“Twenty-five years later, my parents would tell me that being married to each other was the closest they ever got to the American dream.”
Malaka Gharib, the daughter of an Egyptian immigrant and a Filipino immigrant, spent her formative years carving out an identity for herself between her Filipino-American community at home and her father’s Egyptian family in Cairo.
In her graphic memoir, I Was Their American Dream (Clarkson Potter), she notes the cultural differences between the two, as well as the differences she could see between her family and the white American families on TV. There was very little representation for immigrants and people of color in 90s and early 00s television, especially on her favorite network, The WB, where she devoured shows like “Dawson’s Creek” and “7th Heaven.”
Her favorite show was “Felicity,” a series about a young woman attending college in New York. Malaka’s obsession with New York led to her attending Syracuse University, “which was technically in New York,” she observes.
Assimilating first into a mixed Filipino and Egyptian family, then the diverse community of Cerritos, CA, then the largely white Syracuse University and finally Washington, DC, Malaka manages to find her own cultural identity. When she falls in love with an American man named Darren from Nashville, Tennessee, she has the opportunity to start an ethnically diverse family of her own, and avoid the clash of cultures that stood in the way of her parents’ happiness.
I Was Their American Dream might be the happiest book you read this year. Malaka’s endless optimism and enthusiasm shine through on every page, with her illustrations capturing a girl torn between three worlds that she loves equally.
The graphic memoir medium is the perfect way to tell Malaka’s story; at various points, she employs hyperbolic imagery, fourth-wall-breaking fantasy sequences, and vibrant charts to demonstrate everything from common microaggressions to her college wardrobe.
Before writing this review, I re-read the book to make sure I didn’t miss anything—it’s a quick read that you could conceivably finish on your morning commute—and discovered plenty of new things that I didn’t notice the first time. For one, the color palette is almost entirely red white and blue, paying homage to the aspiration, if not the reality, of America.
Another thing that stood out the second time around was the way Malaka uses pop culture references to evoke a commonality across different cultural identities. No matter where we’re viewing the world from, everyone can relate to listening to Nirvana and watching “The Simpsons.”
In I Was Their American Dream, Malaka Gharib tells the origin story of a person, somebody with hopes and fears and dreams. Near the end, she muses, “These days, I’ve been thinking a lot about my parents. I never wanted to let them down. They fought so hard to make a life here.”
Although her parents’ marriage didn’t work out, Malaka looks to the future, to the expansive family that she has built and inherited, across continents and cultures. This memoir is as much a tribute to them as is her own coming of age story.
I Was Their American Dream will be available April 30, 2019.
About Malaka Gharib
Malaka Gharib is an artist and a journalist at National Public Radio. She is the founder of The Runcible Spoon food zine and the co-founder of the DC Art Book Fair. She lives in a row house in Washington, DC with her husband Darren and her nine-year-old rice cooker.