Suzanne Fisher Staples 1945–
Suzanne Fisher Staples 1945–INTRODUCTION
American author of young adult novels.
The following entry presents an overview of Staples's career through 2008. For further information on her life and career, see CLR, Volume 60.
A former international reporter stationed in South Asia, Staples has brought her unique cultural understanding of the region to a series of young adult novels that accurately depict a part of the world infrequently identified in Western children's literature. Her first book, Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind (1989)—about a Pakistani girl rebelling against an arranged marriage—earned her a Newbery Honor Book citation, a rare honor for a first-time author. Now the author of seven books, Staples has received strong critical word-of-mouth for her Asian-set novels, particularly for their realism, dynamism, and attempts to highlight a region sorely neglected and rarely represented in modern young adult literature. Though Staples's intense subject matter may be potentially difficult for some teen readers, her novels offer thoughtful and globally-relevant examinations of the beauty and harsh realities of life in Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan.
Staples was born on August 27, 1945, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to Robert Charles and Helen Brittain Fisher. Raised in a rural portion of Northeastern Pennsylvania with her three siblings, as a child, she dreamed of travelling the world. Upon her graduation from Keystone and Cedar Crest Colleges, she initially took a position as a reporter with a small paper in Colorado and married Nicholas Green in 1967, though the couple would later divorce. Green worked for the Ford Foundation's Asian division, and Staples found work in Hong Kong with the Business International Corporation as their Asia marketing director. She then found work with the United Press International (UPI) news agency in 1976 in their New York and Washington offices. Jumping at the chance to take a foreign news posting, she moved to the UPI's Hong Kong bureau, eventually becoming the chief of UPI's South Asia bureau in New Delhi, India, where she headed the station's handling of events in the tumultuous region, which includes India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Afghanistan. During her time there, Staples reported on the Afghanistan invasion by the Soviet Union, traveled the Indian subcontinent by Indira Gandhi's side, and saw firsthand the destruction wrought by the Chinese Cultural Revolution. After thirteen years—a period during which she was married to teacher Eugene Staples in 1980—she returned to the United States, agreeing to a position as a part-time foreign desk editor with the Washington Post in 1983. However, her abiding fondness for Asia remained, and she eagerly accepted an opportunity to return when the U.S. Agency for International Development offered her a chance to work with their program. Sent to the Cholistan Desert in Pakistan, she spent two years learning the local culture and helping the native peoples with nutrition and health issues while teaching the local women to read. Over the course of the project, she immersed herself in their culture, learning the Urdu language and donning the clothes of the local women. She also listened to their stories, which eventually became the basis for her first novel Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind. After returning to the United States in 1987, Staples passed the manuscript of Shabanu to an author friend, David Finkelstein, through whom the book landed in the hands of editor Frances Foster at Knopf. The book was a critical success, winning a Newbery Honor Award winner in 1990. In 1992 her marriage to Eugene Staples ended, though she was later remarried to Wayne Harley. Staples has continued to publish young adult novels following the release of Shabanu and has continued to travel throughout South Asia, visiting Bahrain, Abu Dhabi, and Dubai in 2007.
Staples's debut novel for young adults, Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind, tells the story of a spirited young nomadic girl who lives in the Cholistan desert in Pakistan. Though she is perfectly happy to tend to her beloved band of camels, twelve-year-old Shabanu soon finds herself unwillingly betrothed to an older man of her parents' choosing. A series of unfortunate occurrences present her with the opportunity to choose between this arranged marriage to a wealthy landowner—who already has three wives—which would bring peace to her family, and her independence. Staples continues Shabanu's story in Haveli (1993), a novel that takes its name from the home where Shabanu takes shelter from her tumultuous life. Picking up Shabanu's story six years after the earlier story ended, Staples explores the intrigues among the four wives of the aging Rahim. The youngest, the most beautiful, and the least-cultured of the wives, Shabanu falls prey to the scheming of the elder wives and must use all her wits to protect herself and her young daughter, Mumtaz. Ever the idealist, Shabanu also seeks to protect her best friend from an arranged marriage to her husband's mentally-deficient son. As the intricate plot unwinds, Shabanu loses both her husband and her friend to violent deaths and falls in love with Omar, a relative of her husband who has returned from the United States. Staples continues the story of Shabanu in The House of Djinn (2008), following Mumtaz who is now living with her father's family and is consumed by loneliness. Her only confidants are her family's beloved matriarch, Baba, and her American cousin Jameel; however, their relationship is complicated when it is revealed that their families have decided on an arranged marriage between Jameel and Mumtaz.
In Dangerous Skies (1996), Staples turned her attention to the racism that continues to pervade a small town on the shore of Virginia's Chesapeake Bay. Two twelve-year-old friends, white male Buck and African-American female Tunes, find the body of their older friend Jorge Rodrigues floating in a creek. The friends suspect Jumbo Rawlins, a respected white landowner, but, when Jumbo implicates Tunes in the murder, the friends are brought face-to-face with the different worlds they inhabit. Fearing that her word won't be trusted against the word of a white man, Tunes flees, and Buck comes to question whom he should trust, his longtime friend or the family who advises him to stay clear of Tunes. Shiva's Fire, which was published in 2000, is set in southern India and tells the tale of Parvati, a young girl who is a talented dancer. As she devotes herself to her dance studies at a famous dance school, Parvati must make sacrifices and begins to question her true destiny, or the Hindu concept of "dharma." The Green Dog: A Mostly True Story (2003) is a fictionalized memoir based, in part, on Staples's own youth. In the whimsical tale, a young girl named Suzanne spends her days dreaming of an imaginary dog named Jeff, the pet she desperately wants, but cannot have due to her brother's allergies. However, one day, a dog that matches Jeff's imagined appearance exactly turns up on Suzanne's doorstep. Suzanne convinces her parents to let her keep Jeff in a trial basis, and the girl and her dog spend the summer together, with Suzanne constantly having to rein in Jeff's trouble-making nature. Under the Persimmon Sky (2005) examines the effects of the United States' invasion of Afghanistan upon a girl named Najmah, whose mother and brother are killed in a American bombing raid, and whose father and older brother have been conscripted by the Taliban to fight the Americans. A potentially controversial subject, the story attempts to present the story of Najmah's attempts to free her remaining family from the Taliban without coloring the subject with condemnations of the politics involved in her country's devastation.
Staples's canon has been generally praised for its factual presentation of a global region with few companion examples within modern Western children's literature. In reviewing Haveli, noted author Robert Cormier has praised Staples's efforts, saying that, "In language that both soars and sings, Suzanne Fisher Staples makes vibrant an exotic world, but be warned: she may just pierce your heart at the same time." While her works tackle difficult and ambiguous moral questions that some might find inappropriate for young readers, reviewers have noted that the complexity and strong emotional content of Staples's novels make them both attractive and relevant to teenaged audiences. Discussing Under the Persimmon Tree, Heather Hoyt has argued that Staples "has written a remarkably realistic and balanced book from the perspective of an adolescent Afghan girl and an American woman … The novel is a captivating, beautifully crafted story, as well as a balanced, candid illustration of the impact of post-September 11 reactions and consequences or the Afghan people and Americans who wish to help." Similarly, Susan P. Bloom has generally applauded Staples depiction of Indian life in Shiva's Fire, stating that, "creating a place that is exotic yet absolutely real despite the uneven pace and occasional awkward sentence, this is a memorable novel about a fascinating place and mythology." However, Staples has attracted some controversy with certain critics faulting her ability as a Caucasian Western author to truthfully write about South Asian cultural issues. For example, Daniyal Mueenuddin, a New York Times Book Review critic raised in Pakistan, has suggested that, despite Staples's good intentions, Haveli "exaggerates and naively caricatures the people and the society," ultimately creating a flawed presentation of Pakistani culture.
Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind (young adult novel) 1989
Haveli (young adult novel) 1993
Dangerous Skies (young adult novel) 1996
Shiva's Fire (young adult novel) 2000
The Green Dog: A Mostly True Story (young adult novel) 2003
Under the Persimmon Tree (young adult novel) 2005
The House of Djinn (young adult novel) 2008
Suzanne Fisher Staples and Lynda Brill Comerfield (essay date 14 February 2000)
SOURCE: Staples, Suzanne Fisher, and Lynda Brill Comerfield. "Under Eastern Skies." Publishers Weekly 247, no. 7 (14 February 2000): 168-69.
[In the following interview, Staples discusses her personal background and her writing career.]
"She has no trouble finding her way around the Cholistan desert, but she can't figure out the streets of Harrisburg, Pa.," Suzanne Fisher Staples murmurs, poking fun at herself. There is a twinkle in her eye and a hint of a smile on her face, so it's obvious that she is not too upset about spending most of the evening lost in Pennsylvania's capital city, where she agreed to be interviewed by PW.
The writer, who has traveled and lived all over the world, now resides in Chattanooga, Tenn., where her husband works for an architectural supply company. Once every six weeks, however, she returns to her home state of Pennsylvania to visit her 81-year-old parents at their retirement community in Elizabeth-town, about 20 minutes southeast of the capital. Being temporarily disoriented in a new place (and later discovering that her parents' car, which she had driven into the city, was locked up inside a parking garage) does not ruffle the worldly writer. Tall, slender and good-natured, She meets opportunities to explore new territory with the same sense of adventure that she conveys in her YA novels, which range over more exotic ground than Harrisburg.
Three out of Staples's four books are set in southern Asia, where she was assigned to work as a UPI correspondent for 13 years in the 1970s and '80s. Her latest work, Shiva's Fire (FSG/Foster) due out in April, tells the story of a mystical Indian child, Parvati, whose birth coincides with the worst tornado her village has ever endured. Extremely talented as a dancer, and infinitely wise, Parvati follows her "dharma," or "true destiny," by leaving her beloved family to attend a famous dance school.
Staples's first two novels, the Newbery Honor book Shabanu (pronounced shah-BAH-noo; Knopf, 1989) and its sequel, Haveli (hah-VA-lee; Knopf, 1993), are set in nearby Pakistan and trace the struggles of a young woman reluctantly entering an arranged marriage. The first book focuses on the heroine's childhood as a nomad. Free-spirited Shabanu loves tending her father's herd of camels while her older, more domestic sister, Phulan, would rather stay indoors learning the tasks that will make her a "good" wife. Haveli is set several years later and encapsulates Shabanu's feelings of entrapment after she weds a wealthy landowner with three other wives, all of whom are jealous of Shabanu's beauty and youth. Dangerous Skies, the author's only book with an American setting, was published by FSG/Foster in 1996.
Possessing a reporter's eye for detail, Staples gives an "insider's" view of Asian culture without imposing judgment or injecting American values. "Shiva's Fire required a tremendous amount of research and two trips back to southern Asia," she says. Not only did she go to a renowned dance school in India to observe the practices of young dancers both inside and outside the studio, but she also visited a religious leader, who shared religious stories, ancient legends and principles of Hinduism. While the connective tissue of her novels is purely fiction, most of the images and characters come from true experiences. "My books are made up of real stories about real people," the author emphasizes, citing the inspiration for a tiger attack scene in Shiva's Fire.
"I was in northern India riding through the jungle on an elephant with two friends and their two daughters as we came across a beautiful tigress sitting atop a rock," the author says. "We didn't realize that we were walking between her and her babies. The tigress leapt on to the elephant's trunk and climbed all the way up to his forehead, so that she was face to face with the driver." Staples was "terrified," but seizing the opportunity to capture the dramatic moment, she had the presence of mind to grab her camera.
PW had the chance to see a photo of the lunging beast the day after the Harrisburg interview, when Staples gave a slide presentation about her books and travels at her parents' retirement community. Most of the slides could be illustrations for her books, depicting other memorable characters and scenes. Pictures of India relate to Shiva's Fire ; pictures of America's southeastern shoreline bring to life settings from Dangerous Skies ; slides of Pakistan evoke aspects of Shabanu and Haveli. One of the most haunting portraits is of a strikingly beautiful girl with an impish grin and dark, mysterious eyes. She is the 13-year-old after whom Staples modeled her first protagonist. "Although she was of age, this girl had no desire to get married," says Staples, explaining that this girl's independent-minded grandmother (like Shabanu's beloved Aunt Sharma) was forced to live a hermit's existence for leaving a husband who "beat her regularly."
Although the marriages of Asian women are not always happy matches in her books, Staples is not necessarily critical of parents choosing partners for their children. Like her perspective on many other traditional customs, her view on this issue is broad-minded. During her travels, Staples began to see the world through the eyes of others and, at the same time, came to understand why American practices are often judged so harshly by outsiders. She could, for instance, see how bizarre the American concept of dating seemed to Asians when a woman asked her "if it was true that American children were sent out to do the most important job of their life—finding someone to live with—alone, without the benefit of experience, age and people who love them." While living overseas, Staples found herself spending a lot of time explaining and "sort of apologizing for" American behaviors.
Staples's openness and adaptability led her to be readily accepted by Pakistanis and Indians, who, Staples points out, are "very hospitable" people. While working as a reporter, she traveled with Indira Gandhi ("bumping along the road with her as she campaigned for her second term as prime minister"), met Chinese refugees who were persecuted during the Cultural Revolution and watched boys "as young as 10, 11 and 12" going off to war alongside their fathers.
A few years later, when she was invited to take part in a women's literacy project in Pakistan, Staples lived with a family in a small village. One of her favorite parts of the experience was sharing their evening ritual of telling stories around a fire. She recorded many of the tales in notebooks and, in fact, had gathered most of her material for Shabanu before returning to America to work at the Washington Post.
Staples experienced less culture shock in Asia than she did upon her reentry into the States in the mid-'80s. "I felt like I'd been away a long, long time," she recalls. "There were a lot of changes. The cars looked really weird, and everyone had gone to using computers on a regular basis. I was amazed by how frivolous Americans seemed. There seemed to be a lot of gossiping and backbiting going on. People would ask me about Asia, but they did not seem to comprehend what I told them. Their eyes would start glazing over when I tried to explain things that had happened to me."
THE FRUITS OF TRAVEL
It was when she was in Washington, D.C., that Staples began "making up scenes" from the stories in her notebooks. She attended a writers' workshop at the Washington Writers' Center, but found the class to be more "confusing" than helpful. "I finally decided that the only way to write a novel was to dive right in," says Staples, who revised her writing as she went along. As would be the case with all her works, Shabanu took three years to complete. When it was finished, a writer friend, David Finkelstein, encouraged her to send it to his agent, Jeanne Drewsen, who in turn sent it to Frances Foster at Knopf. Although Staples had to "wait a while" for Foster to read her manuscript, she was rewarded for her patience and she has worked exclusively with Foster ever since the editor accepted Shabanu. "I hope Frances lives forever! We have a wonderful relationship," says Staples, who feels flattered that people sometimes mistake her for Foster's sister.
Shabanu won a Newbery Honor award in 1990. Staples was thrilled by the prize, but also somewhat intimidated, for she felt pressured to produce other novels of the same caliber. "Sometimes I believed that my success was just a fluke," she confides. "But now I feel more confident that if I run into a problem-and sometimes I do get a block—that I'll be able to solve it."
Reassuringly, Staples's second novel, Haveli, was also well received, although one Asian-American reviewer criticized her for taking her characters' problems "too seriously." According to Staples, his view has been mirrored by a few other Asians anxious to promote their countries' modernization, who express some bitterness over her books' graphic depiction of poverty and primitive lifestyles. Once, Staples was even harassed by a Pakistani woman angered by Staples's novels. After passing out protest pamphlets and accosting Staples at lectures, the woman finally tearfully exclaimed, "I should have written that book!"
