Politics

REVIEW: ‘This Is What America Looks Like’ by Rep. Ilhan Omar

"If a writer pitched Rep. Ilhan Omar's life story to a Hollywood producer as a movie, it would likely be rejected as simply too impossible to believe," Dean Obeidallah wrote recently at Salon.

Impossible to believe? Certain aspects of it, sure. Rejected? By Hollywood? Not a chance. Indeed, part of Omar's story was already the subject of an award-winning documentary. Now her full story, in her own words, is available in the form of a memoir for $19.59 on Amazon. Believe it or not, it's a bestseller.

Whereas others, such as Barack Obama, were forced to rely on composite characters, ornate verbosity, and tortured introspection, Omar has the benefit of better source material—the kind that Hollywood producers, Democratic consultants, and journalists can't resist. As a one-term state legislator, for example, she was interviewed by Rachel Maddow on MSNBC and appeared on the cover of Time and in a music video with Maroon 5. Your state legislators probably haven't. Not that you'd even recognize them.

This Is What America Looks Like: My Journey from Refugee to Congresswoman lives up to its title. We live in a country of celebrity state legislators, increasingly obsessed with identity in all its forms, increasingly outraged, prone to violent outbursts, and increasingly likely to view the "legal and social construct" of marriage as "bizarre," in Omar's own words. She had a "Britney Spears-style meltdown." She explains her emotions of being a Muslim after 9/11 by quoting a Netflix "comedy" special. That's what America looks like in 2020.

Omar's memoir is without question one of the most compelling memoirs ever authored by an ambitious politician's ghostwriter. Granted, it's not a competitive category. Omar's early life in particular—fleeing her gated compound in war-ravaged Somalia as a child refugee then finding success and nervous breakdown in America—is undoubtedly dramatic and interesting.

As the book makes clear, Omar has always had a knack for making a scene—usually by way of violent outburst. "There was always a slew of parents coming to our house to complain that I had hurt their children," she writes. Omar's quick temper landed her in detention for "most" of her sixth grade year, when she would start fights "when anyone stared at me," and "usually decided to hit them first, assuming they were going to hit me." Her victims were "mostly boys" and "white kids."

Omar usually ended the fights as well, such as the time she pushed a middle-school boy "up against the wall and wouldn't let go even after he began foaming at the mouth." His offense? Suggesting that another boy had a crush on her. Omar's grandfather used to tell her she was heir to the legacy of Araweelo, an eccentric queen in Somali folklore who "fought to give women power by castrating men," according to the Washington Post.

These days, as a member of Congress, Omar has fewer opportunities to initiate physical confrontations. But her childhood knack for stirring things up has not abated. For example, she wanted to attend President Trump's 2019 State of the Union address in full Islamic attire covering everything but her eyes, only to be dissuaded by staff who "worried I would be arrested by the Secret Service." Trump would have been so owned, though, LOL!

As an elected official, Omar must content herself with dragging the haters on Twitter, occasionally dabbling in anti-Semitism, and urging media outlets not to "fan the flames of hate" by asking her reasonable questions. (They seem to have gotten the message.) She's also not afraid to throw some shade at a fellow "Squad" member—the popular one, no less—with the devastating subtlety of a Mean Girl telling her best frenemy how "unique" she looks in those jeans.

"In the primary, I won my district by more than 20,000 votes over the closest candidate to me in the polls. The race also broke a record for voter turnout in a midterm primary, with 135,318 ballots cast for Democrats," she writes in the book. "The New Yorker compared my stats to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's historic upset in New York's 14th congressional district, which she won by 4,000 votes out of only 28,000 cast. In both districts of roughly a little more than 700,000, it was a good day for democracy."

It's these more recent elements of Omar's story that reflect the absurdity of our politics at the national level. Reading about her time working in state government to repeal outdated ordinances, and before that as a nutrition advocate serving low-income and immigrant families, invites a jarring contrast to the viral shenanigans of The Squad—heavy on media coverage and controversy, light on substantive accomplishment.

Omar is in the news again, as riots have engulfed her hometown of Minneapolis, which she curiously insists is crawling with "tanks." The Squad is regrouping after going all in for socialist candidate Bernie Sanders and losing, in part by trying to raise money off the societal unrest sparked by the police killing of George Floyd.

They will be just fine. Omar's memoir is the product of a compelling story, but also of a shrewd political mind, skilled in the art of public relations, whose first thought after being roughed up at a Somali campaign event was "First I need you to take a picture of my face and tweet it out—that I'm okay," according to the book. Dropping the news of her marriage to a recently divorced campaign consultant, for example, on the craziest coronavirus-related news day was certainly a professional move.

Omar's uniquely American story is one of strength and vulnerability, of struggling to raise a family while attending college, of confronting the demands of motherhood, family expectations, and mental anxiety. Her disdain for the trash-lined streets of New York City is imminently relatable, less so her anguish over the scrutiny that comes with being an international celeb. On some level, even if you disagree with her, it's possible to admire her, in the same way that Omar admires Margaret Thatcher for being a badass bitch. But you don't have to like her, much less elect her president someday.

"After reading her story, even Omar's biggest critics will be unable to deny her principled political commitments, visionary leadership, and profound love for the entire human family," writes former CNN contributor Marc Lamont Hill in praise of Omar's memoir. Hill's CNN contract was terminated after he called for "a free Palestine from the river to the sea."

Omar's critics will find a way, even the lesser ones. Anything else would be devastating to her career. Like most contemporary political celebs, she is beloved for the enemies she's made. She's an outsider ready to change the system. She may lack experience. But she fights.