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‘This Is What America Looks Like’ review: A rare political memoir that does not read like public relations

It’s hard to imagine a memoir that has the odds stacked against it quite so much as This Is What America Looks Like does. To begin with, it belongs to a genre (the political memoir) that produces PR tomes more than anything else. It is a pleasant surprise, then, that this memoir by 37-year-old Minnesota congresswoman Ilhan Omar, one of America’s best-known progressive politicians, is not just good — parts of it are inspirational.

Meteoric rise

Since 2019, Omar has served as the U.S. Representative for Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District. The Somalian-born Omar’s meteoric rise (notably, as part of ‘the Squad’, the progressive lawmaker quartet that also includes Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Presley and Rashida Tlaib) has, inevitably, also made her a target for American conservative media outlets and supporters of President Donald Trump — given the current political climate in the country, it’s no wonder that a strong black Muslim woman is seen as a threat.

The opening chapters of the book tell us the story of how the Somalian civil war upended Omar’s life. Alongside her father and brothers she fled to Kenya where the family lived in a refugee camp for four years.

A series of coincidences later, they applied for American citizenship through the United Nations. “Only in America will you ultimately become an American,” Omar’s father (who passed away recently) said.

Combative teenager

Arriving in Arlington, Virginia in 1995, the young Omar was bullied at school because of her hijab. A combative teenager, she got into some fights and “spent a lot of time in detention”.

All that time spent studying in the detention room meant that by 16, Omar became a really good student, graduating from North Dakota State University with a degree in political science.

Unlike a lot of politicians, Omar is straightforward about her failures and vulnerabilities. The language does not have the tell-tale signs that identify the PR-statement-by-proxy. She admits to going through “a Britney Spears-like” breakdown wherein she shaved her head. She’s honest and pragmatic about the challenges of being a young parent who also happens to be absolutely committed to her job. There’s little to no varnish in these revelatory sections and there’s no false modesty either.

‘Overblown’ controversies

There’s a fair bit Omar has to say about the various controversies that have dogged her, most of them ridiculously overblown, like accusations of anti-Semitism that began soon after she commented on the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Omar has made no secret of her pro-Palestine stance, much to the annoyance of both Republicans and Democrats (older Democrats are unabashed Israel supporters, for the most part).

This book, too, contains passages that may be similarly misinterpreted. Like a passage where Omar expresses an admiration for Margaret Thatcher as a strong woman who navigated the male-dominated corridors of power. Even though she prefaces her remarks by distancing herself from Thatcherism, there have been out-of-context quotations already — remarkably, from critics on the Left.

Clearly, Omar attracts both devoted following and flat-out ad hominem criticism. Given her popularity among the new generation of Democratic voters, we’re going to see a lot more of her.

She has proven to be a vocal proponent of free and centralised healthcare, large-scale climate change measures, police reform, tighter gun control legislation and humane immigration policies — all the issues that Republicans hate and older Democrats dilly-dally on, anxious not to upset white centrist voters. The working-class people of America need someone to fight vigorously on their behalf, and Omar is ideally suited for that fight.

This Is What America Looks Like; Ilhan Omar with Rebecca Paley, HarperCollins, ₹1,155 (Kindle price).

The writer and journalist is working on his first book of non-fiction.

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