Staples's third novel, Dangerous Skies, marked a dramatic transition in the author's personal life as well as in her subject matter. Having just moved to the Chesapeake Bay area, Staples wanted to "make sense" out of all her "feelings of dislocation." The culture shock she had experienced upon her return to America was now magnified, as she felt very much an outsider among people "who were shore born and bred." She did, however, develop a friendship with two neighboring boys (one white and one African-American) who eventually became models for her characters Tunes and Buck, two children whose lives are deeply affected by their elders' prejudices. Before the publication of Dangerous Skies, Staples went through several more upheavals, including divorce from her first husband (whom she had met in Pakistan), yet another move (this time to New York City) and the news that her editor was leaving Knopf. The author, now working full time as a novelist, also had financial worries. Life in New York City was not entirely grim for Staples, however. She enjoyed reuniting with old friends, rekindled her romance with a college sweetheart (Wayne Harley, to whom she is now married) and changed publishing houses with Foster when the editor started her own imprint at Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
For someone who has endured so much upheaval in her life, Staples is remarkably even-keeled. Whether she is thanking a helpful stranger (like the one who opened the locked Harrisburg parking garage, releasing her parents' car), responding to questions from elderly people at the retirement community or giggling over life's little absurdities with an interviewer she has only known a few hours, she radiates a sincere interest in and respect for other people. A "terrible daydreamer" as a child, Staples shows her quieter, more poetic side most eloquently in Shiva's Fire. The book smoothly links Hindu mythology with protagonist Parvati's spiritual journey, and Staples expresses cycles of destruction and rebirth in allegorical terms.
Now in her 50s, Staples continues to strike out in fresh directions as a writer. She speaks enthusiastically about her current project: a novel about a girl soccer player from a "highly dysfunctional" family. (The idea came from her husband's experiences as a volunteer soccer coach.) Though it unfolds worlds away from southern Asia, the new novel has at least one thing in common with the writer's previous books. "I thought that this would be a fairly simple project," says Staples. "But," she adds, smiling sheepishly, "it's turning into something quite complex."
Ellen Butler Donovan (essay date spring 2007)
SOURCE: Donovan, Ellen Butler. "Disorienting Reading." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 32, no. 1 (spring 2007): 29-46.
[In the following essay, Donovan suggests that Staples's Pakistani-set young adult novels are not "bridge texts" to a foreign culture, but rather "disorderly" readings meant to challenge readers' assumptions.]
A descent into the swirl of particular incident, particular politics, particular voices, particular traditions, and particular arguments, a movement across the grain of difference and along the lines of dispute, is indeed disorienting and spoils the prospect of abiding order.
—Clifford Geertz, "Which Way to Mecca," New York Review of Books, 12 June 2003.
When Suzanne Fisher Staples wrote Shabanu, Daughter of the Wind (1989) and its sequel Haveli (1993), she was moving into sparsely settled territory in American publishing for children. Searches of the Comprehensive Children's Literature Database, Books in Print, and World Cat reveal that only eleven books for children and a series of educational readers featuring Pakistan and/or Pakistani cultures were published between 1980 and 1999 in the United States. The fictional titles are all picture books rather than novels for older children, and only one of those pic- ture books, Roses in My Carpet (1998), by Rukhsana Kahn and illustrated by Ronald Himler, portrays contemporary events in Pakistan. Even that book focuses on an Afghani, rather than Pakistani, central character. The nonfiction titles published during the time period divide evenly between general introductions to the culture and geography of the country and focused examinations of child labor and child slavery, which feature particularly Iqbal Masih who, as a child, advocated for the human rights of children in Pakistan and was murdered. This paucity of books about Pakistan for American children during the 1980s and 1990s, when Staples was writing her own novels, meant she could not assume that her readers would know much about the culture, geography, or modes of living in Pakistan. Consequently, Shabanu and Haveli offer particularly useful examples of the kinds of complexities involved in cross-cultural novels—that is, novels that seek to represent an unfamiliar culture to readers.
The risks associated with cross-cultural representation can be numerous. For the past three decades postcolonial critics such as Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak, and Mary Louise Pratt have documented the ways that cultures are represented by Western writers, often to the detriment of the non-Western culture. The analyses took a particularly personal turn in the 1990s as children's literature scholars defending post-colonial and multicultural authors in the United States sought to protect the publishing space of minority writers. Critics were especially skeptical that a cultural outsider could convincingly represent another culture. Staples was swept up in these concerns, and in multiple interviews and essays she described her compositional practices and successfully defended her authority to write about the nomads of the Cholistan Desert.1 But a novelist's thorough knowledge of the represented culture is the prelude to an act of representation. As Edward Said argues in Orientalism, who makes the representation is less important than the representation itself and the ways the representation transforms the reality for the author's culture: "The problem is not that conversion takes place. It is perfectly natural for the human mind to resist the assault on it of untreated strangeness; therefore cultures have always been inclined to impose complete transformations on other cultures, receiving these cultures not as they are but as, for the benefit of the receiver, they ought to be" (67). Thus, a second risk associated with cross-cultural representation is that the writer who shares with the reader a culture, habits of mind, a semiology, etc., may inadvertently misrepresent the unfamiliar by using conventions and ideas common to them both. Conversely, if the writer prompts readers to move outside of conventional patterns of seeing the world, she risks confusing readers. Reed Way Dasenbrock gives readers the responsibility to unravel unusual ideas or information, arguing that "ready intelligibility is not always what the writer is striving for" (11). Furthermore, Dasenbrook contends that a reader of multicultural literature should expect some level of confusion, else the work is not likely to be truly multicultural (12). If the writer does present a complex and textured representation of the unfamiliar, the possibility remains that readers may feel overwhelmed by the amount of information required to accurately represent the unfamiliar experience or, on the other hand, may be confused because the writer did not provide enough information, as Seiwoong Oh demonstrates in "Cross-Cultural Reading Versus Textual Accessibility in Multicultural Literature." In a study of reviews of a novel by a well-regarded Korean author, Oh found that those reviewers who were familiar with Korean cultural practices were likely to praise the novel, while the reviewers who lacked that information found fault with the novel.
Surprisingly, these complications and opportunities for miscommunication and misunderstanding are mitigated when the audience for the cross-cultural representation is composed of children. Because children are generally assumed to be less informed about and less experienced in the world, we are likely to expect a children's book that represents a cross-cultural experience to control more carefully the way readers approach or are led to the experience of the unfamiliar. Leona Fisher identifies this impulse "to mediate the child-reader's experience and soften the blow" (129) in "‘Bridge Texts’: The Rhetoric of Persuasion in American Children's Realist and Historical Fiction." Borrowing from musical composition the element of the bridge or modulation, Fisher defines "bridge texts" as works whose "rhetorical or narrative strategies and devices [are] designed to ‘take’ child readers from one ‘passage’ to another … to ‘move’ the child readers from their unexamined ideological positions or cultural expectations to the ‘new’ or unfamiliar subject positions represented by the book's content" (129). She argues that these strategies are helpful "in books whose materials are exceptionally disturbing or ideologically challenging to the customary expectations of a readership or their parents or teachers, books whose contents involve interventions in the culture texts of the expected audience" (129).
Shabanu and Haveli would at first seem to be likely candidates as bridge texts because of the unfamiliar culture and geography portrayed in the novels. Fisher further qualifies her definition of bridge texts, however, by distinguishing them from innovative adult texts. Whereas the latter persistently destabilize the reader, "[w]ith children's books, as in music, the changes in ‘key,’ the modulations, would need to be systematic, gradual, earned—then inevitable after a certain point" (130). This distinction is particularly pertinent to understanding and appreciating Staples's strategies in Shabanu and Haveli. Instead of gradually and inevitably moving child readers toward an inevitable acceptance of the subject position offered by Shabanu, the novels keep readers off balance and disordered; readers can cling to only a minimum set of common experiences or values. Moreover, no adult figure confirms the perspective of the adolescent narrator or mediates the culture or experience for readers, as Fisher notes occurs in bridge texts (130). Instead, Shabanu and Haveli offer to children a disorderly reading experience that not only introduces them to new ideas and patterns of thinking and living but also prevents them from drawing on many of the assumptions and conventions that adept readers (even child readers) take for granted.
Though my own experience teaching these novels to college students and my children's literature colleagues' anecdotes about their students' responses to one or the other of the novels suggest that readers are disoriented by their reading of Shabanu and Haveli, in this article I will be focusing on Staples's rhetorical and narrative strategies rather than the experiences of individual readers. In order to analyze the author's decisions, I will be employing Wolfgang Iser's concept of the "implied reader." The implied reader
embodies all those predispositions necessary for a literary work to exercise its effect—predispositions laid down, not by an empirical outside reality, but by the text itself. Consequently, the implied reader as a concept has his roots firmly planted in the structure of the text; he is a construct and in no way to be identified with any real reader…. Thus the concept of the implied reader designates a network of response-inviting structures, which impel the reader to grasp the text.
(The Act of Reading 34)
The implied reader is an especially useful and necessary concept when discussing cross-cultural representations: the "network of response-inviting structures" is analogous to Said's "transformation"—the embodiment of the culture that the writer desires to communicate. While Iser's focus on the textual representation of a reader sidesteps the question of how individual readers might understand or interpret the text, the "implied reader" is a record of the author's decisions in shaping the novel, decisions that are influenced by the author's sense of the aggregate readers defined by paratextual circumstances (publisher, place of publication, marketing, etc). Consequently, the implied reader serves as a record of both the intentional as well as the unconscious consequences of the writer's rhetorical relationship with readers. In the case of Shabanu and Haveli, the networks of strategies are often disorienting.
Staples's disorienting and disordering techniques appear at both the micro and macro levels of the texts. At every level Staples manages to balance the tension between the strategies necessary for continuity and emotional engagement with the characters and the strategies that emphasize the unfamiliar and unconventional. She uses the technique of defamiliarization, which we have come to expect in a literary representation of another culture. She portrays a society that juxtaposes the pre-industrial and the industrial in unusual ways. She contravenes typical plot resolutions and typical definitions of character development. Her unsettling narrative strategies call into question the conventional values of her implied reader without also clearly establishing a "higher" truth or common value that the reader is encouraged to accept.
Shabanu, Daughter of the Wind (1989) features the eponymous central character, who is an eleven- or twelve-year-old girl, one of two daughters of a nomadic family of camel herders in the Cholistan Desert on the border between Pakistan and India. In first-person narration Shabanu conveys the circumstances of her life, particularly the preparations for her sister's arranged marriage. Because Shabanu's sister is only a year or two older than her and because Shabanu's own marriage has already been arranged, the preparations prompt Shabanu to begin to pay attention to the roles of men and women and the nature of marriage. When a local powerful landlord murders her sister's betrothed, negotiations to resolve the conflict result in a rearrangement of the plan to marry Shabanu: instead of marrying her cousin, Shabanu is promised in marriage to the landlord's fifty-year-old brother, Rahim. Shabanu attempts to run away when it is clear that the marriage will take place, but in doing so her beloved camel Mithoo stumbles in a hole and breaks his leg. In order to prevent him from being eaten by jackals, Shabanu waits with him until her father overtakes them. The final scene of the novel portrays Shabanu's father brutally beating her as she disassociates herself from the violence in order to remember and admire the most beautiful things in her life.
Haveli (1993) continues Shabanu's story five years later. Shabanu is married to Rahim and has a daughter of her own, Mumtaz. She lives in her husband's compound with his three older wives. Her lack of status among the wives as well as her own nomadic background cause Shabanu to prefer a room away from the main house. Shabanu's goal at this point in her life is to protect herself, and especially Mumtaz, from the machinations of the older wives. She also conspires with Zabo, Rahim's niece and the daughter of the murderous landlord in Shabanu, to prevent the arranged marriage of Zabo to Rahim's mentally impaired son, Ahmed. When Shabanu concludes that Mumtaz's life is threatened, she sends her to the desert to live with her parents. Despite Shabanu's best efforts, Zabo is married to Ahmed, though shortly thereafter Zabo's father murders Ahmed and Rahim. Though Zabo and Shabanu escape, Zabo is later wounded and eventually dies. In order to prevent further threats to her family, Shabanu allows a rumor to be spread that she is dead as well. The novel ends with Shabanu hiding in Rahim's haveli, or traditional urban house, in Lahore, unable to contact her family, separated from her daughter, and patiently waiting for changed circumstances that will allow her to reunite with Mumtaz.
One of the most basic and widely recognized means of destabilizing a reader's perspective is defamiliarization, a strategy that Staples uses effectively from the very beginning of the novel. She is particularly adept at destabilizing the desert landscape trope that has dominated American literature. In contrast to the uninhabitable and antagonistic desert landscape described in mainstream American literature for both children and adults,2 in the Cholistan Desert, "the sand sparkles like water, though the early morning breeze has dried it to powder again. Tiny purple flowers cover the ground, where two days ago there was nothing but camel thorn. The winter sky is blue-green above the lavender line that rims the horizon" (Shabanu 9). Even when a desert sandstorm threatens the family's livelihood and hastens the death of Shabanu's grandfather, Staples uses positive terms to describe the landscape, terms which contrast ironically with Shabanu's emotional state: "The sand is powdery underfoot, its fresh whiteness an obscenity to me, covering up the devastation it has wrought" (Shabanu 115; my emphasis).
Water, a resource that many North Americans take for granted, is described in terms of wealth. Drops of water are "diamonds" (Shabanu 12); half-full water pots are treated with care, "as if they hold gems" (Shabanu 121); a desert downpour occurring during the tense negotiations after the death of Hamir brings "livesaving, inconvenient, glorious, wet, cool, blessed water" (175); the resulting puddles look like "great silver sheets" (179), and the moisture in the air creates an "opal haze" (179). Staples's descriptions highlight the beauty of the landscape, thereby requiring readers to hold in abeyance the conventions they might draw upon for interpreting that landscape.
Another way that Staples disorients and disorders the reader's experience is by using terms from Shabanu's particular language, Seraiki. Some words, such as toba, syed, charpois, or shalwar kameez, are briefly defined in the novels. Other words, like shatoosh or chapati, are not defined, but readers can absorb enough information from the context to understand their meanings. Non-English words are consistently printed in italics, and each novel includes a glossary that defines or explains the meanings of the foreign words. The decision to italicize foreign words has caused some controversy. Specifically citing Shabanu, Nodelman and Reimer comment, "The combination of the foreign term, marked by its italicization, and the explanation … read as an exoticization of a culture different from the one the implied reader is assumed to be part of" (176). By labeling this strategy as "exoticization" (a term that itself connotes a political position and power relationships), Nodelman and Reimer implicitly criticize it; however, I believe their assessment is superficial and unjust. I would like to offer a more thorough analysis of Staples's use of foreign terms in her novels in order to show how her strategy contributes to a genuinely disorienting reading experience.
First, Nodelman and Reimer misidentify the unspecified auditor as the implied reader in the novel. Their criticism appears in their textbook, The Pleasures of Children's Literature, so they may not desire to use the term "implied reader" in the more specific and technical way that I am using it here. Nevertheless, as defined earlier, the "implied reader" is not just the unspecified auditor (though it includes that function); the concept identifies the entire range of strategies the author uses to evoke responses in the reader, and it is best identified at the conceptual level of the author rather than the narrator.
