Women Writers Wednesday 10/7/15

The topic came up in one of my conversations today about the underrepresentation of protagonists of color in the YA literature being published here in the west. You may debate this all you like, if you want to. I know where I stand, and so I’m happy to feature this response by Iqra Asad to Na’ima B. Robert’s She Wore Red Trainers.

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Keeping It Real: A Muslim Girl’s Reaction to She Wore Red Trainers

SHE WORE RED TRAINERS cover

Growing up reading classics, Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl, I never knew until my mid-teens that mainstream books in English featuring Muslim characters even existed. Of course, I knew about the angsty South Asian novel with the usual conflict of East versus West. In my opinion, those books, featuring characters that either live Western lives in an Eastern setting, or a Hollywood plot with Pakistani setbacks, were in the same line as photographers who only show the “starving Pakistani beggar” pictures in their portfolio. I mean to say that they only show to the global audience what that audience expects to see. Not to say that the starving beggars of Pakistan don’t have a story that deserves to be told, but National Geographic, Reader’s Digest and other leading publications are already doing that. What about privileged, middle-class, educated me who lives a life outside the “angsty Pakistani novel” experience? I like what the Indian author Uma Krishnaswami said about Kipling still being considered representative of the West’s perspective of life in India. Similarly, these novels by Muslim authors with Muslim characters, while entertaining and thought-provoking to read, are not as relevant to me as my more recent discoveries in the world of Muslim novels.

Those discoveries are the work of some groundbreaking female Muslim authors. I would like to talk about one of them today. Na’ima B. Robert entered the publishing world with From My Sisters’ Lips, an autobiographical account with the narratives of some other Muslim women included. She founded SISTERS Magazine, the magazine for fabulous Muslim women. She went on to write Muslim children’s fiction and YA, the latest of which is She Wore Red Trainers, from Kube Publishing. Honestly speaking, I managed to get it because it was only $1.99 in the iBooks and Kindle stores (but then I got the full-price paperback delivered to my Pakistani residence via Fabingo). The reading experience for me was, however, priceless. While she’s not Pakistani (she is, in fact, part Zulu and part Scottish), her stories of Muslim experiences in a British backdrop appeal to me. (As for my particular kind of Muslim experience in a Pakistani backdrop, you know what they say to do if you don’t find the book you want to read. I’m working on that.)

I am aware that not every reader of She Wore Red Trainers walks away with the same fondness for it that I have. Every reader brings their own personal viewpoint with them to the reading experience, and mine was that of a twentysomething-but-still-reading-YA girl thrilled to read a woman writer writing about Muslim teens.

How romantic is this “YA romance”?

The story is boy-meets-girl and happily-ever-after, but there’s a lot of “looking away so as not to stare immodestly” and “keeping away because premarital relationships are not Islamic” in the book. As one Goodreads review stated, it doesn’t feature the frequent and in-depth personal interaction between the hero and heroine as most romances do. However, in my opinion I think that is keeping it real as far as the context is concerned. As a girl who had to shake her head numerous times when asked by her American health care provider whether she had had any sexual partner (No? Really? Not ever? OK, then), I understood the “attracted from a distance” theme of the book. To answer the question, it’s as clean as clean gets. Sterile, even.

Also, it’s not really categorized by Amazon as a romance. It’s categorized under “family”. That should clear things up for you. However, to hook the youthful target readership, “halal romance” (“halal” being “Islamically permissible”) is the label to use. Trust me, we veiled Muslim girls really get a kick out of stuff like this. I think our main occupation really is “dreaming of marriage land.” There, I said it. People who know me as the reserved veiled bookworm can officially faint with shock now.

Who should read this book?

If the blurb appeals to you, read it. If you’re curious, read it. If you want to support this particular niche, I insist you buy it.

A comment about the ending

The ending is very fairytale and a tad unrealistic, but I accepted it, being an enthusiastic reader.

Is it a valuable contribution to the women writers’ narrative?

Yes, of course! As a female reader I want to read women writers writing about women, men, teens and toddlers going through all situations of this world. YA has a special place in my heart and seeing women writers thrive while writing YA really gives me a boost, both as a reader and as a writer.

Have you read it? Would you like to read it? Does this article remind you of a book you’d like to mention? Do share in the comments.

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Iqra Asad is an American Pakistani, fresh out of dental school and writing her way forward in life. She blogs at http://iqrawrites.com/ and tweets as @iqrawrites.

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To see more kinds of reviews like the ones in this series, check out these blogs by Melanie Page and Lynn Kanter. And of course go to the Sappho’s Torque Books page here to see other reviews by me and by other contributors to the Women Writers Wednesday series.

The Women Writers Wednesday series seeks to highlight the contributions of women in literature by featuring excellent literature written by women authors via reviews/responses written by other women authors. If you’d like to be a contributor, wonderful! Leave a comment below or send me an email, tweet, or Facebook message with your idea.

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Women Writers Wednesday 1/28/15

This week’s review comes to us from Jennifer Waldo, who has reviewed several YA book series. (You’ll see a couple more of those posted here this year.) In this installment of our Women Writers Wednesday series, she discusses quite thoughtfully Veronica Roth’s Divergent series. (This review was originally posted on her own website last year and is reposted here with her permission.)

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I just finished Allegiant, the third and final sequel in the Divergent series by Veronica Roth. It would be a disservice to give away anything that happens to the major characters, but I have to say that Roth’s writing is as brave and convention-shattering as her main characters. She demonstrates that Young Adult fiction does not have to be safe and comfortable for its audience.

