasmina decide to move in together before marriage. But it’s precisely this willingness by Ali, to portray a modern Muslim couple influenced by traditions but unencumbered by them, that makes his book such a unique and pressing read. Alongside flirty banter between couple, casual conversations with friends are laced with deeper issues, tackling misogyny, patriarchy and homophobia. These take place amid college party scenes depicting a colourful cast of diverse Muslim characters — some who drink, some who smoke, and some who ultimately opt for traditional arranged marriages.
“I found myself thinking I want to read from the perspective of a young Muslim man living in Britain, and I realised we don’t see those often,” says Ali. “There are a lot of young Muslim women who are writing incredible books that speak to that specific experience, but I would really love to see more Muslim men, and I’m hoping that Good Intentions can spark more of those books.”
Crafting a complicated protagonist
Nur’s resistance in telling his parents about Yasmina comes across as frustrating and at times infuriating. In hiding his black girlfriend from his family, he becomes complacent and complicit in a sickening cycle of colourism, while at the same time he is under the illusion that it isn’t he who is racist, but his culture.
For a while the story starts out appearing to paint Nur’s parents as inherently racist, it soon becomes evident that Nur himself is part of the problem. Good Intentions uses a love story to show that rectifying racism in South Asian communities can’t occur overnight – it requires a long process of unlearning.
Through the enthralling storytelling of a young Muslim romance, Ali effectively suggests that younger generations cannot blame their elders for ingraining colourism into their upbringing, and that good intentions aside, the onus is on today’s South Asians to actively champion anti-racism.