Second, we should note that Staples only defines foreign words once within each text. Though the foreign words continue to be italicized, the words move into the vocabulary of the novel so that the verbal experience of the novel is permeated with unfamiliarity. The use of foreign terms does not allow the readers to fall back on their own language—and hence their own conceptual framework—to interpret the novel. If we look again at the very word Nodelman and Remer cite, toba, we note that the definition immediately following it in the text is "the basin that is our main water supply" (1). In the glossary at the end of the novel the word is defined as "A freshwater pond that serves as a water supply for desert nomads." The word denotes a physical attribute of the landscape that most of readers of Shabanu have not experienced. Staples faces two interesting stylistic decisions here. First, there may be no easy, brief English equivalent for toba. More importantly, to use the available English word, pond, would likely convey the wrong idea to many of Staples's readers, for whom pond might evoke images of a small lake surrounded by a verdant landscape and inhabited by fish. Instead, Staples consistently uses toba. Her use of that and other Seraiki words helps to dislocate her readers from their own habits of thought and vision.3
Rather than merely exoticizing Cholistani culture (as Nodelman and Reimer suggest), Staples's choices regarding language, especially the degree to which she asks readers to absorb and use foreign words, move readers out of their accustomed cultural position.4 Staples's practice appears to counter Iser's description of reader participation in the creation of the reading experience: "The gaps … are those very points at which the reader can enter into the text, forming his own connections and conceptions and so creating the configurative meaning of what he is reading" (Implied Reader 40). Of course Iser's description of "gaps" includes many different kinds of lacunæ, many of which Staples does leave open. In this case, however, while one might argue that Staples's decision to consistently use Shabanu's vocabulary provides a more univocal narrative, thereby limiting the readers' opportunity to participate in the creation of the text, the result is a greater sense of disorientation. Readers have fewer prompts to their own experience and must abandon some of their conventional patterns of thinking.
The disorientation that Staples desires to cultivate in readers is also conveyed through the array of social and ethnic practices that surround Shabanu.5 In Shabanu urban and agricultural landscapes, in addition to the desert, are marked by different patterns of living based on different levels of industrialization. Furthermore, these paterns of living interact at specific points of the novel: camels loaded with sugar cane share the road with bullock carts and trucks and buses (39); at the Sibi fair Dadi and Shabanu observe a motorcycle daredevil pit (a technology, if not an amusement ride, that American readers would be familiar with) and a ferris wheel propelled by a man (a form of power that would surprise American readers) (50-51); when the family has escaped Nazir Mohammed by fleeing into the desert, they begin their negotiations via shortwave radio (176); Shabanu's family travels by means of camels, but Rahim travels in cars (185).
Another way of destabilizing the readers is Staples's presentation of the custom of arranged marriages in Shabanu. Though all the marriages portrayed in the novel are arranged, they play out in many different ways. Mama and Dadi have a loving and respectful partnership. Auntie and her children live with Shabanu's family while her husband lives in Rahimyar Khan, a distant city, and visits his wife irregularly. Because Uncle has a salaried government position, however, he has more disposable income and can provide more material goods for his family than Shabanu's family enjoys. Sharma left her arranged marriage because her husband was abusive. She and her daughter live a nomadic life on the margins of desert society. All of these different arranged marriages, but particularly the loving and respectful relationship between Shabanu's parents, prevent readers from automatically condemning this cultural practice.
The variety of social practices is further highlighted in Haveli. Shabanu's marriage moves her into a family situation not only removed in distance but also in custom from her desert experiences. She lives in a compound that offers a higher level of technology though she isolates herself from those aspects of daily life, for example, preferring to sew and mend garments by hand rather than by machine. More importantly, Staples avoids a hegemonic portrayal of the culture as primitive in her characterization of Rahim's older wives, who are upper class and more cosmopolitan. They speak Punjabi, the prestige dialect. They wear fingernail polish. They own designer dresses. They travel frequently in European sedans between the compound in Okurabad and the suburbs of Lahore, 150 miles away. The descriptions of Lahore, such as the markets where Shabanu and Sabo shop and the Cantonment where Rahim's other wives stay, emphasize a mix of the contemporary and the traditional: European perfumes and the smoke from cooking fires mingle with the scent of spices and roasting nuts (145); market stalls that sell expensive jewelry stand next to those that sell audiotapes or plastic buckets (185-86). Again, readers cannot fall back on easy assumptions about patterns of living or values.
The variety of cultural practices presented in the novels mitigates against reading either novel as a text that represents a hegemonic view of Pakistan. Staples does not simplify the social or cultural complexity of Shabanu's experience for her child readers. Instead, the text impels readers to confront the particularities of these lives.
In Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, Mary Louise Pratt describes the central character of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British travel writing as "the seeing-man,' an admittedly unfriendly label for the European male subject of European landscape discourse—he whose imperial eyes passively look out and possess" (5). This strategy, not limited to British travel writing, was a means of making sense of the Other to the writer's audience. Of course, this parochial and self-serving perspective often did not lead to an accurate or sympathetic representation. Late-twentieth-century novelists have turned instead to the inhabitants' perspectives as a means of more faithfully and convincingly representing the experiences of the characters. Such a choice leaves the writer open to charges of appropriation and misrepresentation when the inhabitant articulates the author's values. For the most part, Staples's use of Shabanu's perspective (as a first-person narrator in Shabanu and as the focalizing character in Haveli ) is not simply a subtle strategy to reinforce an American perspective. In fact, no character in the novel can easily be identified as the author's mouthpiece. As mentioned earlier, this lack of adult or authorial voice in the novel is particularly disorienting for readers.
In order to ensure that Shabanu is a convincing narrator, Staples avoids treating her perspective ironically. That means that from the very beginning of the novel Shabanu's perspective, and by extension her way of life, is portrayed as central rather than peripheral. Staples provides the foundation of this centrality in the representations of landscapes. Throughout Shabanu the desert lies at the center, and the agricultural lands buffer the central desert from the marginal cosmopolitan world of cities. The novel conveys the centrality of the desert in the map at the beginning of the book as well as in descriptions of the landscapes or cityscapes that value the traditional and nomadic rather than the urban or technologically advanced. As discussed earlier, the desert is always described with metaphors that represent beauty and value, whereas the agricultural land smells "overripe" (143) to Shabanu and is associated with death: "Turning the desert to farmland killed him [Hamir's father], crippling him with old age before the years had a chance" (Shabanu 143). The agricultural region produces greed and corruption as well as crops: "Nazir demands a quarter of their crops as compensation for farming the land. Hamir and Murad have stamped deeds, but the court has taken three years to rule. Perhaps Nazir is influencing the judge" (Shabanu 147-48).
Staples further emphasizes the centrality of the nomads by representing them as accomplished, profitable, and successful. Despite the severity of the sandstorms, the frequent lack of water, and the isolation, the family functions well and never suffers serious distress in the desert. Moreover, every character acknowledges that the family raises the finest camels (Shabanu 37, 46, 58), and Dadi always negotiates the various sales of the camels from a position of strength, no matter with whom he bargains—the Rangers, other camel herders, or Afghan rebels (Shabanu 37, 55, 56-68, 60-61). So even when Shabanu or a family member acknowledges the family's poverty, their way of life is more attractive than the alternatives presented in the novel.
In Haveli the traditional house in Lahore, rather than the more cosmopolitan and technologically advanced suburbs, occupies the center.6 Though the city itself with its open sewers, carts of fruit, and closely packed buildings threatens to overwhelm Shabanu, the haveli at its center is an oasis:
Inside the thick mud walls they came upon a different world. The fetid stench of open sewers gave way to the joyous sweetness of lime trees and jasmine in bloom in pots under the old banyan trees that crowded the far end of the outer wall. The clatter of wooden wheels on cobble and the shouts of children and hawkers were replaced by the cool splash of water in the blue-and-white tiled fountain at the center of the haveli courtyard.
It was a space of graceful proportion.
By making the traditional pre-industrial ways of life central without ignoring the variety of life in the setting, Staples lends credence to Shabanu's perspective.
Just as significantly, Staples avoids romanticizing Shabanu's perspective by having Shabanu recognize both the beauty and ugliness of her surroundings. For example, in the description of Lahore above, Shabanu notes "the fetid stench of open sewers." Furthermore, Shabanu herself understands that her nomadic way of life (that is, as possibly romantically primitive, if Staples chose to portray it as such) is not the best for her or Mumtaz. Shabanu is quick to recognize that her lack of education puts her at the mercy of the older wives, who are Punjabi (that is, have higher status) and cosmopolitan. To remedy this social inequity, she turns toward Lahore, choosing education and the city rather than the pre-industrial world of her youth. By carefully representing Shabanu as appreciating the best of both the traditional and cosmopolitan cultures, the novels require readers to balance conventional but seemingly contradictory values.
Staples maintains the integrity of Shabanu's perspective and uses it to destabilize the reading experience except in relation to one important idea. While Staples is quite willing to trust her readers with many moral, ethical, or ideological decisions, she does not trust them on the subject of early childbirth. Unlike other practices in the novel, particularly arranged marriages, that are presented in ways that prevent appeals to Western values, the age at which women (Westerners might use the term "girls") bear children is presented through conspicuously conflicting strategies. Readers can only conclude that Staples's own perspective is shaping Shabanu's responses.
Throughout Shabanu Staples portrays events and social practices that suggest childbearing, especially the bearing of sons, is celebrated and encouraged in the culture. Shabanu's conventional sister, Phulan, talks of the children she will bear once she is married, and Shabanu accepts childbearing as a natural part of marriage (5-6). Staples portrays Shabanu as delighted to participate in cultural practices associated with childbearing, such as the trip to Channan Pir to pray for sons or the painting of fertility symbols on the newly constructed house for Phulan and Hamir (149). Neither Shabanu's mother nor her older female relatives voice any regret for bearing children at a young age. While readers may not agree, the conventional attitude of the culture, as Staples portrays it, is that childbearing is the central, even the most important, activity of women. Consequently, readers are unprepared for the attention and thoughts Shabanu directs toward Kulsum:
Kulsum walks behind Bibi Lal, an infant clutched against her shoulder. Kulsum's small daughter walks beside her, a bare-bottomed two-year-old boy on her hip; her five-year-old son runs beside them, driving two goats with a stick. Kulsum is a few years older than Phulan. She is thin and pale, with deep lines around her mouth and eyes.
Kulsum wears white to mourn her husband, Lal Khan, the elder brother of Hamir and Murad. His body was found last year in a well that belongs to the landowner.
Shabanu does not attribute Kulsum's physical decline to an extraordinary number of children or to Kulsum's grief as a widow. Instead, Shabanu comments that Kulsum is "a few years older than Phulan" (145). The image of Kulsum "haunts" Shabanu (150), and later after her betrothal to Rahim is arranged, she worries to Sharma: "But once I've started to have babies, by the time I'm sixteen I'll look like Adil's wife or Kulsum. He'll start looking for another woman younger than me to fall in love with" (226). Sharma's response underscores the relationship between childbirth and aging or loss of beauty: "You don't have to look like Adil's wife or Kulsum. He already has sons. He doesn't need children from you" (226).
Nor can Shabanu's critical attitude toward childbearing be convincingly attributed to her immaturity regarding sexuality or to her eventual rebellion against her arranged marriage. Shabanu's initial revulsion from male sexuality as figured in the behavior of the male camels and explicitly linked to her father and other adult males (Shabanu 100-02) gives way to her dreamy reflections about Murad: "An odd but pleasant tightening in my belly makes my hands skip a beat in kneading the dough as I think of Murad's serious, dark eyes, and I wonder what it will be like to see him again, knowing in a year he and I will marry" (138). Late in the novel, her attitude toward sexuality remains conflicted: "I burn with shame when I hear Mama and Dadi making love. The thought of Rahim-sahib in my bed, his hands on my body, frightens me, perhaps the more so because I also have begun to feel desire" (233). Despite this conflicted attitude, Shabanu does not link her feelings about sexuality to childbearing. Consequently, Shabanu's concern about childbearing seems a product of Staples's address to her implied readers rather than an authentic reaction of Shabanu.
Despite this exception, Staples's use of Shabanu's perspective is a predominantly disorienting strategy rather than a perspective that offers a cultural critique. When she wonders about or questions cultural practices, Shabanu articulates her concerns in very personal terms about particular circumstances rather than in terms that suggest broad social criticism. Shabanu's resistance to growing up, to the idea of marriage, to her arranged marriage to Murad and her eventual arranged marriage to Rahim are always framed in terms of personal circumstances rather than as criticisms of cultural practices. For example, early in Shabanu, as Shabanu's parents are preparing Phulan for her wedding, they also begin to restrain Shabanu. When Mama cautions her, "You must learn to obey, even when you disagree," Shabanu thinks,
I am angry to think of Dadi or anyone else telling me what to do. I want to tell her I spend more time with the camels than Dadi, and sometimes when he asks me to do a thing, I know something else is better. But Mama's dark eyes hold my face so intently that I know she really is afraid for me, and I say nothing. She and Dadi are thinking of how I will behave when Murad and I marry.
In this passage Shabanu does not present a Western perspective of horror at arranged marriages, especially of prepubescent girls. Instead, Shabanu wants to assert her will and take care of her camels.
Even Sharma, who often provides a perspective that seems closer to a Western one, does not criticize the agreement to marry Shabanu to Rahim as an unjust cultural practice but rather on the grounds of Shabanu's probable experience in his family:
Shabanu will be their slave. They're all uppity-uppity women. They get along all right. But what about her? Do you think they'll take a desert girl into their circle? And when he dies, the seven sons he has—and perhaps his third wife will bear him one or two more—will inherit his property. There will be nothing for Shabanu and the sons she bears. She'll be a penniless widow by the time she's twenty. And what if she has daughters? They'll marry similarly, unless she's lucky enough to marry them back to the desert.
Though Sharma seems most like a self-assured North American woman (she leaves her abusive husband, supports herself and her daughter, provides information about healthy female sexuality, and provides effective folk methods of birth control), she does not criticize Dadi and Mama for marrying a girl of Shabanu's age or the arranged marriage itself. Rather, Sharma criticizes the way in which the marriage strains class and ethnic boundaries and creates relationships that will be difficult for Shabanu to negotiate: the other wives are upper class and Shabanu is a poor desert girl; Rahim is much older and Shabanu might be left unprotected at his death. These personal considerations (rather than broad social practice) prompt Sharma's outburst. Sharma's unconventional character (within her culture) could easily be used to mediate the culture for North American readers, as Fisher suggests occurs in bridge texts ("Bridge Texts" 133). However, as my analysis has made clear, Sharma's comments do not serve to palliate readers' concerns about the practice, nor do they impel readers to some "universal truth" that unites the readers' values with the characters' values.
In Haveli Staples takes greater risks with her readers, more overtly offering the possibility that a Western perspective and experience can solve the problems Shabanu faces by introducing Omar as a possible love interest for Shabanu. After six years in the United States attending college and graduate school, Omar returns the same day that Shabanu first arrives at the haveli. During his time in the States he has become accustomed to treating women differently than his Punjabi upbringing had encouraged. When he first meets Shabanu he offers his hand and then apologizes, remarking, "In America ladies shake hands" (109). Shabanu responds by explaining that her own background does not cause her to see his greeting as offensive: "Punjabi ladies are supposed to look at the floor when they meet men…. In the Cholistan Desert, where I grew up, I would have offered you tea by now, so it would have been fine for you to put out your hand" (109). From this initial meeting, Shabanu and Omar seem very well matched. Omar's youthfulness and good looks immediately appeal to Shabanu (114), and he finds her attractive, despite the fact that he is betrothed to Leyla, Rahim's oldest daughter, a marriage intended to unify the clan and consolidate their lands. In subsequent conversations Omar admires Shabanu's independence, and readers see Shabanu speaking freely for the first time in the novel: "They talked about other things, Shabanu interrupting to ask questions and feeling surges of joy at the simple freedom of being able to speak openly with him. He is different from Rahim and his father after all! she thought" (163). Their mutual admiration of one another leads to Omar's request to visit her privately in the summer pavilion, a beautiful abandoned room near the top of the haveli (169). Such a visit would be the beginning of an illicit relationship, given Shabanu's marriage to Rahim and Omar's betrothal to Leyla.
Staples also gives to Omar the narrative responsibility of relating the story of Selma and Daoud. (Selma, Rahim's widowed sister, maintains the haveli and, like Sharma in Shabanu, functions as the wise older woman who sympathizes with and advises Shabanu.) Omar's account establishes the possibility of a marriage based on love and mutual commitment and responsibility (117-22). When Omar comments, "I would like to share a love like Selma and Daoud's" (119), readers are encouraged to think that he imagines a marriage that would be suitable for Shabanu.
