The Limits of Representation: Huda Awan Finds Herself in Portnoy’s Complaint
“How much can fictional representation actually achieve in acting as a foundation for self-respect?”
The first time I turned to notebook and pen with purpose, I did so while locked in the bathroom, the only room in the house with a key in the door. I was experiencing a fit of adolescent rage, incensed that my parents wouldn’t let me out of the house to go meet up with some friends in town. There were so few outlets through which to channel the anger I felt growing up, and so few ways to exercise the agency one craves as a teenager; cussing my parents out in a diary and knowing they couldn’t get past the door to disturb me as I did it helped ease my anguish to some degree.
It is behind a locked bathroom door that Alexander Portnoy, in one of Portnoy’s Complaint’s many vivid scenes, furiously masturbates as a teenager, even as his mother rattles the doorknob and asks what her son is up to. He lies to her and tells her he has diarrhea, setting off a hilarious interrogation that felt all too familiar to me. “Did you eat French fries after school?” asks Sophie Portnoy, followed by, “I want to see what you’ve done in there.” He flushes the toilet before opening the door to her; ever-probing, she asks, “What was in there that you were so fast to flush it?”
Portnoy’s Complaint, known for its outrageous portrayal of masturbation and sex, is often heralded as a seminal (excuse the pun) account of the male, Jewish-American experience—an experience I, as a woman who grew up with Muslim parents in the west of Ireland, certainly can’t say I have claim to. In spite of this, Alex Portnoy might be one of the most relatable characters I’ve encountered in literary fiction. Though I picked up the book seeking out the vulgarity it is infamous for, I ended up shocked, instead, by how viscerally I was confronted by memories of my upbringing as I read Portnoy’s account of his own. Sophie’s hawkishness and determination in getting to the bottom of Portnoy’s strange behavior in the bathroom scene reminded me so much of my own mother, who never lets even the slightest strangeness go unscrutinized. Throughout the novel, Roth gives Sophie some truly memorable lines; almost all of them could’ve been taken word-for-word from my mother’s mouth.
I understand why, in his review of Portnoy’s Complaint, critic Christopher Lehmann-Haupt wrote that Roth had “permanently identified the narrative style of the Jewish novel.” But I also question whether we should limit the novel in this way. Upon finishing the book, I came away with the sense that so much of its contents were far more universal than critics would’ve allowed us to believe; that so much of it was relevant beyond Jewish American culture, even if it took that culture as its source material. Portnoy’s descriptions of the parenting he was subject to, how it was rooted in the family’s identity as part of a religious minority, bore striking resemblance to what I’d written about in my teenage journals (in terms of content, I should stress, rather than quality). The lack of privacy he encounters in his home life, as well as the infantilization (both evidenced in that bathroom scene) were frustrations I’d had at home, too. The overprotectiveness and fear of his parents, their intense, smothering devotion, and the sheer amounts of guilt they invoke in him; all of this transcends the specificity of Portnoy’s circumstances.
Not only did I see similarities in how Portnoy’s parents treat him and how mine treated me, but also in how he internalizes that treatment and how it later affects him. The novel articulates with stunning clarity the tension one can feel between religious duty and common sense, particularly in its assessment of rules pertaining to food and the subsequent repression they engender—“What else, I ask you, were all those prohibitive dietary rules and regulations all about to begin with, what else but to give us little Jewish children practice in being repressed?” Portnoy asks. His unwillingness to adhere to rules and conventions is seen as selfish by his parents and broader community, and despite overwhelmingly arguing that he should do as he pleases, Portnoy also considers whether the accusations have weight.
The novel conveys extremely well the relentless self-questioning that comes with finding fault in a family, that, on paper, sacrifices so much for its children. Portnoy levels countless critiques against his family, but doubts himself throughout the monologue, at one point asking, “Could I really have detested this childhood and resented these poor parents of mine to the same degree then as I seem to now, looking backward upon what I was from the vantage point of what I am—and am not?”
Over the past few years, there have been renewed calls for more diverse experiences to be represented in books, films, and TV shows. The case has been made countless times now on the importance of having media and art about people with similar experiences as us, to feel like those experiences are being reflected and represented. While that conversation might be warranted (for instance, statistics from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center show that only 26.9 percent of children’s books depict a main character from a diverse background), I wonder whether it’s gone too far in one direction. We don’t need authors to write characters exactly like us in order to see ourselves in them; perhaps that even discourages us from finding common ground in work about other groups of people.
