Monday, October 6, 2008

Growing Up Different (Books Reviews)

I've been in love with post-colonial literature and books about people who feel out of place in society-in-general for a long time. When they are written by/about girls and women, it just happens to be the cherry on the sundae for me. Recently I've read two books along this vein that moved me more than a book has affected me for a while (which I why I also haven't been blogging much about books lately). Both are written by women whose ethnicities aren't the "normal" for their country and how that affected their personal growth and development.

Bento Box in the Heartland: My Japanese Girlhood in Whitebread America by Linda Furiya is called a "food memoir" because all of the stories she tells use the Asian foods she and her family ate to expose how different it made them from everyone else in the small Indiana town she grew up in. Linda takes us through learning to deal with ethnic slurs on the playground, accepting that her friends might be excited to learn about her cultural heritage, how her family kept up their supply of Japanese cooking necessities, her growing interest in Japan and her visit to family there, her first interaction with another Asian family in town, learning to deal with creepy old men and much more. It's incredible how she manages to tell so much about her life, always centering it on the ritual and customs of food preparation and sharing a meal with friends and family. Here's one of my favorite parts:

We sat there a long while before I asked him why we were the only Japanese family within a thirty-mile radius. He gave a surprised grunt but didn't respond, instead letting the crickets fill the silence.

"Let me tell you a story," Dad said in English, abruptly and loud, the way people begin to talk when they've already started the conversation in their heads. Then he switched to Japanese.

"A long time ago in Japan there were two daimyo."
I knew that a daimyo was a feudal warlord in Japanese history, but Dad emphasized their great power at the time of his story by telling me that they possessed armies of samurai warriors and houses full of wives and concubines.

"Today there are no more daimyo." Dad cleared his throat and looked thoughtful for a moment.
"This was four or fivce centuries ago, with many civil wars and constant fighting across the countryside. Our family, the Furiyas, came from one of these kingdoms. Our biggest battle was not about politics, land, or farmers - the reason for many of these was - but about the heart."

I was conscious of the way I sat straighter when my father mentioned our family name in such a majestic context. He noticed and continued in a stronger tone of voice.

"Our ancestral father's castle was surrounded by Japnese maple trees... In the next village lived the Maruyama clan, a name that means 'round mountain.' The warlord of this clan wanted to marry a beautiful maiden, but she was already secretly in love with our forefather Furiya, also a warlord... Both daimyo were willing to go to war to win her. They made a foolish pact that whoever lost would be exiled forever, a fate worse than death in the old days," Dad explained. ...

"Their two-year battle killed an entire generation of villagers and scarred the countryside. It destroyed all the beautiful Japanese maple trees. In the end only one castle remained standing: the house of Maruyama." Dad paused, lowered his head for effect, took a swig of beer, and then stifled a belch.

"The loser had to live our the rest o his life in exile, as agreed. In the public square, Maruyama broke our forefather's sword at the hilt to show his defeat to the world. The Maruyama clan chased Furiya out of the kingdon and gave him only a bow and arrow to survive in the wilderness. ...

"Months passed and Furiya lived. One day a farmer approached him to find out what this stranger was doing on his property. When he was close enough, the farmer saw the tattered garb of royalty beneath the peasant's straw cape and he knew he was in the precense of a warlord. The farmer watched as Furiya withdew an arrow, the last one in his quiver. Before he sent the arrow into flight, he looked the farmer in the eye and vowed to rebuild his kingdom where the arrow landed. The arrow fell from view into the horizon. The farmer watched Furiya without another word walk toward the arrow until he too seemed to drop over the edge of the sky. And that was the last anyone saw of him." ...

As with my mother's fish bone story, I realized that my father was trying to tell me something in a roundabout way, but impatience got the best of me. Exasperated, I sighed, "But that doesn't tell me why we ended up here. Why did you move here?" ...
Turning to me, no longer storyteller but soothsayer, he said "Be proud of your name. Remember Furiya means 'falling arrow.' Someday you will also shoot and follow your arrow." He touched a finger to the place where we sat. "My arrow, it landed here."
Linda's style is elegant and literary in the best of ways. The stories of her childhood have another level of interest for me in that they're also describing an America before my time. This book will make you think, make you laugh and maybe even change the way you approach how and what you eat.

In a somewhat totally different vein, Randa Abdel-Fattah's Does This My Head Look Big in This? examines an Australian-Palastinian Muslim girl who actually can get by looking "normal" with her light skin and blue eyes. But when she decides half-way into her junior year in high school to start wearing the hijab (Muslim head scarf) full-time. This book really messed with my assumptions about Muslim women (which was awesome) and incredibly also addressed other issues including miscarriage, national tragedies, pop culture, respect for the beliefs of others, being religious in a secular society, as well as a whole shit load of average teenage stuff like crushes and parties.

The style of this book is written much more like a chatty girl-talk or a very detailed diary, and Randa's own experiences seem to come through her fictional protagonist quite powerfully. Here is her description of Jamila's first time wearing the hijab out in public:
I'm walking around the stores as if I'm in combat mode, avoiding eye contact with other people and waiting for something to happen. But as I browse through the stores I realize how uncomforable and irrational I'm acting because it feels like most people really couldn't care less. I mean, sure there's staring, but it's not enough to rate in my fears list. There are the occasional goggle-eyes but most people give me the once-over top to bottom, which I can deal with. I'm just one more late-night shopper, one more person to bump shoulders with, negotiate a crowded line with. My mother gets this. She walks and talks as though she doesn't even realize she's wearing the hijab. It makes me feel kind of protected because she's so confident and dignified. I wonder how long it will take me to feel and act this way.

While I'm walking through the food court I pass three women who are all wearing the hijab. They're huddled around a table, talking and eating ice cream. One of them catches my eye and smiles.
"Assalamu Alaykom," she says, greeting me with the universal Islamic greeting, peace be upon you.
"Walaykom Wassalam," I reply, smiling back at her. The other two girls also greet me and I reply and they all smile warmly at me. They go back to their conversation and I walk off with a big grin because it is now that I think I begin to understand that there's more to this hijab than the whole modesty thing. These girls are strangers to me but I know that we all felt an amazing connection, a sense that this cloth binds us in some kind of universal sisterhood.

I lie in bed that night and replay the scene over and over in my head. I'm experiencing a new identity, a new expression of who I am on the inside, but I know that I'm not alone. I'm not breaking new ground. I'm sharing something with millions of other women around the world and it feels so exciting. I know some people might find it hard to believe but walking around the mall tonight I'd never felt so free and sure of who I am. I felt safe from people judging me and making assumptions about my character from the length of my skirt or the size of my bra. I felt protected from all the crap about beauty and image. As scared as I was walking around the stores in the hijab, I was also experiencing a feeling of empowerment and freedom. I know I have a long ways to go. I still dressed to impressed and I took ages to get my makeup, clothes, and hijab just right. But I didn't feel I was compromising myself by wanting to make an impression. I was looking and feeling good on my own terms, and boy did that feel awesome.
A lot of the author's feelings about her experience are some I've felt myself when I decided to shave my head and when I made a conscious choice to make my wardrobe far more "girly" than it'd been in years. It was amazing how much we had in common. This book was so much more moving than I expected; I'd highly recommend it.

Related posts:
Reaction Shots
Skirting the Issue: Fashion and Fetish
Becoming a Mysterious Lady

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Joe Pontillo said...

Please tell me you've read and/or seen "Persepolis..."

May said...

Nu uh...