Omar's Western experience and know-how are even suggested in his use of flashlights. Shortly after their first meeting, Omar offers to give Shabanu a tour of the extensive house. The sun has already set, and they will need sources of light:
He took the flashlight from his pocket and handed it to her.
"I'm used to candles," she said.
"I brought dozens of these from New York," he said. "You'll need it going up and down the stairs." He pressed it into her hand.
Though Staples does not emphasize the fact to readers, throughout the rest of the novel Shabanu uses the flashlight rather than candles. This detail suggests not only that Shabanu is capable of adapting to the technological advances offered by the West (no matter how insignificant) but also that she is willing to see the West, particularly the United States where Omar has been, as offering solutions to her problems.
Staples includes Omar in the novel in order to offer readers the opportunity to see if American experience will solve Shabanu's problems. However, the narrative quickly proves that American ideas will not provide a solution. Shabanu herself believes that Omar and others of his generation can rectify the problems in Pakistani society (174). However, Selma quickly bursts that bubble: "Bah! … He will end up just like them—or else he won't survive" (174). Shabanu begins to understand that Omar's loyalty to the clan will prevent him from helping her achieve the safety and protection she desires for both herself and Mumtaz. She determines to suppress her desire for him (178). By the time he again offers an opportunity for a relationship, Shabanu has the strength of will to repudiate him: "‘In America do men respect the wishes of women? … Then take the best of what you learn of duty in Pakistan and of respect in America, and leave me in peace.’ Her voice was firm and steady, and she knew she was convincing" (193). Her decision is confirmed in the return to the compound at Okurabad and the marriage preparations for Zabo: "she thought … how like Rahim he'd become, how committed to duty and the family" (227). Still, Shabanu desires him and wonders at the strength of her feeling.
Despite Shabanu's repudiation of Omar, Staples maintains the subplot, varying the circumstances of their random encounters to keep alive the possibility of a relationship. However, just as frequently as a new set of circumstances arises, Shabanu rejects the opportunity to establish a relationship with Omar: after the death of Rahim (279), after the rumor of her own death has gained currency and Omar mourns at her "grave" (307), and after she reaches the safety of the haveli (319).
In choosing to represent the possibilities that the United States offers through a love relationship, Staples risks doubly disorienting her readers. Not only does Omar's American experience prove insufficient, but Shabanu also rejects the only suitable (according to American ideas) romantic relationship offered to her. By the end of the novel, however, Omar's commitment to his clan and his development as its leader (that is, the fulfillment of his Punjabi training) prove more important than a love match. Both Selma and Shabanu admire the way he fulfills his position in the clan, even when he acts in ways that contravene American ideas of well-run societies (for example, by avenging Rahim's murder rather than allowing the legal authorities to resolve the issue).
Staples's development of Omar as a character, like her development of Sharma's role in Shabanu, tempts the reader to think that Western ideas and practices will solve Shabanu's problems. However, without undercutting either character's position, Staples shows that transplanted American experience offers no quick fixes for Shabanu. Consequently, readers cannot assume that their own patterns of living offer solutions to the problems Shabanu faces.
While cultural values do not necessarily define plot resolutions, satisfying endings depend on cultural ideas. Even open-ended or unresolved endings often suggest a trajectory that confirms for readers their understanding of the character's growth. Frank Kermode explains that well-crafted endings offer an aesthetic pleasure that also confirms readers' trust in the reality of the representation—not just a material reality that can be expected in a realistic fiction but a readerly desire to use the novel to confront the truth of human existence:
The more daring the peripeteia, the more we may feel that the work respects our sense of reality; and the more certainly we shall feel that the fiction under consideration is one of those which, by upsetting the ordinary balance of our naïve expectations, is finding something out for us, something real. The falsification of an explanation can be terrible, as in the death of Cordelia; it is a way of finding something out that we should, on our more conventional way to the end, have closed our eyes to. Obviously it could not work if there were not a certain rigidity in the set of our expectations.
Kermode's emphasis on realism is related to those scholars of multicultural criticism (such as Dasenbrock, Madigan, and Said) who argue that rigid expectations must be overturned in order for readers to experience the unfamiliar. Readers not only must give up at least some dependence on general literary and specific generic conventions but also their assumptions about cultural values or norms. Consequently, the author of a cross-cultural novel may conclude a novel in a way that readers find dissatisfying because their own cultural values may be contravened. Staples uses this disorienting strategy in the last scene of Shabanu when Dadi violently beats Shabanu because she has run away from her impending marriage. Readers using an American perspective will likely find the ending problematic for a number of reasons. First, American children are urged to escape from, disclose, and seek help for abuse. Yet Shabanu accepts her beating, turning inward in a way that readers might consider psychologically or emotionally damaging. Second, Shabanu's return to an arranged marriage to someone almost the age of her grandfather violates twentieth-century American ideals about the partnership and reciprocity of the marriage relationship. Third, Shabanu seems to give up her independence, her opportunity for self-definition. This, too, violates American readers' sense of character development: characters should move toward wider means of self-definition rather than narrower. Readers can easily imagine Shabanu escaping to a life with Auntie Sharma where she finds fulfillment as she negotiates the complexities of living life on the margins of her society. That ending would closely follow American values of independence and individualism. Yet Staples chooses to violate all of these norms and ideals in her ending.
Staples makes a similar decision in her ending of Haveli. In the final scene of the novel, Shabanu settles into her hiding place in the haveli. Although Shabanu has escaped with her life, she has been separated from her beloved Mumtaz. Any relationship between Shabanu and Omar is impossible, not because of lack of love but because Omar has proven to be committed to the clan; hence he follows codes of behavior from which Shabanu has just escaped. Staples's decision to represent the society and its norms as significantly more powerful than the individual contradicts American cultural ideas. By contravening Western expectations and ideals in the endings of the novels, Staples has used one of the most important elements of the novel to disorient the readers.
The strategies Staples employs in her cross-cultural representation seem even more disruptive when we consider Alberto Manguel's assertion in his idiosyncratic study A History of Reading: "[W]e readers, like Narcissus, like to believe that the text into which we gaze holds our reflection" (267). Manguel is describing the ways in which avid readers turn to literature as a means of self-examination (not unlike Kermode's assertion quoted above). A less sophisticated form of that idea is often bandied about in regards to children's reading: the child must "identify" with the main character in order to enjoy the reading. This idea, or a version of it, has been used to justify publishing practices as well as selection criteria. In contrast, I have argued throughout this article that Staples's strategies frequently prevent the reader from seeing her own reflection. Readers must be able to hold their own experience in abeyance—at least temporarily—in order to understand Shabanu's. That generous act on the part of readers allows them to reflect upon Shabanu's life and the differences and similarities between her life and their own. In other words, their willingness to be re-oriented is necessary to their interpretation and judgment of Shabanu and her life. In addition, Shabanu's own nuanced perspective further opens interpretive space. Since Shabanu herself hesitates to make a final judgment, readers are allowed to come to their own conclusions.
Unlike some gatekeepers of literature who believe that children will only enjoy reading about children like themselves, Staples trusts that her readers, despite their status as children, can engage new perspectives and experiences and can generously exercise their imaginations to witness Shabanu's experience. While such an experience may, as Clifford Geertz argues, "spoil the prospect of abiding order," the result is more knowledge and maybe even more sympathy.
1. Staples provides convincing evidence that she knows the culture well enough to attempt her novels. She lived for almost a decade in India and Pakistan, including three years among the nomadic peoples of the Cholistan Desert, when she recorded many of the incidents that occur in the novels (Sawyer and Sawyer; Greever and Austin; Atkins). She learned the language (Sawyer and Sawyer), reviewed tape transcripts and records, and interviewed anthropologists (Stewart). She reports that she vetted both books to Pakistanis, and they responded that her representation of the culture of the Cholistan Desert was accurate (Stewart; Staples, "Writing"). Clearly, Staples has attempted to achieve as thoroughly as possible an informed perspective, going far beyond the implied criticism of Cai and Bishop regarding "outsider" authors: "A perspective in this sense cannot be learned solely from books about a cultural group; it can be acquired only from experience, from immersion in that culture" (67).
2. The trope of the antagonistic landscape has a long tradition beginning with the biblical accounts of the Jewish exodus from Egypt, and it is used throughout American literature to describe both wilderness and arid landscapes. In the American Western (both book and film) the role of the desert landscape is particularly significant and influential (see Jane Tompkins, West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns, for an extended discussion). For other examples of an inimical desert landscape, see also Frank Norris's McTeague (1899), Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian (1985), and Louis Sachar's Holes (1998).
3. Staples's technique is slightly different than the strategy discussed by Leona W. Fisher in her analysis of Laurence Yep's historical novels about Chinese immigrants ("Focalizing the Unfamiliar"). Though both Staples and Yep compose their novels in English, the characters are speaking a language other than English. Fisher points out that Yep emphasizes the perspective of the character by using English words that native speakers would not use, for example "demons" to describe the Anglo residents of California. Furthermore, any new English words that the Chinese immigrants use are printed in italics and spelled phonetically to represent their pronunciation. Staples's strategy, on the other hand, is to use persistently words from the character's native language.
4. See Dasenbrock for an extended discussion of the ways in which an author uses a foreign language as a "deliberate artistic strategy" to create an unintelligible but meaningful reading experience (15).
5. In "The Politics of Multicultural Literature for Children and Adolescents," Dan Madigan argues that authors can avoid essentializing a representation (that is, depending on stereotypes) by portraying multiple experiences or responses to an event. Madigan is particularly interested in validating an authentic representation of the Other, but he does so by focusing on the verifiability of the representation against the external world. While such accuracy does indeed avoid essentializing the culture, just as importantly the multiplicity of details shapes the reader's response to the text.
6. Interestingly in this context, the journey to the haveli involves a devolution in technology: the van that transports Shabanu, Mumtaz, Rahim, and Zabo from the rural compound in Okurabad is replaced by tongas drawn by "fat, sleek, and well groomed" horses (Haveli 100).
7. Sharma's information about Rahim is inaccurate, as readers discover in Haveli. Rahim has only one son—the mentally impaired Ahmed. It is likely that the reference to seven sons is a conventional designation for wealth and power. See Mama's comment early in Shabanu that Shabanu and Phulan are "better than seven sons" (3).
Atkins, Holly. "Capturing a World between Two Covers." St. Petersburg Times 4 March 2002. Accessed via Expanded Academic Index.
Cai, Mingshui, and Rudine Sims Bishop. "Multicultural Literature for Children: Towards a Clarification of the Concept." The Need for Story: Cultural Diversity in Classroom and Community. Ed. Anne Haas Dyson and Celia Genishi. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1994. 57-71.
Dasenbrook, Reed Way. "Intelligibility and Meaningfulness in Multicultural Literature in English." PMLA 102 (1987): 10-19.
Fisher, Leona W. "‘Bridge Texts’: The Rhetoric of Persuasion in American Children's Realist and Historical Fiction." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 27 (2002): 129-35.
———. "Focalizing the Unfamiliar: Laurence Yep's Child in a Strange Land." MELUS 27 (2002): 157-77.
Geertz, Clifford. "Which Way to Mecca." New York Review of Books. 12 June 2003, 27-30.
Greever, Ellen A., and Patricia Austin. "Suzanne Fisher Staples: From Journalist to Novelist." Teaching and Learning Literature with Children and Young Adults 7.2 (November/December 1997): 43-55.
Iser, Wolfgang. The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 1978.
———. The Implied Reader: Patterns of Communication in Prose Fiction from Bunyan to Beckett. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 1974.
Kermode, Frank. The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction. New York: Oxford UP, 1967.
Madigan, Dan. "The Politics of Multicultural Literature for Children and Adolescents: Combining Perspectives and Conversations." Language Arts 70 (1993): 168-76.
Manguel, Alberto. A History of Reading. New York: Viking, 1996.
Nodelman, Perry, and Mavis Reimer. The Pleasures of Children's Literature. 2nd ed. New York: Allyn and Bacon, 2003.
Oh, Seiwoong. "Cross-Cultural Reading versus Textual Accessibility in Multicultural Literature." MELUS 18 (1993): 3-16.
Pratt, Mary Louise. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. New York: Routledge, 1992.
Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon, 1978.
Sawyer, Walter E., and Jean C. Sawyer. "A Discussion with Suzanne Fisher Staples: The Author as Writer and Cultural Observer." New Advocate 6.3 (Summer 1993): 159-69.
Staples, Suzanne Fisher. Haveli. New York: Dell Laurel-Leaf, 1993.
———. Shabanu, Daughter of the Wind. New York: Knopf, 1989.
———. "Writing about the Islamic World: An American Author's Thoughts on Authenticity." Bookbird 35.3 (Fall 1997): 17-21.
Stewart, Whitney. "Suzanne Fisher Staples: Understanding Cultures, Fostering Peace." Five Owls 16.4 (2002): 36-37.
Tompkins, Jane. West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns. New York: Oxford UP, 1992.
Clare Bradford (essay date spring 2007)
SOURCE: Bradford, Clare. "Representing Islam: Female Subjects in Suzanne Fisher Staples's Novels." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 32, no. 1 (spring 2007): 47-62.
[In the following essay, Bradford argues that, despite Staples's attempts to do otherwise, her young adult novels depict Muslim women through a Western point-of-view.]
In her essay "The Skin of the Burqa: Recent Life Narratives from Afghanistan," Gillian Whitlock describes visiting a bookshop in Melbourne, Australia, in 2003, where she noticed a display of books featuring Muslim women. In fact, Whitlock recalls, only three titles were on show (Latifa's My Forbidden Face, Jean Sasson's Mayada: Daughter of Iraq, and Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books), but multiple copies of each had been arranged in a mass display that drew viewers' attention to the icon of the burqa on the covers of all these books. Whitlock asks: "How can one resist interpellation as a liberal Western consumer who desires nothing more than to liberate and humanize ‘Latifa’ by lifting the burqa and bringing her alongside us, barefaced in the West?" (55). Her essay goes on to argue that the desire for unveiling, which was such a prominent aspect of Western discourses after 9/11 and which, it was proposed, signified the liberation of Muslim women, produced a homogenized and over-simplified version of the burqa and of Islamic societies.
Leila Ahmed notes that the reasons women wear veils across Muslim societies are "as varied, multiple, complex, and shifting … as are the women themselves" ("The Veil Debate" 164). The title of Ahmed's essay, "The Veil Debate—Again," aptly describes the iterative and cumulative nature of the extensive body of scholarly work dealing with the semiotics of the veil in Muslim and Western societies, scholarship that is always informed by the politics of the times and places in which it is carried out.1 Yet across scholarly texts on Muslim women, feminism, and the veil, and specifically across writing on literary and popular texts, scant attention has been paid to children's and young adult literature that thematizes Muslim cultures and relationships between Muslim and non-Muslim protagonists.
The spate of life narratives dealing with the experience of women living in Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan that has been a prominent feature of cultural production for adults during the last few years has had its counterpart in children's literature in the shape of first-person and character-focalized narratives thematizing the identity formation of Muslim girls, including Suzanne Fisher Staples's Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind (1989),2Haveli (1993), and Under the Persimmon Tree (2005); Deborah Ellis's novels The Breadwinner (2000), Parvana's Journey (2002), and Mud City (2003); Naomi Shihab Nye's Habibi (1997); and Cathryn Clinton's A Stone in My Hand (2004). Ellis's Parvana's Journey and Mud City, and, to some extent, Staples's Under the Persimmon Tree, are also refugee narratives, tracing the journeys and experiences of girls who flee Afghanistan for camps in Pakistan. My focus here is on Staples's three novels, specifically on their representations of Muslim girls and women. I begin by considering how their covers market these books to Western audiences.