Seeing a positive representation of someone like you in a book or movie or TV show is probably important in building up your self-esteem when you’re a child. But as adults engaging with media and art, this function reaches its limits; one has to ask, how much can fictional representation actually achieve in acting as a foundation for self-respect? I understand the psychology of seeking it out; many of us want to feel like we understand, on an innate level, the struggles of the characters we read about or watch on TV. Sometimes we just want to be in on a joke—or at least that’s how I feel when I’m watching Bend It Like Beckham with my white friends, wondering if they find the translation of the Punjabi jokes as funny as I find the original versions. Beyond a few jokes, though, I’ve never found I had much else in common with Jess, that particular film’s main character (for one thing, my mother begged me to join a sports team). Sure, it was novel to see a brown girl assume the lead role in a movie, but I’ve always found “visibility,” in that sense, somewhat superficial and, ultimately, unsatisfactory.
Until I’d read Portnoy’s Complaint, I had assumed that I would have little in common with people who grew up in Jewish families; that Judaism and Islam were worlds apart, as the historical cultural clash between the two groups would indicate. Identifying so much with Portnoy dispelled that view to some degree. The novel excels, not only in outlining the family’s dysfunction, but in tracing the source of that dysfunction directly to Jewish heritage and cultural practice, something I’ve found difficult to do in relation to my own heritage (particularly in therapy sessions with white therapists). Some critics accused Roth of being “self-hating” for linking familial dysfunction and Judaism, and sometimes I have wondered whether my aversion to fully embracing Muslim identity is symptomatic of a kind of internalized racism.
At the same time, one of the things I have found so frustrating about contemporary identity politics, and the discourse around taking pride in minority status, is the reverence given over to group identity, how the minority group seems to have become infallible in some senses.
In the past, it was usually members of the older generation who would scorn at media depictions of Muslims in the West; my mother, for instance, enjoyed watching Ayub Khan Din’s East is East, a film that followed a British-Muslim family living in Bradford during the 1970s, but she was always quick to remark that the film, which could be read as a critique of how Muslim patriarchs practice religion and enforce adherence to it, did not represent “real” Muslims, or “real” Islam. Things feel a little different now; there seems to have been a movement amongst some of the younger generation to radically sympathize with the older generation’s viewpoint. While my mother might say that the Khan family are a caricature of British Muslims, members of a younger, more progressive generation have made the case for compassion; that perhaps we should move away from admonishing George Khan for how he treats his wife and children, and instead seek to understand his behavior in the context of his isolated position within his community and his racist country, and to realize how that position forces him to cling to his culture and beliefs with such devastating effects.I find Portnoy’s Complaint to be an antidote to current discussions on group identity, which so often refuse to engage in honest self-criticism.
I’ve seen that movement towards compassion within myself, and this is where Portnoy and I diverge. Aged 30, Portnoy continues to engage in long tirades on how tiresome his family is, whereas I have largely left that to the realm of those teenage journals. Instead, I have somehow managed to develop some amount of patience to deal with my mother and father and their constant insistence that I get married soon (though I have repeatedly stated that I have no intention of ever doing so). I have stopped arguing and fighting with them as much as I used to, electing instead to quietly nod along at whatever ridiculous suggestions they make to me about my lifestyle. This patience undoubtedly comes from a place of compassion, but at some point, one must ask what the limits of this compassion are, and why it feels somewhat futile to ask that an older generation make efforts to give the same to us.
In private conversations with other Muslims I grew up around, it’s much easier to speak frankly about what a burden parental expectations can be. But because the issue of prejudice tends to dictate media discussions of minority groups, it is expected that publicly, we slip into a state of forgiveness and reverence toward others in our community. Why level any further criticism against our own culture, when someone external to us is already giving us so much flak? I spent much of the beginning of my twenties feeling somewhat ashamed for how I had distanced myself from Islam to the point of agnosticism during my teens, wondering whether there was a way I could come back to it, reconcile myself to it.
But the truth is, believing in God simply stopped making sense at some point. More than anything else, I know that religion will never exist independently of a community that tries to enforce its rules and that demands respect for its beliefs, but will not offer the same to you for your own (or lack thereof). This is one of the central criticisms Portnoy’s Complaint leverages, and in doing so, Roth offers me a different kind of representation.
Wayward children find a voice in Portnoy. It’s what I’ve found so compelling about the novel and why I find it to be an antidote to current discussions on group identity, which so often refuse to engage in honest self-criticism. It never treats Jews as infallible, as beyond reproach—far from it. Instead, Roth foregoes the kinship of an ethnic and religious group to show how its culture and practices can inflict long-lasting trauma on some of its members. To me, that makes the project all the more daring.