September 07, 2009

Hey Everyone: Read This Book

Okay, maybe it wouldn't be up everyone's alley. But from a personal standpoint, I feel like I could turn to almost any page in Sheba Karim's debut novel Skunk Girl and find something that makes me want to simultaneously laugh and cry, something that seems oh-so-painfully-familiar from my own upbringing--even though, unlike Karim's protagonist Nina Khan, I only had to deal with a Pakistani Muslim dad, and even then only on selected weekends.

Nevertheless, my point is that there really isn't much (if any) teen literature out there that deals with the quirks of growing up as a Pakistani girl in America, with Muslim parents who are conservative, even restrictive in some ways, but still close and loving. There really isn't a lot of authentic fiction covering that experience, or even a lot of fiction covering general issues that arise from growing up first-generation South Asian. And we need it, during a time that there are a lot of misconceptions arising from lumping together all the world's Muslims into the same negative category.

When you're a teenager, though, a lot of the social interactions and fashion conformism that gets taken for granted by most people are a source of major stress if you have Pakistani parents—clothes that seem innocuous and normal are suddenly immodest and off limits; parties or dances that everyone else can attend are frowned upon and totally out of the question. Forget about having a crush on someone, because you won't get to do anything about it--unless they also happen to be Pakistani and Muslim.

Add to that the increased probability of unwanted body hair, and you've got the story of Nina Khan's life. She's a junior in high school, sometime in the pre-9/11 days, trying to live up to her older college-aged sister's impossibly high example and trying to be a good daughter to her parents—but she was born in the tiny East Coast town of Deer Hook, and has very American sensibilities. Her two best friends, Bridget and Helena, understand her situation—more or less—but it's still hard to watch them go to parties and have boyfriends and do all the American teenager things that Nina's parents won't allow. And then, when handsome Asher Richelli moves to town, Nina finds herself in a tough spot, because Asher seems to like her, too.

It doesn't sound funny. But Nina's voice is so likeable, so self-effacing but hilarious, that you can't help but snicker. The chapter titles alone are priceless: League of the Supernerds, Wild African Ass, Next Stop: Street Hooker, Allah's Gift to the Earth. The "Pakistani prestige point system" was spot on (added points, of course, for being a doctor, lawyer, or engineer, just like my dad always said). The way Islam--everyday Islam, not fanatical news-report Islam—is portrayed is refreshing and authentic, and sure to be an eye-opener to many readers. And I recognized at every turn the issues faced by a first-generation Pakistani-American, whose way of looking at the world is fundamentally different from her parents, who were born overseas. This book covers a lot of meaningful cultural issues at the same time that it makes the reader laugh in recognition at the experiences that are common to every American teenager. I was a bit frustrated by the ending for a few different reasons, but overall I thought this book was truly well-written, fun, and also deep. I wish I'd had this to read as a young adult.

5 comments:

jessjordan said...

I'd never heard of this, but it sounds very interesting. My best friend is Muslim, and, while she didn't grow up under such strict restraints, her Mother did. I've heard many of the stories, and the cultural differences are fascinating. I'll definitely add this to my wishlist :)

Ethel Rohan said...

Thank you for this excellent review, and for insights into a culture I know all too little about in any "real" terms.

Yat-Yee said...

Great review. I understand the difficulties living in a culture quite different from that of your parents, and my kids are having to live it, with totally different details.

tanita davis said...

I've heard good things about this one -- looking forward to it!

adrienne said...

You talked me into it--I'm putting it on hold. I think I'm currently getting about 50% of my reading material ideas from Finding Wonderland. You all should be collecting a fee or something.