If, as in the display described by Whitlock, Staples's novels were to be arranged en masse in their various editions, we would see multiple images of veiled young women. These women are depicted alone, sometimes against backgrounds that hint at elemental forces, such as the wind or sun. In the 2002 Walker Books edition, Shabanu appears as a solitary figure walking across a desert landscape. The only group of children featured on the covers appears on the cover of the 2006 Walker Books edition of Under the Persimmon Tree, where boys and girls together gather under the persimmon tree of the book's title and look toward the night sky. Intimations of the exotic (and, arguably, of the erotic) appear in the extreme close-up on the cover of the 2003 Random House edition of Shabanu, which features a young woman's face—or at least half her face—adorned with strings of gold around her hairline, a veil embossed with embroidery, eyes made up with kohl. The 1995 Random House edition of Haveli deploys a color range modulating from orange tones into sepia as Shabanu's translucent veil, caught in the wind, simultaneously conceals and reveals her profile and the suggestion of a shapely body.
The women on these covers do not look at viewers in a way that constructs a relationship of affinity with viewers. In some images, such as the Random House issues of Shabanu (2003), Haveli (1995), and Under the Persimmon Tree (2005 edition), young women gaze in profile or obliquely toward scenes inaccessible to viewers. The Dell Laurel-Leaf editions of Shabanu (1994) and Haveli (1993) place the figures on their covers within oval vignettes, which invest these images with formality and remoteness. Indeed, the figures of Shabanu and her daughter Mumtaz on the cover of Haveli evoke iconic depictions of Madonna and child, their bodies leaning into one another in a way that both emphasizes their symbiotic connection and also renders the image emblematic rather than representational. One cover stands out from the others: the veiled woman featured on the cover of the 1991 Knopf edition of Shabanu looks directly out to the viewer in a manner that appears confrontational or angry. The darkness of the woman's skin color and the fullness of her mouth racialize her, representing a Muslim other, described as follows in the blurb that appears next to the cover image: "From the heart of the world of Islam …" The ethnocentric and homogenizing discourses informing this phrase are evident if we replace "Islam" with "Christianity": "From the heart of the world of Christianity." Where, exactly, might this heart be located in relation to either religious tradition? Who determines what constitutes the heart of a religion?
The fact that these covers depict veiled young women is in itself unremarkable, since Muslim girls and women commonly wear veils of many kinds across national and cultural settings. My analysis focuses rather on the semiotics of these cover images and the significations that they produce. Collectively, the visual configurations I have described position readers as detached viewers of otherness, prohibited by the remoteness, hostility, or obliquity of the protagonists' expressions from imagining an affinity with them. The implied "we" who observe these women comprise a Western and non-Muslim audience viewing a Muslim other ("them"), whose world is remote from "ours." The young women on these covers are isolated and beautiful; their geographical and cultural settings are coded as exotic and ancient; and their facial expressions suggest sadness, wistfulness, and, in the case of the Knopf cover, anger. Their treatment is thus in accord with the interpretive frame of Orientalism, which interpellates Western readers as sympathetic and knowing viewers of oppressed Muslim women.3 Irrespective of the contents of these books, their covers draw upon stereotypes and assumptions calculated to reinforce Orientalist discourses.
Chandra Talpade Mohanty's essay "Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses," first published in 1984, is a seminal work in the field of postcolonial studies, and its incisive treatment of the assumptions that inform Western feminist scholars writing on the "Third World woman" (255) applies also to fictive representations by Western authors such as Staples. Mohanty uses the term "colonization" to refer to writing that "implies a relation of structural domination and suppression—often violent—of the heterogeneity of the subject(s) in question" (256). That a "relation of structural domination" underpins the production of Staples's texts is very obvious: these are novels written by an educated, Western professional woman about Third World protagonists; they are published by mainstream American publishing companies; and, as I have argued, they are marketed in a way that constructs the female Muslim subject as a unified, oppressed figure.
A notable component of publishers' marketing strategies and of Staples's promotion of herself as an author relates to the question of the "truthfulness" of the novels and their stories about Muslim women. Staples is described paratextually in all three novels as a former United Press International (UPI) correspondent in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India. Like Deborah Ellis, whose books similarly insist on the author's close knowledge of the settings on which she writes, Staples is an outsider to Islamic cultures, and information about her background might be seen as merely assuring readers about to her experience and knowledge. I would argue, however, that such information asserts truth claims that blur the lines between truth, facts, and fiction. In the "Questions and Answers" section of her Web site, Staples responds as follows to the question "Is [Under the Persimmon Tree ] a true story?": "It is true in that almost every scene is based on a story told to me by an Afghan, either inside of Afghanistan, or in the refugee camps in Pakistan."4 To accept Staples's response as simply testifying to the accuracy of her writing is to overlook exactly those varieties of "structural domination" to which Mohanty refers, and which inevitably inform the processes and politics of Staples's interviews with her Afghani informants, as well as the transformation of their "stories" into fiction for Western readers. My intention here is not to engage in personal criticism of Staples for constructing herself as an expert on Muslim politics and culture; rather, I want to raise questions about how relations of power play out in representations of Muslim girls in her novels and about the extent to which cultural assumptions and rhetorics inform these representations.
Shabanu and Haveli are set in Pakistan. In Shabanu the eponymous protagonist is the narrator of events that occur mainly in the Cholistan Desert; in Haveli Shabanu has become the fourth and youngest wife of Rahim, a wealthy landowner, and lives at first within his household in the village of Okurabad and then in the habitus of his old family home (haveli) in Lahore.5 In Under the Persimmon Tree the narrative divides between the first-person perspective of Najmah, a girl from northern Afghanistan, and character-focalized sequences involving Nusrat, an American woman married to an Afghan doctor. The events of Under the Persimmon Tree are set in the period immediately following 9/11, when the United States engaged in military intervention against the Taliban as part of the "War on Terrorism." However, the West is also powerfully present in Shabanu and Haveli since, as I will argue, these novels present a view of Muslim women seen through "Western eyes."
Mohanty identifies three analytical frames that shape Western representations of Third World women: first, the assumption that such women form "an already constituted, coherent group with identical interests and desires"; second, an uncritical acceptance of "‘proof’ of universality and cross-cultural validity"; and third, the notion of an "average Third-World woman" defined as "ignorant, poor, uneducated, tradition-bound, domestic, family-oriented, victimized" in contrast to Western women, who are implicitly represented as "educated, modern, as having control over their own bodies and sexualities, and the freedom to make their own decisions" (258-59). The plot of Haveli plays out mainly in the prosperous setting of Rahim's homes, where his older wives, well-educated and indulged, do not accord with the unitary view of the "ignorant, poor, uneducated" woman referred to by Mohanty. Nonetheless, they are "tradition-bound, domestic, family-oriented, victimized," their security dependent upon patriarchal systems that rely on economic control. A key strategy in Staples's novels is the construction of protagonists treated as exceptional within their cultures and hence as more "like us" than those homogenized women with whom they are compared.6
RHETORICS OF EXCEPTIONALISM
The character of Shabanu in Shabanu and Haveli is presented as just such an exceptional figure. Unlike her sister Phulan, she prefers activities coded as masculine, such as tending to the family's camels. She is her father's companion when he travels to a distant market to sell camels and purchase supplies, and she attempts to escape the marriage her parents have arranged. The signifier of the veil is introduced early in Shabanu. As Shabanu sets out with her father for the market, her aunt produces a chadr, which she drapes around the girl's head and shoulders, with the words, "A young lady shouldn't go with her head uncovered. You're too old to act like a boy" (33). The text here engages in a strategy of displacement, attributing these words to Shabanu's aunt, previously established as unlikable and peevish, rather than to her mother, whose words soften but do not contradict those of her sister-in-law: "Shabanu, it matches your new dress," says Mama, pleading with her eyes. "It'll keep the sun off your head" (33). Negative significations are attached to the veil because it suggests a restriction of Shabanu's freedom and because it is her aunt's promptings that force her to wear it. This small exchange establishes a pattern that permeates Staples's depictions of Muslim women and that relies on binary oppositions: between Shabanu (freedom-loving, active, adventurous) and other women (her mother, her aunt, her sister Phulan) who are content with the constraints that limit their freedom and self-expression. Through its deployment of first-person narration and present tense, the narrative controls the extent to which readers are offered a variety of subject positions, inviting identification with the figure of Shabanu, whose selfhood is represented according to the liberal humanist paradigms of individualism and personal growth that dominate texts featuring Western protagonists.
The figure of Sharma, Shabanu's aunt, might appear to disrupt the binaries that I have identified in Shabanu and Haveli. Together with her daughter, Fatima, Sharma lives outside the structures of marriage and family because she has left her abusive husband and set up a home for herself and her daughter. Sharma is represented as a wise woman in touch with the natural world and endowed with cunning and "feminine" wiles that enable her to evade patriarchal orders. In Shabanu she conducts a makeover during which she transforms Shabanu from a tomboyish younger sister to a beautiful young woman; in Haveli she provides Shabanu and her cousin Zabo with contraceptive advice. Far from offering an alternative to the downtrodden wives of Staples's novels, Sharma operates within the patriarchal system, advising Shabanu not to "waste yourself on the things you cannot change" (Haveli 29) and advocating strategies of deception and subterfuge, a representational mode that accords with Orientalist stereotypes of Eastern women as subtle and devious.
Staples's depiction of Sharma might be read in relation to representations of female protagonists in Western children's texts more broadly, in that Sharma and Shabanu, like the independent and determined girl characters described by Lissa Paul in her essay "Enigma Variations," exercise agency by way of "deceit, guile, fraud, and other forms of trickery" (190). However, Sharma and Shabanu are not simply female protagonists but specifically Muslim protagonists, and to lump them together with female characters in children's literature is to produce girls and women, in Mohanty's words, "as a category of analysis" (259) in which it is assumed that "all women, across classes and cultures, are somehow socially constituted as a homogeneous group identified prior to the process of analysis" (259). I would argue that Sharma and Shabanu are represented in relation to that strand of Orientalist discourse that depicts Orientals, in Said's words, as capable of "cleverly devious intrigues" (287) but as essentially inferior to Westerners. That is, readers of Shabanu and Haveli are positioned to admire the subterfuges through which Sharma and Shabanu resist patriarchal control, even as the narratives of both texts underline the futility of resistance, enforcing the idea that women are ultimately powerless within Muslim societies.
Much of the action of Haveli is set in Rahim's home, where Shabanu is the youngest of his wives, and involves sequences in which the women of the family prepare for two weddings that have been arranged to consolidate alliances and property ownership among Rahim and his two brothers. Orientalist discourses evidenced an early obsession with the harem, or seraglio. Elizabeth Shakman Hurd points out that harem discourse exemplified by Montesquieu's Persian Letters "served to rationalize the ‘kinder, gentler’ European version of patriarchy in contradistinction to the crude and degrading repressive apparatus represented by the ‘seraglio’" (34), and this idea remains a defining feature of modern Orientalism. Leila Ahmed notes that "there are … those powerfully evocative words—for Westerners—harem, the veil, polygamy, all of which are almost synonymous in [the United States] with female oppression" ("Western Ethnocentrism" 522-23).7
Staples's treatment of the women's household in Haveli accords with Orientalist traditions that are concerned with reaching "behind the veil" to the private world of women's lives. Shabanu's situation within Rahim's family is metaphorized somewhat transparently when Mumtaz observes "the ritual of her mother adorning herself for her father." To Shabanu's question "How do I look?" Mumtaz replies "Like Papa's birds" (Haveli 11)—that is, like the desert birds caged on the veranda of Rahim's house. While each of the three older wives has "her own private grudge" (6) about her position in the household, Shabanu is in the most marginalized position as the youngest of the wives, and, as a simple desert girl, she is out of her depth in a world represented as a "hothouse of intrigues" (21).
The fact that Shabanu is not protected by her status as Rahim's favorite wife heightens the sense of malevolent female power in the household, as the text dwells on incidents in which she and Mumtaz are persecuted: Mumtaz's puppy and pet deer are killed; the severed foot of a camel is left in Shabanu's sewing basket; Shabanu is accused unjustly of having a servant as her lover. Along with these accounts of the women's cruelty, the text lingers on signifiers of exoticism, a discursive strategy that again connects Staples's novels with discourses of Orientalism. Referring to Graham Huggan's discussion of exoticism in postcolonial literature, Whitlock notes his emphasis on the fact that "objects, places, and people are not inherently ‘exotic’ and ‘strange,’ but rather exoticism is a particular way of ‘manufacturing otherness’" (61). As it lingers on details of the women's clothes and jewels and on the ornate decorations of Rahim's house, Haveli constructs difference at the heart of similarity.
One of the weddings for which the household prepares is that of Zabo, who is forced to marry Ahmed, Rahim's retarded son by Amina, his eldest wife. The text's expansive description of Zabo's dowry enumerates her "elaborately embroidered and jeweled saris, shalwar kameez, and shawls" (Haveli 213); the colors of silks and jewels; the "bangles, chains, and pendants" (217) piled up for her father to view. Readers are positioned here as observers of a scene that has its equivalent in the Western world in the bridal industry and its marketing of imaginings of "the perfect bride." The very excess of Staples's description, however, which lingers on the richness of Zabo's dowry, its colors and textures, defamiliarizes the scene so as to "manufacture otherness." Moreover, appearances are shown to be illusory: readers are also aware that many of the gold bangles Zabo shows her father are in fact imitation rolled gold because she has squirreled away much of the money he has given her as insurance against the time when she will escape from her despised husband-to-be. Exoticism, then, here carries meanings of excess and of duplicity, so that as Zabo deceives her father she embodies not merely an exemplar of the duplicitous Oriental woman but also points to the distance between the West and the Orient. Evoking the happy bride of Western fashion magazines, the figure of Zabo draws attention to the powerlessness and victimization of the Muslim woman. Staples's description of Zabo's wedding finery can thus be seen to gesture toward a larger contrast between East and West.
The representations of oppression and of exoticism that permeate depictions of girls and women in Shabanu and Haveli imply as their opposite Western women who are in charge of their own lives and who do not rely on the magnanimity of men. This implied comparison develops into an explicit contrast between American and Muslim women in a scene where Shabanu encounters Omar, the American-educated son of Mahood, Rahim's brother. Shabanu, in love with Omar (who is to marry his cousin Leyla), questions him about American women. Omar tells her: "In one way I've changed forever. I will never again regard women in the old way" (Haveli 162). For her part, Shabanu is conscious that she herself does not conform to the "old way" of being a woman; indeed, she reports to Omar: "Amina told me once that I was as brazen as an American" (162). When she questions Omar as to whether "women in America" look directly at men when they speak, whether they interrupt men and offer their opinions in conversation, Omar assures her that this is indeed how American women act. The oppositions that Shabanu and Haveli construct between Western (that is, American) and Muslim women can be summarized as follows:
Western (American) Women
Of equal status to men
Proactive and decisive
Inferior to men
Silent before men
Dependent on men
If Shabanu is depicted as a "Western" rather than "Muslim" woman, the text collapses into incoherence in attempting to account for her exceptionalism: on the one hand, she claims that her "brazenness" derives from the fact that "it was the Cholistani way" (Haveli 162); on the other hand, she acknowledges that she is utterly unlike her (Cholistani) sister Phulan and her parents and that her life has been "a struggle to appear to be doing what's expected of me while I continue to think as I please" (163). The false universalisms that structure these oppositions between liberated American women and oppressed Muslim women seek to reassure Western readers of the otherness of Muslim culture and of their own great good fortune as Western subjects, with Shabanu established as a figure whose desires and impulses are "essentially" the same as those of implied readers.
