The Trouble With Towelhead

October 14, 2008 at 3:26 pm 3 comments

Alicia Erian was really swinging for the fences with her first novel. Her 13 year old main character, Jasira, is sexually abused by at least three males in her life, physically abused by her Lebanese father, and psychologically abused by her mother. If an adult has an opportunity to make her feel as if she’s done something wrong, they tend to take it. The book primarily focuses on how the molestation she suffers affects her own natural sexual development, and this is where the problems begin.

The cover Simon and Schuster chose (above) is surprisingly representative of its contents. Uncomfortable, confrontational, and probably pretty exploitative. Not really something you’d want to be caught reading on the subway. The story begins when Jasira’s mother sends her away to live with her dad, because her mother’s boyfriend has a crush on her. Not worried about the pedophile aspect so much, her mother is jealous, and would rather stay with the guy and lose her daughter. Jasira’s father is very conservative, especially when it comes to his daughter’s developing body, and treats her as though she ought to be ashamed. He slaps her around when she angers him, and the violence escalates throughout the novel.

Jasira begins babysitting for the family across the street. The father is an Army reservist and stereotypically racist, but we’ll get to that in a moment. He rapes Jasira and then takes her out for dinner. As a blossoming girl, Jasira loves receiving positive attention from an adult, especially when he makes her feel mature and attractive. Their relationship continues to be sort of a power struggle, especially when she starts dating a boy at school. He’s also 13, but pressures Jasira pretty heavily into sex (who ARE these kids? Where are their PARENTS?) and she agrees. It goes on like this for a while- every adult and male in her life brings her down in some way. It’d be interesting to get a glimpse into the psyche of this girl struggling to be independent against so many obstacles. Unfortunately, Jasira is dumb, shallow, and BORING. The book iis in first person, and there’s not a thought she has which doesn’t revolve around her sexuality in awkwardly naive ways. Occasionally Erian hits upon a small emotional truth, but it’s mostly lost. One gets the impression that she’s read a lot about sexual abuse, and then wanted to cram in pieces of every case study she’s seen. She’s just as guilty of over-sexualizing this girl as the men around her are.

When it comes to racism, Erian’s treatment of the subject is about as subtle as that of Paul Haggis’ 2005 film Crash. That puts it somewhere in between a sledgehammer and a plank with a nail in it. The army reservist accuses Jasira’s father of supporting Sadaam, and calls him a towelhead (hey, that’s the title of this book!) among other slurs.  The irony?  Jasira’s father hates her black boyfriend, and refuses to allow to her to associate with him.  Erian pulls out every cliché in the name of being edgy or extreme, and it all begins to feel very unbelievable.

The thing is, I know there are people who deal with this level of extreme trauma in their lives every day.  They do have to face sexual and psychological abuse, and prejudice, and any other number of obstacles.  I’m sure Erian believes she’s honestly shedding light on these subjects, but in truth, she makes her characters so unlikable that it’s impossible to stir up any empathy.

To Read Instead: The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd.  Yeah, it’s being made into a movie with Queen Latifah, but the book combines sweetness and sorrow really well.  Kidd infuses the 1960’s American South with magical realism while dealing with racism and child abuse far more subtly and effectively than Erian ever does.

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Entry filed under: Betty, Books for Hire. Tags: , , , , , , .

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. parkrangerolivia  |  October 14, 2008 at 3:42 pm

    good call, comparing the secret life of bees to what Erian should have aspired to. Kidd at least hides the violent nature of the times with over-arching themes and powerful personalities…Erian’s book was just an adapted lifetime movie, with a shitty ending (probably). Alan Ball’s an idiot for thinking he can make this shit shine.

    Reply
  • 2. alisaurus  |  October 14, 2008 at 9:56 pm

    you say queen latifah is in it like that’s a bad thing! did you see her amazing portrayal of gwen ifill in the SNL VP debate skit? now that’s acting.

    Reply
  • 3. kelly ross  |  October 19, 2008 at 4:44 pm

    I forgot we live in the land of Home of the Free and Land of the Vote for Them if Theyre Hot

    Reply

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