Brown Boy: a memoir

I know Omer Aziz from the Mississauga Central Library and also from the nextdoor YMCA. I admired his passion for books as I always saw him reading in the library as well as in the gym. He was genuinely interested in what I was reading too. I am always enthusiastic to talk about books and while my tastes, as seen in my blog reviews, are all over the subject map, Omer kept more to the classics. I could see that he was reading from the panoply of world literature. He even took books into the Y’s sauna and I worried that dripping sweat would damage them. How could you read comfortably when the pages were turning into wet tissue paper? We also chatted about publishing and the sorry state of self-published works; thus I am glad that his memoir was published by Simon & Schuster [1].

Omer wrote about his life as a Canadian of Pakistani origin, growing up in Scarborough and then in Mississauga. His father is a secular Muslim (whom I still see every day at the Y) while his mother is strictly religious, so he was pulled in different directions all his life. After the world changed on 11 September 2001 Omer’s world changed too, as I am sure it did for all Muslims and for anyone whose skin colour was brown.

After years of unimpressive grades Omer had an epiphany during the 2008 presidential campaign. The leading Democrat candidate was Barack Obama, and seeing a man of colour speak so eloquently gave Omer inspiration to refocus his life on his education. He started an impressive campaign of his own to read the classics. He would eventually became a star student and won scholarships to Queen’s University, University of Cambridge and then to Yale Law School. I liked this memory he shared about how he found room for all his books:

“My father and I soon got to work building a study in the house. Since leaving for college, I had accumulated hundreds of books and had nowhere to put them. Together, we tore down a room, painted the walls light brown, and built a bookshelf. It was like I was back in those childhood days watching my father work under the hood of the car, me handing him tools. When the room was done, I finally had a place to study with my books surrounding me, each one a special purchase I had made from a used bookstore.”

This is the Omer I know: the voracious reader. His scholarships got him into good universities where he excelled (as in the above three locations) or failed (he wasted his time at the Paris Institute of Political Studies). In spite of the prejudices around him, where brown boys were considered threats and not academics, Omer worked tirelessly to prove himself as deserved of a higher education. The passages below show what he was up against. They also show that in spite of what others may have done to keep him down, he was also fearless in his pursuit of academia:

“What kind of dream had I been pursuing all these years, trying to educate myself out of my own skin, reading every book I could get my hands on, separating myself from my past, that in a single instant this stranger could put me right back into the box from which I sprang?”


“Dada had never been close to anyone, but I realized how my father and I were not that different. He was the brash immigrant who was fearless in sharing his opinions, even if he valued safety above all else. I was the son of immigrants born on this soil who was willing to look beyond the safety nets and take risks in pursuit of my dreams. We were mirrors of each other in certain ways, both of us with big imaginations that could be not curtailed by those around us.” [2]

Brown Boy was written in a conversational style with reimagined dialogue. It was a seamless read where his jumping from continent to continent, as well as from university to university, never seemed to be impulsive. He shared his reasons for choosing each institution, weighing the pros and cons over other locations and we eagerly awaited the mail delivery containing each acceptance letter. It would have been far easier to create a memoir that stuck to a timeline: first I went here, then there, then dropped out in Paris then did this… and it would have ended up a boring read. With Brown Boy I was always looking forward to Omar’s next academic adventure and professional success. He is an inspiration to us all.

[1] Reputable publisher that it is, yet the proofreaders still let Adolph Hitler get by (instead of Adolf) and left adjacent alternate spellings of Grandad and Great-Granddad. Omer alternated spellings of imposter (p. 147 and p. 253) with impostor (p. 251).

[2] The final line in the passage above was quoted verbatim, thus could be not curtailed when I believe it should have been could not be curtailed.

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