MY HEART BELONGS TO DADI
Values attributed to individualism and romantic love within Western culture are implied as normal and natural in Staples's novels, and hence practices such as the sexual division of labor, the enclosure of women, and arranged marriages are represented as barbaric and cruel. Shabanu's dependence upon Rahim in Haveli is mapped onto her relationship with her father in Shabanu in a way that unsettlingly blends erotic and father-daughter relationships. This is especially obvious in an episode at the end of the Shabanu, after Shabanu has run away to avoid marrying Rahim. The young camel she has taken with her has broken his leg, and Shabanu, unwilling to leave him to die, is stranded in the desert, where her father finds her:
Without speaking [Dadi] lifts me to my feet and brings his stout stick down across my shoulders. I stand straight and let the stick fall against my ribs and shoulders. I am silent. "Keep your reserves hidden." I repeat Sharma's words over and over, drawing on the strength of my will.
I refuse to cry out, and Dadi in his fury is like Tipu, blood-lust in his eyes. He can beat me to death if he likes. The pain grows worse as the blows strike already bruised flesh. But I take Sharma's advice. I recall the beautiful things in my world and, like a bride admiring her dowry, I take them out, one by one, then fold them away again, deep into my heart.
I hear sobbing, as if from a great distance, and my knees crumple. Dadi catches me in his arms and buries his face against my bloody tunic. He holds me against him, and through a haze of pain, I realize it is Dadi sobbing, not me.
Staples's deployment of first-person narration constructs the illusion that readers here access an interior world where Shabanu keeps "her reserves hidden"—the world, in fact, of the Muslim woman, identified with interiority, silence, and stillness, and contrasted with a Muslim masculinity represented as violent, active, and exterior. Discussing the power of life narratives from Afghanistan, Whitlock remarks that "When members of privileged groups imaginatively represent to themselves the perspective of the oppressed, their representations can often carry projections and fantasies through which their own complementary image of themselves is enhanced and reinforced" (72). In this instance, Shabanu's physical helplessness at the hands of her father invites pity and outrage, enhancing and reinforcing images of Western female subjects who are agential and independent.
The text's demonization of Muslim men is reinforced through the comparison between Dadi and Tipu, the stud camel of the family's flock. Earlier in the book Shabanu and Phulan watch Tipu mating with one of the young females; the scene includes a description of the animal's display of virility, so that the simile "Dadi in his fury is like Tipu" evokes "lust" as much as "blood-lust." Dadi's outbreak of sobbing and his embrace of Shabanu (which suggests the pattern of domestic violence where women are first beaten and then embraced), modulates into Shabanu's imagining of her relationship with Rahim: "Rahim-sahib will reach out to me for the rest of his life and never unlock the secrets of my heart" (Shabanu 240). The significations of this scene, in which Shabanu experiences violence at the hands of a father who has arranged her marriage for the sake of security and financial rewards, construct relations between father and daughter in terms of what Hurd describes as "a negative ideal" (32)—a manifestation of domestic and familial disorder metonymic of an Islamic order characterized by violence and corruption.
The idea that Muslim women are inescapably and inevitably subject to patriarchal control is introduced early in Shabanu in an episode that prefigures Shabanu's beating at the hands of her father. As Shabanu and her father take their camels to market, they meet a group of Bugti desert-dwellers who are searching for a woman of their family who has abandoned her husband and eloped with a Marri tribesman. Following this meeting Dadi says to Shabanu, "‘You know, little one, these men will kill the woman when they find her.’ I don't answer. He is reminding me that I must abide by the rules" (43-44).8 The "rules" of patriarchy are, then, both brutal and inescapable; and the implication here is that they constitute a mono-lithic "Muslim" system. In Haveli Shabanu escapes by withdrawing into herself, a strategy advocated by Sharma and that Shabanu recalls when her father beats her: "Keep your reserves hidden." In an episode in Haveli during which Rahim pressures Shabanu into having sex with him, the text returns to the imagery of a secret and secluded space: "Shabanu barely acknowledged her resentment. She stuffed it back into her heart, just as she and her sister had once stuffed feathered quilts into camel bags"; and as her body "responded to the rhythm of [Rahim's] passion … her eyes stared into the dark, at the ceiling, and, as they turned in the bed, at the wall, at the pillow. All the while she murmured sweetly against his ear, and her plans took shape in her mind" (35). The erotic charge of this episode relies on its Orientalist imaginings of a duplicitous and sensual female subject whose inner life is disclosed to readers.
The injunction "Keep your reserves hidden" suggests a metaphorical veiling in which Shabanu takes refuge in interiority. Although the text implies in this episode that Shabanu possesses the capacity to outwit Rahim and to protect her inner self, the larger shape of the narrative struggles against any easy notion of her empowerment. By the end of Haveli Rahim has been killed by his brother; Shabanu has lost even her tenuous status as Rahim's youngest wife; she has been separated from her beloved daughter and given up for dead by her family; and she has no choice but to "live her life as a ghost" (304). If the novel ends with Shabanu looking to the day when she will be reunited with Mumtaz, it also depicts her romantic attachment to Omar, whose loyalty is to his dynastic obligations: "Omar is my heart; and Mumtaz, Mumtaz is my freedom" (320). The closure of the novel thus reveals its discursive confusion: Western notions of romance and individual agency are at odds with Orientalist discourses that insist on the powerlessness of the Muslim woman. Indeed, the novel's ending is strikingly similar to Said's description of how Orientalism attempts to imaginatively grasp the Orient but cannot do so, falling back on metaphors of "depth, secrecy, and sexual promise" to express the "cultural, temporal, and geographic distance" between the Orientalist and the Orient (222).
THE PERSONAL AND THE POLITICAL: NAJMAH AND NUSRAT
Whereas Shabanu and Haveli concern themselves with the politics of familial and dynastic orders, Under the Persimmon Tree addresses the sociopolitical context of events in Afghanistan and Pakistan following 9/11. Najmah, a girl living with her family in the Kunduz Province of northern Afghanistan, is left to take care of the family's land when her father and brother are taken by the Taliban as conscripted soldiers. When her mother and newborn brother are killed by American bombs that destroy much of the village of Golestan, Najmah dresses as a boy to embark on the long, slow journey to a refugee camp in Pakistan. Like Rahim and his brothers in Haveli, her father and his brother contend for ownership over land; and as in Haveli differences between the brothers are incorporated into oppositions between admirable and evil figures. Najmah's father disapproves of the fact that Uncle grows opium poppies in his fields, and the hint (Under the Persimmon Tree 61) that Uncle is protected by the Taliban constructs a relatively simplistic set of associations between Uncle, the Taliban, and opium production on the one hand, and the mujahideen on the other. By providing the information that Najmah's father gives the mujahideen food because, in his words, they "need help to keep the Pashtun talib out of Kunduz" (10), the text constructs the mujahideen as patriots opposing the Taliban.9
As Najmah makes her way toward Peshawar, the American woman Nusrat (Elaine) waits in the same city for news of her husband, Faiz, who has traveled to Afghanistan in order to establish a medical clinic. Nusrat has set up a small school in her home where she teaches refugee children from the nearby camp. The bulk of the novel alternates between chapters dealing with Nusrat's activities as she waits for news of Faiz and Najmah's account of her journey, which ends in the seventeenth chapter when Najmah reaches Nusrat's home. While readers are situated in subject positions aligned with Najmah, they are also positioned to see Nusrat's home as the desirable end of Najmah's journey and Nusrat as her protector (for instance, she hides Najmah from her uncle when he comes in search of her). Thus, the shape of the narrative underlines the idea that Najmah requires American intervention and support in order to survive. At the same time, it is clear to readers that Faiz has been killed or imprisoned, even though it is not until the end of the novel, when Najmah is reunited with her brother Nur, that Nusrat learns that Faiz has perished during the "accidental" (268) bombing of his clinic. By representing both protagonists, Najmah and Nusrat, as suffering bereavement as a consequence of American bombing raids, the text draws attention to what they have in common, an idea made explicit at the end of the novel:
How can a woman named Help not return to America to make peace with her family? Perhaps she will return to Afghanistan to honor the name her husband gave her by building a school there.
And how can a girl named Star and a boy named Light not go back to their land in the shadow of a mountain named to honor their ancestors' hearts? For there is great value to lives lived in a village called Golestan, which means "beautiful garden."
The heightened language of this passage, realized in the repetition of the sentence structure ("How can a woman … And how can a girl"), in the formality of phrases such as "honor the name her husband gave her" and "honor their ancestors' hearts," and in instances of overwording ("a woman named Help"; "a girl named Star and a boy named Light"), are intended to evoke a solemn and emotive closure that transcends difference. Yet here again Mohanty's observations are apt. Her ironic use of the assertion "We Are All Sisters in Struggle" (259) draws attention to what is elided and silenced when Western women claim sisterhood with Third World women: that is, the culturally and historically specific material conditions what women experience. Seen in this light, the ending of Under the Persimmon Tree elides the differentials of access to resources, family support, and political stability available to Najmah and to Nusrat, producing a sense of a universalized female subject.
The symbolism of stars, meteors, and constellations functions as a leitmotif in Under the Persimmon Tree : the names "Najmah" and "Nur" mean "star" and "light" respectively; Nusrat teaches the refugee children about the solar system; and meteor showers figure both in Nusrat's memories of her American childhood and in the night sky above Peshawar. Like the novel more generally, this strand of symbolism lurches across various schemes of signification. On the one hand, the solar system is represented as producing a context for cross-cultural negotiations, as when Nusrat and her pupils exchange stories of cultural beliefs around the meanings attributed to stars and their properties. On the other hand, one of her brightest pupils warns her that according to his fundamentalist uncle her teaching about the solar system is "an un-Islamic idea" (76), thus sketching a contrast between advanced (Western) and primitive (Muslim) worldviews.
When Nusrat invites Faiz's family to her home to observe a meteor shower from her garden, her mother-in-law Fatima tells her that "In this part of the world people believe everything is an omen. They call shooting stars ‘swords,’ and they believe seeing one means that you will soon breathe your last allotted breath in this lifetime" (49). Despite the fact that Fatima and Asma do not believe in the ominous power of falling stars, they refuse to stay in the garden, so that only Sultan and Nusrat see the first meteorite. This contrast between Nusrat and her female in-laws points to the larger opposition that structures the novel: between an agential female Western subject capable of interrogating the values and traditions of her culture, and a Muslim subject imprisoned by superstition and by primitive, immutable signifying systems.
"A PART OF HER OWN PAST THAT SHE'D ALMOST FORGOTTEN"
If Shabanu is constructed in Haveli as being quasi-American, Nusrat is represented in Under the Persimmon Tree as innately and instinctively Muslim. The narrative retraces the story of her "becoming Muslim" through analeptic accounts of her relationship with Faiz. Born in Watertown, New York, Nusrat grew up as Elaine, "a name she'd never really felt had much to do with her" (21). Her first encounter with Islam occurs when she enters Faiz's apartment, when "she felt she was entering a world where she belonged." The exoticism of this world—its "beautiful deep red carpets and large, hand-woven cushions on the floor, dark, carved tables … old brass samovars, and embroidered wall hangings … the most exquisite book she'd ever seen" (121)—compares favorably with Elaine/Nusrat's memories of her family home, with its "handmade chintz curtains … the chenille spread on the bed … the plastic ivy tucked into the valance over the kitchen curtains … her father's vinyl recliner chair" (122). The opposition between the two worlds—Faiz's and that of Elaine/ Nusrat's parents—then, is produced through a contrast of aesthetics: antiquity, richness, and ornamentation against an artificial and shallow modernity.
Staples relies here on a concept common in literary humanism, where identity is envisaged as a transcendent and essential core of selfhood that exists independently of cultural and ideological systems. Thus, Elaine/Nusrat is depicted here as "naturally" drawn to Islam, or at least to a version of Islam represented by the habitus of Faiz's flat and by the antique Koran that is his prized possession, so that she experiences "a sense of having found something familiar and significant—a connection to a history and a way of life, as if it were a part of her own past that she'd almost forgotten" (122-23). In accordance with this view of identity as a selfhood waiting to be discovered, her conversion to Islam is encoded in her adoption of the name "Nusrat," a name given to her by Faiz and meaning "help" or "one who helps" (140).
After Nusrat reaches the conclusion that Faiz is dead, she decides to return to her family in the United States, explaining to Faiz's sister Asma: "I've been thinking about my parents…. For them my converting to Islam was a little as if I'd died. They felt they'd lost me" (236). Whereas previously Nusrat has found in Christianity no answers to existential problems such as how the notion of a merciful God is to be reconciled with the death of her young sister, the text now proposes a unitary view of religious belief. Nusrat says that, "If I'd been open to it, Christianity might have taught me the same things" (237)—that is, the same things that she has learned from Islam. Similarly, when Najmah asks Nusrat about the difference between Allah and the God of Christianity, Nusrat says, "They are the same. I don't believe God cares by which language we name Him" (222-23). In a textual moment that signals how this exchange is to be understood, Najmah's first-person narration continues: "I think she is right" (223).
These oscillations between the novel's agenda of interpreting Islam to non-Muslim readers and its claims as to the universality of human experiences and needs are premised upon the assumption that Western notions of agency and subjectivity are normal and natural. Elaine/Nusrat's epiphanic moment in Faiz's apartment, when she recognizes her "innate" sense of belonging within a "Muslim world," identifies Islam with the cultural practices of Faiz's middle-class Afghan habitus. Near the end of the novel, when Nusrat resolves to return to America, she assures Asma, "You are my family and my culture of choice" (238). That is, as a middle-class Western woman Nusrat is in a position to choose familial and cultural affiliations, to "mix and match" religious beliefs and ideologies.
That Najmah does not enjoy an equivalent degree of autonomy is demonstrated by the fact that when Nusrat urges Najmah to accompany her to America and to make a new life there, Najmah is unable to imagine herself living anywhere except in Kunduz. Thus she is defined by her attachment to traditional ways, to the land her father and grandfather have farmed, to the routines of farm life, "the smell of grass, the gentle sounds of the animals" (240). Indeed, the loyalty to place and traditions demonstrated by Najmah and her brother Nur is valorized through the approval they receive from Nusrat's brother-in-law Sultan, who arranges safe passage for them to Golestan: when Nur thanks him, Sultan says, "There is no need to thank me…. We are all Afghans and we know what we must do" (265). Within the larger ideologies of the text, Nusrat's identity as a Western subject endowed with agency and freedom is affirmed by Najmah and Nur's resolve to remain in Afghanistan and to maintain the rural simplicity of their lives, since this opposition buys into the Orientalist practice whereby Western culture, in Edward Said's words, "gain[s] in strength and identity by setting itself off against the Orient as a sort of surrogate and even underground self" (3).
In Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, Judith Butler reflects on the meanings attributed to the burqa and to those public moments, much celebrated in the West, where Muslim women have divested themselves of their veils.10 To read the burqa as a sign that the woman wearing it lacks agency, she says, "not only misunderstands the various cultural meanings that the burka might carry for women who wear it, but also denies the very idioms of agency that are relevant for such women" (47). Staples's treatment of Muslim women and girls in the three novels I have discussed rarely breaks free from the notion that the Western world offers the normative model of female agency. Even when Under the Persimmon Tree affirms Najmah's decision to return to her family home at the end of the novel, the text emphasizes that Najmah has no choice in the matter, that she cannot help but go back.
There are differences of tone and orientation between Shabanu and Haveli, on the one hand, and Under the Persimmon Tree, on the other, in that the first two books are more straightforwardly Orientalist in their treatment of the exotic and oppressed female other, whereas Under the Persimmon Tree reflects and responds to events associated with the "War on Terrorism." But what all three novels demonstrate is the potency of the assumptions, beliefs, and epistemologies that structure Western thought and that are blind to the fact that "such notions as modernity, enlightenment and democracy are by no means simple and agreed-upon concepts that one either does or does not find, like Easter eggs in the living-room" (Said xiv). I noted at the beginning of this article that the covers of the three books, with their images of veiled young women, draw on and reinforce Orientalist discourses irrespective of the contents of these texts. My conclusion is that the stereotypes and assumptions evident in the books' covers are consonant with how these novels represent female Muslim subjects: as the objects of Western eyes, which see them as exotic, mysterious, and ineffably other.
