> Zed Book Club / Kismet

Kismet Nicole Kidman Nine perfect strangers, Photo credit Courtesy Prime Canada View to Cathedral Rock near Sedona with green bushes and trees in front and under a nicely clouded sky Photo credit : JacobH/Gettyimages

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Kismet

Amina Akhtar’s witty psychological thriller satirizes the Western wellness and self-care industry, which has culturally appropriated and commodified Eastern healing traditions / BY Nathalie Atkinson / July 22nd, 2022


Remember that time Gwyneth Paltrow took credit for popularizing yoga? So does Amina Akhtar, although she doesn’t mention the GOOP-founding celebrity by name in her new satirical thriller Kismet (out on Aug. 1), which takes on the world of wellness. “I remember yoga being talked about on Three’s Company!” Akhtar says from her home near Sedona, Ariz., of the absurd claim. “And I don’t know if I noticed because of our culture, but my parents had been doing yoga since the ’60s – my dad’s had the same yoga book forever.”

Like Kismet’s Gen X author, its heroine, Ronnie Khan, is an American of Pakistani descent. When the novel opens, she’s recently moved out from under the strict and sheltered traditional desi upbringing of an abusive aunt in Queens, N.Y., to go to Sedona with her new friend Marley – a blonde socialite-turned-healer with a trust fund who has made Ronnie her pet project. “I like the idea of a villain that you can relate to because they’re funny and kind of that bitchy best friend that you have who doesn’t keep her mouth shut,” Akhtar explains . The relationship soon tips into nemesis territory, and what follows slowly exposes the unhealthy nature of their friendship and the toxicity of white-woman feminism, particularly in the wellness sphere.

Satirizing Paltrow would be too easy, and in Kismet, Akhtar’s more interested in the more insidious and seemingly well-meaning culture of appropriation that enables her.

Akhtar has said the elevator pitch for her novel is “Live, laugh, die,” and that’s apt. When a string of brutal killings in the wellness community put locals on high alert, they organize a vigilante citizens’ patrol that singles out anyone who looks as though they don’t belong. (Take a guess how slippery that slope gets.) To give you an idea: Imagine if Liane Moriarty’s bestseller-turned-TV series Nine Perfect Strangers or Leigh Stein’s influencer takedown novel Self Care were made as a darkly funny, social-horror slasher by Jordan Peele – from the point of view of the appropriated.

Amina Akhtar

 

After 20 years in New York City as a fashion writer (at Vogue, the New York Times, and founding editor of women’s blog, The Cut), Akhtar moved to Arizona several years ago to be with her father, now 88. When her 2018 debut novel #FashionVictim (about a ruthless style editor who kills her way up the masthead) earned rave reviews, both the dramatic Sedona desert setting and its woo-woo denizens inspired the second novel. Her insider knowledge was transferable. A lot of the fashion world has moved into wellness, Akhtar points out, because it’s a billion-dollar industry and has become just another facet of pop culture.

As depicted in the novel, it’s a scene largely populated by women, and there’s a reason the category has been embraced across generations. “I think right now, and especially in the U.S. – Canada’s a bit different because it has [universal] health care – a lot of women turn to wellness because they don’t have any other options,” she posits. “Every woman – and not just women of colour – has doctors not take their pain seriously. Endometriosis, menstrual pain – they just tell you to walk it off. So we turn to it to try and feel like we’re doing something, to feel like we’re in charge again.”

One of the most entertaining aspects of the novel is how its shifts between different third-person points of view, including that of the local ravens, who narrate their own chapters, like a Greek chorus. Ravens, it turns out, are highly intelligent creatures; they can recognize faces and commit acts of kindness, or hold grudges. Rather than channel Edgar Allen Poe’s supernatural atmosphere, their interactions help drive home the deliciously ironic point about how many of Kismet’s supposedly Zen characters who embrace the world actually have an adversarial relationship to nature, which is hard to escape in rural Arizona. “I spent the last 20 years living in Manhattan, wearing high heels, running around subways, a typical fashion girl,” Akhtar laughs. “There’s so much about wildlife and animals that we’ve stopped being curious about – myself included.”

