In his memoir Brown Boy, journalist, lawyer, and recent Radcliffe Fellow Omer Aziz delivers a compelling account about growing up in Canada, struggling to find his way in life as the son of Pakistani immigrants, and pursuing career success in a post-9/11 world rife with racism and Islamophobia.
Raised in a fractious working-class family in Toronto, with parents who hold opposing views on adherence to Islam in Canada, Aziz spends a large part of his youth grappling with questions of faith, culture, and personal ambition. The book opens with Aziz navigating his mother’s religious strictures while he engages in teenage experiences with alcohol, drugs, and girls. Despite his father’s insistence on hard work and academic success, he falters in high school and seems destined to become a dropout. Aziz renders Scarborough as a fast and edgy place where he must contend with school cliques, the threat of violence, and low expectations. These pressures lead Aziz to doubt himself and his religion. “As I got older, I would begin to put distance between myself and Islam, believing that if God could not save me from the boys on the street, He might not be able to save me from much worse.”
Aziz’s downward spiral is reversed when he sees Barack Obama on television for the first time in 2007 and is deeply inspired by the politician’s story and background. Following Obama’s example, he decides to pursue a law career, which he hopes will please his parents and bring him the success he desperately desires.
Against the backdrop of the social and political ramifications of 9/11, Aziz enrols at Queen’s University, where he finally abandons his faith and comes into deeper self-awareness through extensive reading and new relationships. Academic success gives him access to a politically connected network, which illuminates his understanding of how race and class structure the world around him, limiting opportunities for some while enabling massive wealth and power for others. Even though Aziz moves through this rarified world, he remains the consummate insider-outsider, never fully at ease with his surroundings but managing to persist and survive nonetheless.
Aziz’s path to professional and personal success is not without severe costs. A study period in Paris goes horribly wrong, and he finds himself alone, suicidal, and defeated. Though not a literary stylist, Aziz uses crisp, unadorned, and journalistic language to convey hard truths. “The thing about feeling like you’ve already died is that a day comes when you feel ready to live,” he writes. After managing to pull himself together, he enrols at Cambridge University to pursue his interest in international relations, and then Yale University, where he completes a law degree.
On returning to Canada, Aziz becomes a foreign policy adviser in the federal Liberal government, but his experiences there are both disappointing and humiliating. Writing with honesty and vulnerability, he relates a gut-wrenching story of being asked to collect garbage at a cocktail party, an experience that characterizes his fraught journey through the corridors of power. “My throat constricted in shame and disgust,” he writes. “For the entire party, I didn’t say a word to anyone. I hated myself for obliging and hated the fact that I was at their mercy.” It is on a trip to his ancestral home in Pakistan in 2021 that Aziz begins to see that one’s identity and cultural roots are more important than ascending the white power structure – and with that understanding comes a sense of relief.
Brown Boy is not a typical rise-to-success story, even though it possesses many of the required hallmarks. Rather than a standard triumph-over-hardship narrative, Aziz’s matter-of-fact memoir amounts to a searing cautionary tale. Navigating race, class, and career advancement as a young South Asian Muslim man is a perilous journey, one where doubt, confusion about one’s identity, and family strife are often the price to be paid for illusive success.