1. Recent scholarly work on the veil and Muslim women in Muslim and Western societies includes writing by Ahmed, Ayotte and Husain, El Guindi, Hoodfar, and Whitlock.
2. The novel Shabanu appears in its British edition as Daughter of the Wind (Walker Books, London, 2002).
3. A very different effect obtains, for instance, in the cover illustration of the Australian book Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah. Here a veiled girl looks directly and smilingly out from the cover, as though asking the question that comprises the book's title. As she smiles she adjusts her veil, suggesting that she is producing herself as Muslim. Presented as hazy figures in the background, two girls are seated chatting, wearing summery, Western clothes. The implications here are that the protagonist lives in the modern world, that she engages with non-Muslim protagonists, and that she is agential and active in her identity formation. See the cover image on the Pan Macmillan (Australia) Web site at http://www.panmacmillan.com.au/pandemonium/display_title.asp?ISBN=0330421859 & Author=Abdel-F attah, %20Randa.
4. See Staples's Web site at http://www.suzannefisherstaples.com/.
5. Pierre Bourdieu's conceptualization of habitus, "the durably installed generative principle of regulated improvisations" (78), offers a framework for viewing habitation in the context of habits of behavior that shape human practices. Settings such as Rahim's haveli, the desert home of Shabanu's family, and Nusrat's home in Pakistan can usefully be theorized in relation to Bourdieu's notion of habitus, which incorporates a person's knowledge and understanding of the world as well as interpersonal relations and modes of social behavior.
6. This is also a common feature in settler society historical fiction for children and adolescents, in which indigenous characters are routinely treated as exceptional within their cultures. This is particularly the case in depictions of young girls who resist arranged marriages or refuse to accede to expectations that they carry out domestic tasks. See Clare Bradford, Unsettling Narratives: Postcolonial Readings of Children's Literature.
7. See also Reina Lewis's Rethinking Orientalism: Women, Travel, and the Ottoman Harem and Christine Isom-Verhaaren's "Royal French Women in the Ottoman Sultans' Harem," both of which demonstrate the potency of the harem as an idea central to Orientalist thought.
8. The region of Baluchistan in Pakistan is inhabited by many tribal groups, including Bugti and Marri. See Plamen Tonchev, "Pakistan at Fifty-Five" (15-16).
9. The implication in Under the Persimmon Tree that the Taliban condone Uncle's opium production, and that the mujahideen are a group of patriots defending Afghanistan, accords with the oversimplified treatment of the "War on Terrorism" that dominated political discourses in the United States after 9/11. In their essay "Feminism, the Taliban, and Politics of Counter-Insurgency," Charles Hirschkind and Saba Mahmood point out that "according to the United Nations, the Taliban all but eliminated heroin production in the first year from the areas under their control" (344), and that "where heroin production did continue to flourish was in areas controlled by the Northern Alliance" (344). Far from being simply patriots opposing the fundamentalist Taliban, the mujahideen included extremist groups (supported by U.S. aid) whose misogynistic views of women were similar to those of the Taliban (Hirschkind and Mahmood 342-46).
10. As Whitlock (60) points out, these celebrations of public liberation from the burqa should not blind us to the fact that in many countries another kind of public stripping has taken place, when Muslim women have had their veils forcibly torn off.
Ahmed, Leila. A Border Passage: From Cairo to America—A Woman's Journey. New York: Penguin, 2000.
———. "The Veil Debate—Again." On Shifting Ground: Muslim Women in the Global Era. Ed. Fereshteh Nouraie-Simone. New York: Feminist Press, 2005. 153-71.
———. "Western Ethnocentrism and Perceptions of the Harem." Feminist Studies 8.3 (1982): 521-34.
Ayotte, Kevin J., and Mary E. Husain. "Securing Afghan Women: Neocolonialism, Epistemic Violence, and the Rhetoric of the Veil." National Women's Studies Association Journal 17.3 (2005): 112-33.
Bourdieu, Pierre. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1977.
Bradford, Clare. Unsettling Narratives: Postcolonial Readings of Children's Literature. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2007.
Butler, Judith. Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. London: Verso, 2004.
El Guindi, Fadwa. Veil: Modesty, Privacy and Resistance. Oxford: Berg, 1999.
Hirschkind, Charles, and Saba Mahmood. "Feminism, the Taliban, and Politics of Counter-Insurgency." Anthropological Quarterly 75.2 (2002): 339-54.
Hoodfar, Homa. "More than Clothing: Veiling as an Adaptive Strategy." The Muslim Veil in North America: Issues and Debates. Ed. Sajida S. Alvi, Homa Hoodfar, and Sheila McDonough. Toronto: Women's Press, 2003. 3-40.
Hurd, Elizabeth Shakman. "Appropriating Islam: The Islamic Other in the Consolidation of Western Modernity." Critique: Critical Middle Eastern Studies 12.1 (2003): 25-41.
Isom-Verhaaren, Christine. "Royal French Women in the Ottoman Sultans' Harem: The Political Uses of Fabricated Accounts from the Sixteenth to the Twenty-First Century." Journal of World History 17.2 (2006): 159-96.
Lewis, Reina. Rethinking Orientalism: Women, Travel, and the Ottoman Harem. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2004.
Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. "Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses." Dangerous Liaisons: Gender, Nation, and Postcolonial Perspectives. Ed. Anne McClintock, Aamir Mufti, and Ella Shohat. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1997. 255-77.
Paul, Lissa. "Enigma Variations: What Feminist Theory Knows about Children's Literature." Signal 54 (1987): 186-201.
Said, Edward W. Orientalism. London: Routledge, 2003.
Staples, Suzanne Fisher. Haveli. New York: Random House, 1993.
———. Shabanu. 1989. New York: Random House, 1994.
———. Under the Persimmon Tree. New York: Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2005.
Tonchev, Plamen. "Pakistan at Fifty-Five: From Jinnah to Musharraf." European Institute for Asian Studies. Briefing Paper 02/03 (2002). 8 June 2006 <http://www.eias.org/briefpapers.html.
Whitlock, Gillian. "The Skin of the Burqa: Recent Life Narratives from Afghanistan." Biography 28.1 (2005): 54-76.
Publishers Weekly (review date 19 July 1993)
SOURCE: Review of Haveli, by Suzanne Fisher Staples. Publishers Weekly 240, no. 29 (19 July 1993): 255-56.
Readers who rose to the challenge of Peter Dickinson's AK and Frances Temple's A Taste of Salt will be engrossed by Haveli 's intoxicating blend of heart-pounding adventure and significant social issues. Hunger for land, arranged marriage and the venerable tradition of shutr keena (literally, "camel vengeance": the stem law of death for dishonor) are among the potent forces that drive this stirring sequel to Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind. Married at age 13 to the powerful clan chief Rahim, Shabanu has spent more than half a decade keeping herself and her beloved daughter Mumtaz safe from the malice ("the scorpion in her bed, the rabid bat in her cupboard") of her husband's three senior wives. She is willing to sacrifice almost anything to ensure that Mumtaz receives a good education: the financial independence afforded by a professional degree is one of the few ways in which a Pakistani woman can control her own destiny. The cruel arranged marriage of Rahim's idiot son to Shabanu's closest friend disrupts the indomitable heroine's plans and sets in motion a dramatic chain of events. Staples's portrayal of Pakistan is remarkably even-handed: she acknowledges the society's inequities while celebrating its beauty and warmth. The sights, sounds and even some of the smells of the Pakistani landscape are described in eloquent, unpretentious language. Ages 12-up.
Ellen Fader (review date January-February 1994)
SOURCE: Fader, Ellen. Review of Haveli, by Suzanne Fisher Staples. Horn Book Magazine 70, no. 1 (January-February 1994): 75.
In [Haveli, ] this long-awaited sequel to the engrossing 1990 Newbery Honor book Shabanu, Daughter of the Wind (Knopf), Suzanne Fisher Staples continues the main character's story since the time of her marriage five years before, at age thirteen, to the powerful sixty-year-old Pakistani landowner Rahim. His fourth wife, Shabanu spends most of her energy protecting herself and her four-year-old daughter, Mumtaz, from the jealous scheming of his more cultured wives, who distrust Shabanu's sense of independence and disdain her earlier life in the desert. Even though Rahim claims Shabanu as his favorite wife, his political responsibilities prevent him from offering Shabanu and Mumtaz much protection. Shabanu's complicated plan for a safe future and an education for her beloved daughter in the event of her husband's death is never put into practice; instead, she plots to protect her only friend from a disastrous, politically-motivated arranged marriage to Rahim's mentally deficient son. Shabanu's character is as fully developed in this story as it is in the first book; even the overwhelming attraction she feels for her husband's soon-to-be-married nephew, Omar, is handled sympathetically. Staples shows considerable talent in crafting a taut, suspenseful narrative with strong female characters and a terrific sense of place. Especially notable is the description of the ancestral mansion in which Shabanu finds solace, explores her love for Omar, and eventually finds a safe haven at the book's conclusion. Staples has plenty to say about the role of women today in a traditional society; yet, because she uses her characters to great effect, the messages never overwhelm the story. The conclusion offers some hope for a less restrictive future for Shabanu. A map, a list of characters, and a glossary help readers sort out the sometimes complicated relationships and elaborate turns of events.
DANGEROUS SKIES (1996)
Nancy Vasilakis (review date January-February 1997)
SOURCE: Vasilakis, Nancy. Review of Dangerous Skies, by Suzanne Fisher Staples. Horn Book Magazine 73, no. 1 (January-February 1997): 67-8.
Unlike her two previous novels, Shabanu and Haveli, which had the deserts of Pakistan as a backdrop, the author has set this story [Dangerous Skies ] on Virginia's Eastern Shore, where Buck Smith is mired in an increasingly hopeless effort to clear his friend Tunes from charges of murder. Tunes and her father live and work on the Smith farm, as did their slave ancestors before them. The two children have long been tormented by their sadistic neighbor, Jumbo Rawlin, and when Tunes and Buck come across a body floating in a creek at the edge of their property, Buck suspects Jumbo. Tunes flees, and her nervousness seems justified when the wealthy and influential landowner implicates her in the crime. In trying to help her, Buck learns that Tunes has been raped and brutalized by the man since she was eleven years old. She has never spoken of it to anyone, well aware that her status as a poor black girl allows her little protection from Jumbo, who is (inexplicably) well-respected in the community. But while Tunes responds with a bitter stoicism, Buck's loss of innocence is played out with anguished energy until he, too, comes to realize that the adults he has always trusted are either unable or unwilling to help. Staples is concerned here, as she was in her earlier works, with the plight of the powerless, adding issues of racial prejudice to her previous eloquent statements on the unjust treatment of women. Her decision to use Buck as the narrator is curious, since it keeps the reader at some remove from the heart of the story, which really belongs to Tunes. There are also problems with difficult-to-follow flashbacks and with Buck's shaky first-person voice, as he capriciously loses and regains the folksy vernacular Staples imposes in order to remind you where the novel takes place (for its credibility depends utterly on its being set in so isolated a community). But the plot is gripping to the end: Tunes is never fully exonerated, and the reader, along with Buck, is left to live with the knowledge of that injustice.
Jo-Ann Thom (review date May 2000)
SOURCE: Thom, Jo-Ann. Review of Dangerous Skies, by Suzanne Fisher Staples. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy 43, no. 8 (May 2000): 779-80.
[In the following review, Thom calls Dangerous Skies "a disturbing and complex novel of racism" which may be useful for classroom studies.]
Dangerous Skies is a disturbing and complex novel of racism and injustice by Newbery Honor-winning author Suzanne Fisher Staples. Set in Northampton County along the eastern shoreline of the state of Virginia in the southern U.S., the story takes place in 1991. Publishers Weekly compares Dangerous Skies to an earlier novel, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), and the events reveal that North American society has not progressed as much as it would like to think it has since those dark days of the 1950s and 1960s. We learn early in Dangerous Skies that the people of Northampton County, the "Shore-bred" people, are "peculiar and old-fashioned" (p. 74), their history long, and their social interactions deeply ingrained. The narrator is Buck Smith, a white boy, 12 going on 13, whose family have been residents of Northampton County since the 1700s. Buck tells a story of how his friendship with Tunes Smith is sorely tested. The same age as Buck, Tunes is like a sister to him—they share a surname, live on the same property and share a love for fishing, the water, and the land. But Tunes is black and, in a county where babies are "teethed on racism" (p. 98), colour makes all the difference.
Buck believes that his family's relationship with blacks is different from those of their neighbours. He tells how his family loves Tunes and her father, Kneebone, how they help them after Tunes's mother dies, and how "Gran and Mama looked after Tunes like she was one of their own" (p. 6). According to Buck the white Smiths and the black Smiths have always had a reciprocal and mutually beneficial relationship:
The white Smiths had relied on the black Smiths all the way back to the 1700s, when our family came over from England and settled this farm, and the black Smiths came from Africa as slaves. My family had labored right beside them clearing the land and working it all down the years. Once the slaves were freed, they took our family name, Smith, and stayed on.
This is how Buck has been taught to interpret the world and, at age 12, he naively believes what he has been taught. However, Buck loses that innocence after he and Tunes find the murdered body of Jorge Rodriguez, a Mexican labour organizer. Dangerous Skies is a story of how Buck comes of age and begins to understand the hypocrisy, racism, and injustice that permeate his society.
As a naive narrator, Buck cannot analyze the social conditions that surround him; like any young person, he accepts them as normal. It is normal for him and Tunes to act as if they were strangers on the school bus. It is normal for Buck to sit with "a freckle-faced kid named Dewey Morgan, who folks sometimes said looked just like [him]" (p. 96) rather than sitting with his best friend. And it is normal for the Sheriff to search the black Smiths' home, not the white Smiths', when the Timmons family accuse him and Tunes of stealing chickens. But as the novel progresses, Buck ceases to accept the status quo and begins to question the social and political situation in his community. Young white readers are encouraged to join Buck when he stops accepting and begins to question. Dangerous Skies could be used as an effective tool in the classroom for educating white students to examine society critically. But what about the nonwhite students, the students who have experienced firsthand the racism Fisher Staples describes in her novel?
My home on the Saskatchewan prairies is thousands of miles away from Tunes's beloved shoreline, and I am Native American—not black. Yet I believe that I understand Tunes much better than does Buck, who considers himself her best friend. Indeed, I am confident that readers who have experienced racism will experience the same sick feeling in the pits of their stomachs as I did after Buck and Tunes find Jorge Rodriguez's body. I know the look that Buck describes having seen on Tunes's face many times—"a hardening around her eyes and mouth, a kind of knowing she'd been blamed for something she hadn't done" (p. 47)—because I've seen it on my own children's faces after they have been the victims of racism at school. Teaching Dangerous Skies to students who have been positioned as scapegoats because of their race or ethnicity would be a challenge indeed. And it would be even more of a challenge if the teacher shared the same assumptions as the whites in Fisher Staples's novel, if she assumes that her non-white students are cheats and thieves, that they are prone to promiscuity, and that they should not be believed if what they say contradicts a white person. Unfortunately, teachers who share those assumptions are not anomalies in North America.
I think that Dangerous Skies could be a useful novel for the classroom, but I recommend that teachers use it with caution. Teachers need to remember that non-white students come to the novel having experienced the world in a much different way than white students. Teachers need to remember that this novel is even more disturbing to the students who have shared Tunes's experiences than it is for the ones who identify with Buck. Remember, the teacher Fisher Staples describes, Miz Timmons, might be you.
SHIVA'S FIRE (2000)
Kathleen Isaacs (review date April 2000)
SOURCE: Isaacs, Kathleen. Review of Shiva's Fire, by Suzanne Fisher Staples. School Library Journal 46, no. 4 (April 2000): 142.