Satirical suspense can be a powerful vehicle for reframing ideas. Last year Zakiya Dalila Harris’s hit The Other Black Girl took aim at the publishing industry’s lack of diversity, and in Identitti (out this week), Mithu Sanyal uses satire to explore race and identity politics in academia. So for all its thought-provoking subject matter, one of the pleasures of Akhtar’s humorous psychological thriller is how sharply drawn the setting is, and how it is peppered with well-observed satirical details – from the way self care-speak has been normalized into everyday conversation to the recreation of “colonial India was fabulous” conversations.

Like much of Wellness Instagram, for example, the white Sedona healers, shamans, and mystics in Kismet adore Rumi (from the 13th century and still the bestselling poet in the United States), until they find out he was a Muslim. “They’re incredibly Islamophobic otherwise – it makes me laugh so hard,” Akhtar says. “The quotes are watered down and not even close to the original text, in the same way the character in the book thinks you can only be Indian, you can’t be Pakistani. There’s a hierarchy in wellness in terms of what is acceptable.”

Fariha Roisin

 

She’s not the only author reshaping the narrative around health and the decolonization of wellness practices. Although it’s a candid memoir, Australian-Canadian writer and activist Fariha Róisín’s new book Who is Wellness For? investigates the commodification of healing traditions from the global south. “The body is an inherently political thing,” Róisín writes of exploring her identity as a queer Bangladeshi Muslim, and considering the imbalances in health and healing. “Our practices are so available in spaces of wellness, and yet you can’t find us in those spaces,” she said in a recent interview.

In Kismet, Ronnie is frequently the target of racist micro-aggressions (most of them fodder from Akhtar’s own real-life experience) and observes racial blind spots that are either hilariously awful or terrifying in their accuracy (often both). “I see a lot more Black and brown people who are creating their own spaces in wellness now, which is amazing to me,” Akhtar says, “because for the most part it is a very wealthy white-woman world.”

The encounters in the novel are especially perverse given how the Western wellness industry is largely built on cultural appropriation that decontextualizes teachings of the subcontinent and turns them into lifestyle trappings. Health is wealth, and, sadly, the reverse is true.

Amina Akhtar
Some of the racist micro-aggressions faced by character Ronnie Khan in “Kismet” are drawn from author Amina Akhtar’s experiences. Photo: Orlando Pelagi

 

As one enlightened character observes about its commodification, wellness is “all about healthy living if you bought just one more thing,” ­like a selection of Namaste decorative pillows or perhaps reaching enlightenment by donning the right sparkly caftan and clutching a healing crystal.

“Whereas true wellness comes from inside, healing yourself and your traumas,” Akhtar says. “A shiny rock isn’t going to help you. I love them, they’re gorgeous, but what do they actually do?” To say nothing of the environmental and social impact of all those crystals. “As a society we haven’t looked at the impact on the planet and the people [often children] who are doing the mining,” she says. “We need to examine our own behaviours and tendencies to buy things, because ultimately what people want [is] a happy healthy planet and people having good long healthy lives. And what if what we’re doing to get there is contributing to the bad stuff? I think that’s important for us to look into.”

“There’s no ethical consumption under capitalism – that’s a given,” Akhtar adds. “But when Indigenous folks can’t get the sage that they need for their spiritual rites because it’s endangered, I feel like maybe we’ve gone too far.”

It’s been about a decade since wellness co-opted what was meant to be a powerful rallying cry of resistance into a marketing con and product category. As Black feminist poet and self-described warrior Audre Lorde famously wrote in her 1988 essays that coined the term self-care: “Physically. Psychically. Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

“When I was hired in the fashion industry I was always told, point blank to my face, that I was a diversity hire,” Akhtar recalls. “ They made it very clear: You don’t belong here.”

“For me, and I think a lot of immigrants and immigrant kids feel this way: we have a foot in different worlds and don’t necessarily belong to either.” On the page, while Ronnie is working out who the killer might be, she’s also figuring out where she fits in, and both journeys are as entertaining as they are satisfying.

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