February 6

‘Is your name Parvana?’

She is only 15, but American authorities suspect she may be more than she first appears – but is Parvana really a terrorist?

Parvana’ Promise is the sequel to Deborah’s Ellis’s Parvana and Parvana’s Journey; books which were inspired by the author’s visit to Pakistan to help at an Afghan refugee camp. They focus on the life struggles of Parvana and her friends and family, as they face the turmoils of daily life under Taliban rule in Afghanistan.

Life as a girl in Afghanistan is particularly challenging. In past books, Parvana disguised herself as a boy in order to support her family, since the Taliban forbids girls working. Education of girls is another forbidden, as highlighted recently in real life, by the shooting of a 14-year-old schoolgirl, Malala Yousafzai, in Pakistan (for daring to oppose its rule and advocating for the right of girls to go to school).

In Parvana’s Promise, Parvana and her mother run a school for girls, and they face lots of dangerous opposition to this. This school is where she is found and apprehended by the US Military, when they bomb the school. From here, Paravana is imprisoned and questioned constantly – but she refuses to utter a word, much to the frustration of her captors.

Parvana’s story moves from the present to the past and back again, as we try to understand why she is remaining totally silent. Her strengths and loyalties shine through, though it is sometimes hard to comprehend that life could really be like this for children around the world. However, through her tale, we catch glimpses of life under Taliban rule which are realistic, given Ellis’s own experiences among Afghan refugees.

Interestingly, Deborah donated the royalties for both Parvana’s Journey and Parvana to ‘Women for Women’ in Afghanistan. A recent interview with Deborah  Ellis  gives an insight into how her books have come about and how she thinks as she writes. It highlights so much how good writing comes from writing about things you really know.

Parvana’s Promise has been criticised for its negative portrayal of both the US military and the Taliban, but Ellis simply wants to focus on the child’s perspective in a dangerous land. What do you think?

May 22

Where The Streets Had A Name: Randa Abdel-Fattah

randaI recall listening to Randa Abdel-Fattah decrying the fact that many books about other cultures are written by those outside the culture. How authentic could such novels be, she asked? She also seemed to indicate that this lead to an urge for her to be the provider of the authentic experience – writing from her heritage from the things she herself knew and understood – as an Australian Muslim of Palestinian and Egyptian heritage.

‘Where the Streets had a name’ certainly meets the criteria Randa has set for authenticity. It reflects her high interest in Palestinian human rights and introduces the average Australian young adult reader to situations of dispossession, the daily struggles of people living with the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, and life under military occupation.

Hayaat, as a young but determined teenager, centres the story, after introducing her family situation and daily events – which can include curfews, rationing and disruptions to normal routines. As her grandmother, Sitti Zeynab  is ailing/dying, she longs for the homeland she knew – before her family was dispossessed and moved to a foreign place. Hayaat commits to bringing to her grandmother, soil from her homeland. While this homeland is physically only a short distance  away, there are many barriers to Hayaat’s mission due to political restraints. But she goes nonetheless, with her Christian friend, Samy, in tow.

To the average Australian teenager such a journey may seem incomprehensible, given the political situation, but with the humour and the silly optimism of Hayaat, Samy and their various encounters, there is much to be considered. And it provides an insight into life in Israeli-occupied Jerusalem – life in ‘an open-air prison’.

As an ‘Australian-born-Muslim-Palestinian-Egyptian’, Randa Abdel-Fattah lives in many worlds. She has always been passionate about Palestinian human rights campaigns due to her heritage. Her work as a lawyer is intricately combined with her authorship, and she is often called upon to talk about all of these things. A visit to father’s birthplace, Palestine, in 2000 inspired this book, as the tale of her grandmother’s own dispossession became clearer to her. 

There is lots to be learnt from this tale, as Randa grounds it in her in own life story. In her (first) book dedication, she states:

To my Grandmother Sitti Jamilah, who passed away on 24th April, 2008, aged 98. I had hoped that you would live to see this book and that you would be allowed to touch the soil of your homeland again. It is my consolation that you died surrounded by my father and family and friends who cherished you. May you rest in peace. And to my father-May you see a free Palestine in your lifetime.

