A Book About Someone with Middle-Eastern Heritage

  1. Bibliography

Budhos, Marina. 2006. Ask Me No Questions. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers. ISBN 9781416903512

2. Plot Summary

Nadira, her sister Aisha, and her parents are illegal Bangladeshi aliens living in New York City. They’ve lived on expired visas for years, something that “everyone does.” “You buy a fake social security number for a few hundred dollars and then you can work,” Nadira knows. But everything changes after 9/11. The U.S. government begins investigating Muslim communities and cracking down on illegal immigrants. Muslim men from Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Pakistan, and Bangladesh are required to register with the government. Many are detained, abused, and deported.

Hoping to save himself and his family, Nadira’s father drives the family to Canada, where he hears they’re taking immigrants. Unfortunately, Canada has stopped taking Bangladeshis after the recent influx. Even worse, since his work visa is expired, Nadira’s father is detained at the U.S. border. While Nadira’s mother stays behind to await her husband’s deportation trial, Aisha and Nadira drive back to New York City to live with their an aunt and uncle and return to high school.

Aisha is the family’s golden child, the older daughter who’s at the top of her high school class, the one who knows exactly what she wants and works hard to achieve it. Aisha is “perfect.” Nadira describes herself as the “fat and dreamy second daughter,” “the one who always has to trail after Aisha,” and never does anything important. But after Aisha writes to Homeland Security, calls her father’s detention center, and works with a local Bangladeshi lawyer, all to no avail, she gives up—on her valedictorian nomination at school, on interviewing at Bernard, and on America. Nadira must hold her family together, coming to a new understanding of her value in the family, on her strength, and on the American dream.

  1. Critical Analysis

Ever since Nadira and her family arrived in America, they’ve lived by the motto, “Don’t let them see you.” To Americans, her family has become “invisible, the people who swam in between other people’s lives, bussing dishes, delivering groceries.” Illegal immigrants are “everywhere,” Nadira admits. “You just have to look.” And yet, Nadira and Aisha’s classmates and teachers don’t look. They don’t pick up the signals. They don’t ask the sisters questions. Thus, both illegal immigrants and the “Muslim problem” are faceless to Nadira and Aisha’s peers, teachers, friends, and the other American citizens the sisters interact with on a daily basis. Nadira’s honest and observant musings on her family’s invisibility in America provide valuable reflections on the distinct experiences that she and so many other illegal Muslim immigrants have shared.

Her honest musings slowly turn outward: It is when Nadira allows Americans to truly “see” her that she begins making a difference in her family’s life—showing the deportment judge that her father was saving money so that his daughters could go to college, urging Aisha to reveal her illegal status to her peers as part of her valedictorian speech, getting local media involved in her family’s appeal for residency. Ask Me No Questions is Nadira’s call to its American audience to “tell [us] who [she is]. What [she] really think[s].” Through Nadira’s character, author Marina Budhos allows readers (who, much like Nadira’s classmates, may not see or understand the plight of many of their classmates) to truly see illegal immigrants, specifically Muslims, in all their humanness. Her unforgettable story invites readers to reflect on current U.S. policies and beliefs, to analyze them, and, like Nadira, to take action.

Author Marina Budhos also uses Ask Me No Questions to point out the cultural nuances that Bangladeshis living in America must learn to navigate. Some, like Aisha, decide to assimilate to American culture, copying what the American kids do with phrases like “my mom” and “awesome” and giving up Bangladeshi fashion in order to fit in. Nadira’s parents try to find a balance between American and Bangladeshi culture, fasting for Ramadan and going to the mosque (Bangladeshi culture), but also encouraging their daughters to go to college and pursue careers (American culture). And a close family friend, “Ali-Uncle,” wears a long kurta, has a beard, and prays five times a day, just like he did in Bangladesh. Yet, despite the fact that Bangladeshis in America may express their culture in varying degrees, they all come from the same place “where there is no difference between land and sea.” Mariana Budhos offers no judgement at the way her Bangladeshi characters choose to express their Bangladeshi roots in America, offering that readers do the same.

Finally, Marina Budhos uses Ask Me No Questions to tell a coming-of-age story of one girl who begins her journey “nestled in the back, not seen,” mocked for her weight, and sure that she’s completely useless, to a girl who realizes that she’s been “the person guiding slowly from behind,” intelligent, important, and loved by her family. Nadira’s story shows readers the power of one determined girl who won’t give up, and who takes her future into her own hands, providing a framework for any teen who feels trapped by their circumstances. This little book packs a powerful emotional punch that readers won’t soon forget. Highly recommended for every teen library.

4. Rewards and Review Excerpts

Booklist Editors’ Choice: Books for Youth List, 2006
Kirkus Best Children’s Books List, 2006
YALSA Best Books for Young Adults List, 2007, Fiction
From Bulletin: “Budhos has composed a compelling and thought-provoking contemporary examination of the human side of the law; further, in illustrating the secret burden that Nadira and Aisha carry with them to school each day as they pretend that nothing is the matter, she reminds readers to think differently about the people around them. Sure to elicit discussion, this novel would work very well for a teen book club selection.”
From Kirkus: “Illegal immigrant sisters learn a lot about themselves when their family faces deportation in this compelling contemporary drama. . . A perceptive peek into the lives of foreigners on the fringe.”

5. Connections

Marina Budhos has written several award-winning books. Set out a display of some of them, which may include the following:
• Eyes of the World. ISBN 9780805098358
• Watched. ISBN 9780553534184
• Tell Us We’re Home. ISBN 9781416903529
• Remix: Conversations with Immigrant Teenagers. ISBN 9780805051131

Create a display of Ask Me No Questions and other books about immigrants. This selection might include the following:
• Elhillo, Safia. Home Is Not a Country. ISBN 9780593177082
• Lai, Thanhha. Inside Out & Back Again. ISBN 9781476531229
• Nayeri, Daniel. Everything Sad Is Untrue: (A True Story). ISBN 9781432888725
• Umrigar, Thrity. Sugar in Milk. ISBN 9780762495191
• Ha, Robin. Almost American Girl. ISBN 9780062685100
• Van, Muon Thi. Wishes. ISBN 9781338305890