In Mariam Sharma Hits the Road, Sheba Karim faces head-on the problem of reworking a classic genre: “Think of every road trip book you’ve read,” one of her protagonists says. “All the main characters have some sort of personal journey—discover something about themselves, or undergo some reckoning, experience some life-changing event.” By listing the clichés to which the genre is prone, Karim, who lives in Nashville, sets herself the challenge of avoiding those tropes while still working within the genre’s conventions. She succeeds beautifully, but this book is much more than a clever take on a standard story line.
Ghaz is in big trouble. She has semi-unwittingly posed for a provocative photo that is now displayed on a billboard in Times Square, and her strict parents have locked her in her room. They want her to return to Pakistan to finish her education and then get married. Ghaz’s friends Mariam and Umar hatch a plan that will get all three of them on the road. Once they’ve put some distance between Ghaz and her parents, they figure, they’ll know what to do next.
The three take off from New York in Umar’s car, who has told his parents he’s making a solo trip to the annual convention of the Islamic Association of North America in New Orleans. Their trip through the American South, previously unknown territory to all three, brings the expected encounters with prejudice and ignorance, yet it also forces them to confront their own pre-conceived notions about people.
The travelers express scorn at the sight of an ultra-conservative Muslim family without recognizing that their narrow-mindedness is no better than that of the non-Muslims toward them. In a roadside diner, they assume that a customer they refer to as “scary camouflage man” is a racist and that the friendly waitress is not. They’re stunned when the reverse turns out to be true.
That Umar uses the pretext of attending what he says is “the biggest Muslim convention in North America” as an excuse to embark on this adventure is emblematic of these characters’ uneasy relationship with religion. Umar, the most devout of the three, dreads coming out as gay to his Muslim family. Mariam’s absent father is Hindu, and her mother, raised Muslim, is an atheist who has brought up her children as freethinkers. Ghaz’s Muslim family is traditional and conservative.
All three protagonists have distinct voices and personalities, and they all have their own reasons for taking this trip. Ghaz’s is the most straightforward: She must leave home until she figures out how to deal with her family’s reaction to her shocking billboard. Umar needs distance from his family while he comes to terms with his sexual orientation and how to tell his loving but homophobic parents about it.
Only the nurturing Mariam, the most level-headed and pragmatic of the friends, seems at first to be merely in rescue mode, with no agenda of her own. But once they’re on the road, it occurs to her that they’ll be passing near where her paternal uncle lives—if they stop, she might be able to find out something about the father she doesn’t remember. She wants to learn, among other things, if she has inherited certain aspects of her own personality from him, especially the unkindness with which she treated her first serious boyfriend. She regrets and can’t explain her behavior, even to herself, and hopes that her uncle can tell her something about her heritage that will help her understand it.
Mariam Sharma Hits the Road isn’t all heavy, life-changing stuff, however. The characters’ missions never—well, rarely—get in the way of the adventure. They take part in a hilarious cross-dressing party, get goofy after eating pot-infused brownies, and talk openly and graphically about sex and bodily functions. The issues of ethnic, religious, and gender identity are delicately handled, without easy answers and with respect for the teenagers who are grappling with them. The road trip changes their lives. It will also make readers think, while entertaining them with a well-told story populated by appealing and memorable characters.
Tracy Barrett is a writer who lives in Nashville. Her most recent book, Freefall Summer, was published in 2018 by Charlesbridge Teen.