Wednesday, July 21, 2010

teen girllit special: abdel-fattah, tamaki

#66 Does My Head Look Big In This?, Randa Abdel-Fattah

I probably pounced a little too eagerly on this book because the Internet is always telling me how good it is. It is in principle an excellent story, about a teenage Aussie-Palestinian girl who chooses to wear the hijab to her high school one day, and deals with the consequences of this choice. Along the way, friends are made and lost, issues of race and religion are confronted and resolved, and the protagonist's liberal, loving family are presented at the centre of a broad spectrum of minority Muslim culture, one that ranges from the conservative response to alienation to the frantically assimilationist.

The really interesting stories in this novel exist at those ends of the spectrum in my opinion, but their screen time is considerably diminished as the amazing adventures of our heroine, Amal, take up the bulk of the story and the whole of the point of view. There's a nice edge of the LOLarious Asian diaspora comedy that some TV shows in Britain do so well, but in spite of their setup and Amal's adolescent Facebookese snark, it hardly ever bites. Amal herself is so full of sweetness and light and generally gung-ho, the complexities of being a Muslim woman in the West take on the general cast of a slightly tedious romantic comedy (although without the kissing, since Amal is not paying - cough - mere lip-service to Islamic values of modesty).

Reading it in light of the astounding jackassery currently on display in the Western world with regards to the burqa as a political and politicised garment, it seems like a story more necessary than ever. Perhaps its aggressive cleaving to the middle path and its eagerness to identify Amal as just another teenager - clothes! make-up! boys! grades! - are aimed at presenting the hijab and its wearers just like 'everyone else.' Is that what a woman of colour in the West really is? Just like you, without 'you' being, in any way, just like her? Maybe. As someone who lives in an environment where the othering of the hijab/burqa (or the ghoonghat/headscarf) are often accompanied by their normalising through a kind of invisibility - one that intersects with class and religion as much as with gender - this narrative is a little too alien, both in its sorrows and comforts, to be wholly absorbing. Abdel-Fattah's determinedly cheery blandness does not help.

#67 Skim, Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki

Possibly the best book I've reviewed here all year so far. A stunning graphic novel about Skim - Kimberley Keiko Cameron, Asian-Canadian, fat, talented, in love with an impossible lover - and her coming of age. Describing the printed word with words gives you some purchase; describing a graphic novel as good as this one seems about as impossible as trying to suggest to someone exactly why a great film is great. The sketch-style, grayscale art works beautifully in gathering together the quietness and wonder of Skim's inner life: the text is a superb, spare, mostly interior monologue. Skim herself is a lovely window into a dreaded old enemy: the changing self that is always finding the world too small to hold it. It is a world where we eventually learn that humour and compassion can transform yearning, rather than bury or kill it; a world where we learn what it means to belong, and if we are lucky, to love belonging. Rich and strange, and even more salvaging of the moral and intellectual integrity of the teenage girl as that other great work of visual art, Mean Girls.

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