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Literature
 
Sex, Racism and Adolescence During Wartime
By Diana Whiteside

   
 
Book Review:
 
Towelhead
 
Alicia Erian
Simon & Schuster
336 pages
$22 hardcover

 
   

"My mother’s boyfriend got a crush on me, so she sent me to live with Daddy. I didn’t want to live with Daddy. He had a weird accent and came from Lebanon.” So begins Alicia Erian’s Towelhead.

The author’s debut novel tells the story of a confused 13-year-old girl sent to live with her oppressive father in Houston, only to find more confusion about her growing sexuality—and another man who is a little too willing to help her figure it out. This novel is a sometimes funny and always cynical story of a teenager growing up in America—with the added difficulties of having cross-cultural and emotionally imbecilic parents.

Alan Ball—creator of “Six Feet Under” and screenwriter of “American Beauty”—bought the rights to adapt this novel before it was even published. It’s easy to see what drew him to the story. Erian’s sardonic depiction of the American experience is similar to Ball’s own dark and often hilarious perspective. She expertly amplifies the absurdities in the human condition, especially regarding familial relationships. One can’t help but laugh—while crying—at the silly emotional torture the characters inflict on one another.

The novel follows Jasira as she attempts to navigate her way through the jungle of adolescence while receiving a myriad of mixed messages from the adults in her life. Her father is domineering yet emotionally distant and her mother only reaches out to her daughter when she herself is lonely. Thus Jasira is left to look elsewhere for affection and finds it—for better or worse. More than one character is quick to exploit her craving for companionship and naïve sexual curiosity.

The story takes place against the backdrop of the 1991 U.S. invasion of Iraq, so Jasira’s other problems are compounded because she’s a “Towelhead.” While she doesn’t understand exactly what’s going on in Iraq, or know anything about her father’s culture, Jasira suddenly finds that she is a second citizen at her Junior high. Not only is she the new student, she is also the enemy. When she finally meets a boy who wants to be her friend, her father finds out and immediately tries to put a stop to it. As it turns out, he has some racial hang-ups of his own.

The narrative lags in spots but is overall still a very compelling story. Because the story is told through Jasira’s eyes, the language is very simplistic and doesn’t always convey the emotional complexity in the young girl’s life. Though it is sometimes interesting trying to decipher her thoughts and create a clearer picture of her world, it’s often just tedious. Writers too often underestimate their subjects when writing in the voice of a child or adolescent.

But although this isn’t a spectacular piece of fiction, it is an impressive first novel by a promising young author. I also have high hopes for the movie—with Ball penning the screenplay, something unforgettable could come out of it.

diana[at]saltshakermagazine.com

 

 
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