Gr. 7-10—From the day of her birth, the day of the cyclone that kills her father and devastates her village in southern India, Parvati is aware of the events spinning around her and knows instinctively that she is different [in Shiva's Fire ]. Her struggle to understand herself and accept her duty as a supremely gifted dancer is the stuff of this splendid story. When Parvati is 11, a famous dance master, drawn by the tales of the miracles that surrounded her, comes to her village asking to take her to Madras where she will be trained in classical dance and music and become a devadasi, a servant of the gods. Not only does this allow Parvati to dance as she has dreamed, but it also provides an income for her impoverished family, though she may never see them again. In the Guru's school, Parvati encounters the same suspicions and jealousy she encountered in her village, but she also makes a friend and develops her talent to an extraor- dinary level. Two years later, she is invited to return to her home area, to stay at the palace of the Maharaja himself, and dance to celebrate his birthday. There, Parvati and Rama, the Maharaja's son, are drawn to one another. By caste and class as well as by their ordained duties, it would go against established order to run off together. The ending is open, magic with possibilities. As she did in Shabanu (Knopf, 1989), Staples reveals the richness of another culture through the narrative details. Using traditional material; aspects of the Hindu god Shiva Nataraja, the lord of the dance; and particulars of modern Indian daily life and religious practice, Staples has spun a tale as smooth and lush as the silk of a sari. It should delight her readers.
Susan P. Bloom (review date May-June 2000)
SOURCE: Bloom, Susan P. Review of Shiva's Fire, by Suzanne Fisher Staples. Horn Book Magazine 76, no. 3 (May-June 2000): 321-22.
Staples's latest novel [Shiva's Fire ], set in India, opens with the confluence of three events: two intimate and personal; the other cosmic and catastrophic. To Meenakshi, mother of two sons, is born a daughter Parvati; that same day a son is born to the honored Maharaja Deva. Both events are overshadowed by a cyclone that destroys their village and claims the life of Meenakshi's husband. This stunning opening, which readers live through with the grieving Meenakshi, sets a standard of suspense hard to sustain. But this is not Meenakshi's novel; rather, Staples fixes on Meenakshi's daughter Parvati, whose uncanny, eerie prescience, even as a newborn, marks her as different. Slowly the whole village comes to hold strange Parvati responsible for the cyclone, the floods, the disease, and even the tiger raids. But sunny-dispositioned Parvati sidesteps this rancor, seeking pleasure in mimicking the dance movements of Shiva Nataraja, the sandalwood statue carved by her deceased father, which comes alive to perform for her alone. Staples's prefatory note helps the reader understand the mystical spirituality that defines Parvati: like Lord Shiva, Parvati is born to dance ("To dance with Shiva is to know freedom from the cycle of birth and death"). She dances in fire without scarring herself; she charms a dreaded cobra with her movements. The novel suffers a loss when Parvati leaves her family to become a devadasi, a servant of the gods devoted to dance. Without Meenakshi and the family dynamics to bring tension to the story, Parvati's study becomes its focus, and its regimen quiets the novel, with Staples recording months of solitary study as Parvati prepares for a recital. In a turn that takes the novel full circle, Parvati is granted a week to visit her family before her performance for the Maharaja. During this interlude of normalcy, she meets the wealthy raja's son Rama, born on her birthday and subject also to gifts of magic for which he too has suffered and been ostracized. The final scenes focus on the young lovers, as they both must make decisions about their future and the dharma each is destined to fulfill. Staples breathes life into her evocation of India, creating a place that is exotic yet absolutely real despite the uneven pace and occasional awkward sentence, this is a memorable novel about a fascinating place and mythology. An extensive glossary helps readers navigate the unfamiliar terrain.
THE GREEN DOG: A MOSTLY TRUE STORY (2003)
Diane Roback, Jennifer M. Brown, Joy Bean, and Jeff Zaleski (review date 28 July 2003)
SOURCE: Roback, Diane, Jennifer M. Brown, Joy Bean, and Jeff Zaleski. Review of The Green Dog: A Mostly True Story, by Suzanne Fisher Staples. Publishers Weekly 250, no. 30 (28 July 2003): 95.
In [The Green Dog: A Mostly True Story, ] this tale based on the author's childhood memories, Staples (Shiva's Fire ; Dangerous Skies ) meandering narrative effectively evokes the long, lazy days of summer on a lake in northeastern Pennsylvania. Narrator Suzanne, an imaginative child, prefers the company of animals to most people ("I don't need Billy McClosky chattering on the dock and scaring the fish away, not to mention interrupting my exotic daydream adventures"). Anyone who has always wanted a dog will identify with Suzanne, whose dream comes true during the summer after her fourth-grade year. The dog, which Suzanne's father refuses to rescue from the highway, later appears in their yard, a good six miles away. Amazed by the coincidence (as readers may be, too), the narrator readily adopts the mutt—although her father never actually says "yes, you can keep him." Suzanne's dream-come-true becomes a bit nightmarish as her pet, dubbed "Jeff," repeatedly gets into mischief (uprooting a neighbor's rhubarb patch—which yields prize-winning pies—plus impregnating a valuable hunting dog and peeing in all the wrong places). Like Suzanne, readers will wait with baited breath to see which disaster will be the last straw, propelling her father to carry out his threat to "send Jeff to the farm." The author creates a timeless atmosphere by remaining focused on the narrator's growing pains and avoiding details that would date the tale. As the novel progresses, readers will detect subtle changes in Suzanne as Jeff draws her out of her loner's shell and forces her to deal with the here and now. Ages 8-12.
Susan Dove Lempke (review date September-October 2003)
SOURCE: Lempke, Susan Dove. Review of The Green Dog: A Mostly True Story, by Suzanne Fisher Staples. Horn Book Magazine 79, no. 5 (September-October 2003): 620.
Staples recalls every sensorial and emotional detail of her summer as an almost-fifth grader, right down to the elastic poking out of her worn-out swimsuit [in The Green Dog: A Mostly True Story ]. It is the summer a dog adopts her family, a dog who looks just like the one she's always imagined owning. Her father is especially dubious about "Jeff," partly because he has already told her she can't have a dog, and partly because of her brother's allergies, but Suzanne is determined to keep him. Unfortunately, although Jeff provides great companionship for Suzanne, he tends to run off and cause trouble with the neighbors. As each incident occurs, Suzanne fears more that her beloved dog is using up all of his chances, and her father warns: "You'd better keep that dog tied up or locked in the basement…. One more of his tricks and he'll be gone." There are occasional funny moments, like the way Jeff becomes the title's "Green Dog," but overall the tone is anxious and sad. The adult Suzanne remembers the child Suzanne's loneliness and pain with visceral intensity and creates here a memoir not of a dog but of the girl who loves and loses him.
UNDER THE PERSIMMON TREE (2005)
Claire Rosser (review date September 2005)
SOURCE: Rosser, Claire. Review of Under the Persimmon Tree, by Suzanne Fisher Staples. Kliatt 39, no. 5 (September 2005): 15.
Staples, who has lived and worked in Afghanistan and Pakistan, makes the recent war horrifyingly clear in this YA novel [Under the Persimmon Tree ]. She has two main characters: a young Afghan girl named Najmah whose father and older brother have been kidnapped by the Taliban and forced to fight; and an American woman, Nusrat, who has formed a school for refugee children in Peshawar as she waits for word from her husband, who is working in a field hospital in a war zone in Afghanistan. The two meet when Najmah, disguised as a boy, makes the journey to Peshawar from her village in search of her father and brother when the Taliban are forced to retreat. Staples gives us an accounting of how Nusrat met her husband in New York City, converted to Islam, changed her name from Elaine, and was warmly accepted into her husband's family. We also learn how Najmah lives in her village, shepherds her family's animals, is wary of her greedy uncle.
The story of these two, Najmah and Nusrat, is filled with terror and drama. When we read about them, we understand what so many have suffered and are still suffering in Afghanistan. Through the story of Nusrat, the modern American woman who chooses to convert to Islam, Staples gives her readers an understanding of the appeal of this religion. In Nusrat's character, Staples explains why foreigners are willing to go to Afghanistan to risk their lives to help a desperate people. The plight of Najmah's father and brother echoes stories we read about detainees held by the Americans who were at the wrong place at the wrong time—they are hardly terrorists. And the deaths of Najmah's mother and infant brother in their little village represent those of thousands of others who have been killed by bombs falling without warning out of the sky.
As Staples says at the end of this novel: "There are few happy endings in Afghanistan these days." She doesn't soften this work by providing an unrealistic happy ending. This is a powerful story that helps us understand the complexities of life in that part of the world.
Heather Hoyt (review date December 2005)
SOURCE: Hoyt, Heather. Review of Under the Persimmon Tree, by Suzanne Fisher Staples. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy 49, no. 4 (December 2005): 359-60.
[In the following review, Hoyt praises Staples for her balanced narrative about a controversial subject matter in Under the Persimmon Tree.]
In the wake of September 11, 2001, and the U.S. attack on the Taliban in Afghanistan, the narratives of an Afghan girl and an American woman become intertwined. Najmah flees her village in Afghanistan after her father and brother are forced to join the Tali- ban and her mother and baby brother are killed in the bombing of their home [in Under the Persimmon Tree ]. With the help of her neighbor's son and his family, Najmah, disguised as a boy, makes her way to a refugee camp and proceeds alone on a dangerous journey to Peshawar, Pakistan, in search of her father and brother. Elaine, who has taken the Muslim name Nusrat, meaning "help," is running a school for refugee Afghan children under the persimmon tree at her home in Peshawar. Nusrat awaits news of her husband's return from Afghanistan, where he has set up emergency medical clinics for Afghans wounded in the fighting between the United States and the Taliban. The narratives of Najmah, told in the first person, and Nusrat, told in the third person, alternate in separate chapters for the first part of the novel.
Through Najmah's narrative, the reader learns of her family's humble but happy life in their village of Golestan, Afghanistan. Their life is difficult: There has been a drought for years and it is hard to grow enough food; water and wood must be gathered each day for washing and cooking; the goats must be herded farther and farther to find enough grazing land; the one-room house shelters the parents, two growing children, and the animals. The author, Suzanne Fisher Staples, does not romanticize Najmah's life in the village but leads the reader to understand and respect Najmah's love of her home and lifestyle through the candid and balanced narrative. Najmah's greatest wish is to find her father and brother and return home to Golestan. Her journey to safety in the refugee camps entails many hardships, including lack of food, water, and shelter. By dressing as a boy she is able to move more freely in public, but she must also perform a boy's heavier workload. She finally makes her way to Peshawar by stowing away on a fruit truck, which is hijacked by bandits on the rainy mountain roads. By staying hidden under the tarp, Najmah is able to survive the journey.
Alternating with Najmah's story is the narrative of Nusrat. She is a young, blonde-haired, blue-eyed American woman who has come to Pakistan with her Afghan American husband, Faiz. Through Nusrat's memories, the reader learns how she met and fell in love with Faiz in New York City. Nusrat had been attracted to Afghan culture and Islam and discovers a sense of belonging to both that she had not felt in the American culture in which she had grown up. Through Nusrat's experiences, the reader learns that Islam is not a religion of fanaticism and violence, but a religion of moderation and peace. Nusrat converted to Islam of her own accord, not from pressure from Faiz. After they had been married for a year, Nusrat suggested that she and Faiz go to Afghanistan to help the refugees fleeing the Taliban. Faiz administers medical aid to refugees in emergency clinics in Afghanistan while Nusrat stays in Peshawar, Pakistan, near his family, to run her school for refugee children.
Najmah's and Nusrat's narratives merge in the later part of the book when Najmah is brought to the persimmon tree school after her arrival in Peshawar. Staples has prepared the reader for their connection by drawing parallels between their lives. Both Najmah and Nusrat have suffered familial losses; both find solace in looking at the stars when remembering their relatives; both are eager to find their loved ones and return to their lives before the war. Najmah learns to trust Nusrat and is surprised to find out that she is also a Muslim. Nusrat begins to understand Najmah's wish to return to her home in Golestan despite the hardships and destruction of her village. When all hope of reuniting with her family seems to be lost, Najmah's brother Nur appears at the persimmon tree school. Both wish to return to their home in Afghanistan. Though Nusrat and her husband's family are very concerned for their safety and survival, they respect Najmah's and Nur's wish to return. Nusrat receives news of Faiz's death from Nur's report of the destruction of a medical clinic by the miscalculation of a U.S. bombing run; the American doctor killed there must have been her husband. Nusrat will go with her in-laws to visit the site where Faiz was killed, then she will return home to the United States. She realizes that her connection to her American culture and family are just as important as her connection to her Afghan Muslim family and culture. Now that she has experienced and reflected on both sides of her identity, Nusrat believes she will be able to find a balance for them in her life.
Staples has written a remarkably realistic and balanced book from the perspective of an adolescent Afghan girl and an American woman. Stereotypes of Muslims, Afghans, and Americans are overcome through the course of the narratives; experiences and connections with individuals from all of these groups illustrate that the stereotypes do not apply as expected. No one group is altogether evil or altogether good, but a mix of both. Even the Taliban is made up of boys like Nur who have been forced to fight or be murdered, even though they do not agree with the organization. The harsh realities of war for civilians are confronted in a moderate way, but they are not glossed over. Najmah's observations of refugees who are missing limbs, the deaths of her mother and baby brother after the bombing, and the lack of basic necessities highlight the brutal reality. America is represented in the narratives as both helpful and harmful: while food, shelter, and medical aid are provided for the refugees, the U.S. bombings are killing and wounding the same people the government is trying to help. This novel is a captivating, beautifully crafted story, as well as a balanced, candid illustration of the impact of post-September 11 reactions and consequences for the Afghan people and Americans who wish to help. The book is recommended for readers ages 12 and up. Teachers will find this an excellent springboard for critical and empathic thinking about international relations and its effects on individual lives.
THE HOUSE OF DJINN (2008)
Hazel Rochman (review date 15 February 2008)
SOURCE: Rochman, Hazel. Review of The House of Djinn, by Suzanne Fisher Staples. Booklist 104, no. 12 (15 February 2008): 75.
Even readers who know the Newbery Honor Book Shabanu (1989) and its sequel, Haveli (1993), may find it hard to keep track of who's who in this follow-up, [The House of Djinn, ] which unfolds through several switching narratives. Mumtaz, 15, has been raised by her hostile relative in contemporary Pakistan. When her mother, Shabanu, reappears after 10 years in hiding, Mumtaz must cope with the anger, depression, and guilt that results from their awkward reunion. Her cousin Jameel, also 15, lives most of the year in San Francisco, where he plans to attend college and loves blonde Chloe. When he returns to Lahore each year, he feels caught between two worlds. Then the teens' beloved, powerful baba dies, leaving directions: Jameel and Mumtaz must marry. The cousins are best friends, but why should they marry and give up plans they have for the future? Readers will ponder the questions about responsibility and freedom Staples raises in the intriguing marriage drama.
Baker, Deirdre F. Review of The House of Djinn, by Suzanne Fisher Staples. Horn Book Magazine 84, no. 3 (May-June 2008): 328.
Characterizes The House of Djinn as a "thoroughly absorbing read."
Coats, Karen. Review of The House of Djinn, by Suzanne Fisher Staples. Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 61, no. 11 (July-August 2008): 496-97.
Lauds Staples's "careful and sensitive handling of cultural difference" in The House of Djinn.
Ruggieri, Colleen A. "What about Our Girls?: Considering Gender Roles with Shabanu." English Journal 90, no. 3 (January 2001): 48-53.
Emphasizes the potential educational value of Shabanu for developing female adolescents.
Additional coverage of Staples's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 26; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vol. 15; Children's Literature Review, Vol. 60; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 132; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 82; Literature Resource Center; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Ed. 2; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults Supplement, Ed. 1; St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers; Something about the Author, Vols. 70, 105, 151; and Writers for Young Adults Supplement, Vol. 1.