While this indicates the heart with which Randa has written the book, it also gives hint to the urge she has to present realistic  reflection of life as a Muslim in the global  world today. One reviewer hoped that it would help young readers to:

‘grasp the seemingly endless turmoil of the occupied West Bank and Israel’ and ‘help adults grasp the ridiculous realities of insult constantly faced by residents of occupied Palestine’.  Naomi Shihab Nye, Wisdom and laughter in a child’s view of Palestine.The Electronic Intifada, 10 December 2008 Sourced from: http://electronicintifada.net/v2/article10011.shtml

For more about what inspired Randa Abdel-Fattah to write this and her previous books, ‘Does My Head Look Big in this?’ and ‘Ten Things I Hate About Me’, visit her web site FAQ page: http://www.randaabdelfattah.com/faqs.html

Do you think it is important for people to write what they really know? or can an author complete a certain amount of research to write an authetic novel?

October 22

Alek by Alek Wek

Alek_25Sudanese. Poor. Dinka girl in a hostile homeland. Awkward and suffering. This was Alek.

Her tale is written here in ‘Alek, the Extraordinary Life of a Sudanese Refugee’, and reveals what a journey she has had to her current world, now as a  supermodel. She was not discovered in the bushlands of Sudan, as is often suggested in the media, but struggled to adapt to a new world in London as a refugee.

There is much to be learnt from Alek’s story. It is a powerful insight to the strife and troubles faced in Sudan, due to civil war which killed nearly 2 million people, and unrest and power plays which continue today. Her family were poor survivors, headed by parents who were accustomed to life on the run.

At the age of six, Alek and her family fled their home village, Wau, in fear of the rising incidents of fighting and the accusations that the Dinka people were to blame for the conflict. With their sparse possessions, they left on foot to traverse the countryside to the shabby home village of relatives, who were even worse off than the Wek family. Interesting aspects of kinship and support are woven through the story, and the fragile status of refugees is also clearly reflected.

Another element which pervades Alek’s tale is the strength of her parents as they try to to their best for nine children, in a war torn country empty of hope. Escape becomes essential for survival, and it is only through familial links in Khartoum and finally London, that Alek gets her chance. For her father, suffering bad healing of a broken hip and consequent infection, escape to Khartoum, though achieved, came too late.

Life in London is by no means ideal for Alek, but with the absence of civil war, she works hard to support herself at her sister’s home, and to bring the rest of her family there. Conditions are far better for her health here, and her strong will and work ethic steel her against the racism she experiences, and her ‘exotic’  beauty is uncovered.

Alek’s tale is not an easy one. It reflects many cultural issues; the need for family, the strength of family values, the ties to a homeland, the struggle to survive,  and the blind acceptance of stereotypes. It also brings hope – for those who remain behind, as Alek has been able to bring attention to the plight of those left behind in her homeland, Sudan.

There are many thought provoking ideas in this book, and many challenges to the affluent westerner. Read it, and see what you think.

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May 31

Frida: Chosen to die, Destined to live

In a night of horror, after weeks of fear, Frida’s family was slaughtered. With her family at the time of terror, Frida somehow survived, in spite of vicious injuries. Left alone, with horrific memories of the massacres which occurred in Rwanda in the 1994 persecutions, Frida not only survived but became a strong advocate for healing her troubled nation.

The details in this story, tragically, are very real. They explore the gradual deterioration of village friendships and neighbourhood networks at the time of racial conflict present in Rwanda in 1994. Told from the perspective of one who was there as a child, the story shows how invasive, manufactured, cultural differences can corrupt a society.

‘Between April and June 1994, an estimated 800,000 Rwandans were killed in the space of 100 days. Most of the dead were Tutsis – and most of those who perpetrated the violence were Hutus.’ BBC report, Rwanda: How the genocide happened, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/1288230.stm

 

Frida witnessed the massacre of her whole family, and somehow, miraculously survived herself. This is her story – one of numbness, anger, then determination. Why she survived and what she achieved as a result fill the pages of ‘Frida’ – a book that hard to read but worth the struggle to understand.