Amina Akhtar was 4 when she first watched “The Exorcist.” It was a particularly memorable family movie night. But what she remembers most about it — what inspired the fashion-editor-turned-author’s third novel, “Almost Surely Dead,” more than 40 years later — was an exchange during the viewing between her brother and father.
“My brother revealed that the film was based on a true story,” Akhar remembered during a phone interview from her home not far from Sedona, Ariz. She was terrified so her father, whose side of the family has Sufi lineage, sought to reassure her. “He said, ‘That’s okay, honey, I know how to do an exorcism — and we all will be fine.’ And he was dead serious, absolutely dead serious.”
“Almost Surely Dead” owes much to such formative experiences. Out Thursday from Mindy’s Book Studio, actor-writer-producer Mindy Kaling’s publishing and development imprint at Amazon, the genre-fluid novel opens with the attempted murder of its protagonist, pharmacist Dunia Ahmed. Part supernatural thriller, part social commentary, part family saga, it’s also a refashioning of the stereotypical first-generation assimilation narrative, with the help of some magic and insights into Sufism.
What it most has in common with Akhtar’s first two novels, “#FashionVictim” and “Kismet,” is that it’s a book only she could have written. Raised in Texas in a family of five, Akhtar first channeled her bottomless curiosity into a career in journalism. Fresh out of New York University, she became an assistant at Vogue, which launched her through a gantlet of fashion publications as an influential online editor just as legacy brands including the New York Times , Elle and New York magazine, where Akhtar helped develop its vertical the Cut, were investing in their websites.
On her way up through the ranks, Akhtar was the picture of confidence, but inside she was swimming in self-doubt. Her success and unhappiness nourished each other in vicious waves — until the tsunami hit.
In 2013, Akhtar lost the two forces propelling her forward — her job at Elle and her mother, who died of pancreatic cancer. Her confidence shaken, she moved from New York to Sedona to live with her father (as she still does) and left the media world to become, eventually, a novelist. Her first novel, 2018’s “#FashionVictim,” alchemized fashion satire and thriller tropes into an exciting hybrid. Her 2022 followup, “Kismet,” tweaked the trendy wellness-oriented mysticism of Sedona with the help of propulsive suspense and a murder of (occasionally narrating) crows.
It was “Kismet” that caught the attention of Kaling, who was just getting Mindy’s Book Studio up and running when the book came out. Seeking to develop more diverse stories, Kaling had teamed up with Amazon to acquire and publish books through the tech giant’s publishing outfit. (Amazon’s film studio gets the first look at potential adaptations of Mindy’s Books.)
“I felt like [Dunia] was literally a version of me,” Kaling said during a phone call. “I didn’t know I was craving this until I read it, but I am so glad that it exists. I think Amina is incredibly adept at creating worlds that lend themselves to the screen and is so well versed in urbane, witty writing as a former journalist. Her brilliance on the page is 100% her, and I am just a fan who wants other people to love her incredibly stylish writing as much as I do.”
Indeed, Akhtar’s book is more than just a genre amalgamation begging for screen adaptation. She employs the perspectives of Dunia both as a grown-up and at age 5 — recalling family stories about jinn-like spirits — as well as a fictional podcast team investigating Dunia’s disappearance. The supernatural flashback chapters of Dunia’s sleepwalks unpeel the layers of trapped family secrets that land Dunia in her present condition. The true crime podcast and present-day narratives ground us in her day-to-day struggles of trying (and sometimes failing) to be the friend and daughter she yearns to be.
With all the interwoven elements, early readers have taken their pick of favorite parts. The novel’s editor, Megha Parekh, who also worked on “Kismet,” enjoyed the semi-satirical treatment of the current obsession with true crime podcasts.
Alex Segura is in an intimate writers group with Akhtar and Kellye Garrett (all three are part of the Crime Writers of Color network). The friends differ on their own favorite parts (Segura prefers the present-day narration, Garrett the podcast), but they agree that what sets “Almost Surely Dead” apart from (and above) Akhtar’s first two novels is the strong autobiographical cultural element.
“I think Amina did a fantastic job interweaving the supernatural and it felt very natural,” Segura reflected over the phone, “but the family tension in this book is really what resonated with me — how families are both flawed and challenging, but also ours. I think Amina is established but she was also flying a little under the radar; this book is her real breakout, the kind of book that you can tell she’s been working toward.”
All of the dilemmas of the immigrant experience — particularly that of South Asians — are present in the book in ways that feel lived in and deeply personal. There is the weight of professional and cultural expectations for success and assimilation (but not too much of it). There are female friendships that begin as idealistic but turn sour. And there are the details of Dunia’s childhood: the birthday dress “full of frosting and flowers,” her father’s “princess and jinn” secret bedtime stories. At least to this South Asian American, they were as vivid and powerful as any madeleine. Like authors Celeste Ng and Sanjena Sathian, Akhtar manages to shake rather than strangle stereotypes.
It makes perfect sense that someone who had skyrocketed into the assimilated world of journalism and fashion, only to leave it behind and reconnect to the people who mattered most in a mystical landscape, would write a book like this.
“I’m literally out here in the middle of a mountain,” Akhtar says, “where I see wild animals more often than I see people, which is a very different experience than my past life in New York. I joke about how my dad was this ‘super-Pakistani’ dad who told me, ‘You will do this and you will do that’ — no questions asked — but now he is just the complete opposite, my best buddy, my No. 1 fan. I’m grateful I’ve got this time with him because it’s such a whole new wonderful experience for me that I want to write a sitcom about it.”
Fortunately, she has an in with Mindy Kaling.