DIVERGENT series books

Out of the series, I still love Divergent the best because of the newness of the world and the uncertainty and challenge facing the main character Tris as she leaves the self-effacing faction of her childhood for the most wild, dangerous, and even reckless faction for her future. The story follows the conventions of other dystopian series’ like Legend and Hunger Games but stands on its own. The second book in the series, Insurgent, explores the world that was set up to its limits and then breaks it wide open. I didn’t know what to expect from Allegiant. Story-wise, I was lost on some of the details of this second-new world where genetic testing and purity, damage and reconstruction are behind everything I thought to be true. But from a character standpoint, Roth took a leap and pushed her characters beyond anything I’ve read so far. And I realized as I was reading that I didn’t know how she was going to wrap it up. It stopped following convention. And that’s when I became afraid.

Like many of these dystopian series, the teenage girl at the center of the story makes decisions with as much logic and analysis as she can muster with a default gut-reaction in her back pocket. The young female protagonists tend to be smarter than average, aware of their own physical limits, and willing to push themselves past all those limitations when necessary. In the real world, the fact that these girls’ decisions end up being the right thing to do would be mostly due to luck, but in these series, these profound consequences are a testament to the girls’ special qualities. The message is clear: Be smart, young ladies.  Be brave.  Think before you act, don’t let emotions get the best of you. And if you must, take a leap of faith.

In the real world, those leaps of faith for a teenager are based on crazy hormonal shifts and raging emotions. While I agree with the sentiment behind these character traits, I don’t know how well they translate. Honestly, it’s confusing being a girl sometimes. I grew up with the whole-hearted belief that I could have a thrilling, passionate, demanding career in a difficult field and still have an incredibly rare marriage and perfect children that I would have time to raise and money to support. I’m not saying this isn’t possible, but as life has surprised me along the way, I have realized that the reality of this belief is not at all like the fantasy in my head. With the pressures women have to be thin, have flawless skin, be perfect and smart and strong and feminine, there is no room for error as these girls navigate into their womanhood. I think of Miley Cyrus, who in all reality is doing exactly what she should be doing as a young, passionate, creative woman. She is being vilified for not being a role model and yet rewarded for her crazy behavior with media attention and money. How will she navigate into adulthood? Obviously celebrities are a special breed, and again the translation to us normal humans is not one-to-one, but still I hope you see my point.

The most important aspect of these dystopian young adult series is that these strong female characters face dangers and actually lose something in the process. They face the compromise of life and find a way to keep living. I can’t really recall a story from my formative pre-teen/teen years that offered such a mature outlook on life and the future. The ones that come to mind all offer some kind of replacement solution, usually in the form of a man/relationship. In many ways, it’s heartbreaking to read Allegiant now, as a parent, because I don’t want to think about loss and disappointment for my own children, even though I know it’s inevitable. And worse, I know that loss, disappointment, and failure are all the best teachers to becoming a better person. They can do the opposite as well, but handing someone something on a silver platter doesn’t seem to have done much good for anyone I know. Fighting for what you want, failing and having to figure out which battle to fight, is key to understanding oneself and others.

In adult fiction, I keep my guard up as a reader, knowing that all bets are off, but in YA I tend to think there’s a safety in the genre that things will be realistic but not that real. Allegiant blew me away because it shattered all the safe promises the other series keep. What is salvaged from the wreckage of the story is true and beautiful and heartbreaking and the best thing anyone can pass on to the next generation. I literally sobbed at the end. I don’t want to leave these characters. I don’t want to admit that Roth ultimately took my expectations and used them against me, and that I played right into her gifted hands.

As a fellow writer, and one who likes to break conventions, I salute you, Veronica Roth. As a reader, you have broken my heart and mended it with the bittersweet truths of your words. Thank you.

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Jennifer Waldo has been writing and directing for film and video for the last ten years, including the short video SISTERS now in post production. A lifelong writer and photographer, Jennifer began her career working in the documentary/educational film industry of her hometown, Washington, DC.  She graduated from the Quaker school Sidwell Friends and went on to earn her Bachelor of Arts with honors in English at Oberlin College. Wanting to hone her skills as a filmmaker, Jennifer spent three years earning her MFA in Film Production at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts where she won the Edward Small Directing Scholarship for her existentialist film ROOM 119 (2001) and wrote and directed her 35mm USC graduate thesis SEARCHING FOR ANGELS (2006).  After graduating USC in the spring of 2004, Jennifer’s thesis film screened at the Director’s Guild in Los Angeles as part of the April 2006 First Look Festival. Working in Houston, Texas, over the last few years, Jennifer completed a set of twelve educational videos for a local Montessori School and EVERYTHING BEGINS AT B.I.R.T.H. (2007) about non-profit organization BIRTH founded by midwives. Jennifer’s romantic comedy screenplay HONEYMOON ADVENTURERS was selected as a “Screwball Comedy” Finalist in the Broad Humor Screenplay Contest in July 2006 and her feature-length script adaptation of SEARCHING FOR ANGELS was a quarter-finalist in the 2008American Zoetrope Screenplay Contest.  In November 2008, Jennifer won the “NaNoWriMo” writing challenge with an 85,000-word novel written over a 30 day period. In addition to writing and directing, Jennifer is also a producer, most recently working on the independent feature film THE PREACHER’S DAUGHTER (2012), showing on Lifetime.  Jennifer produced several USC graduate thesis films including the festival favorites UNSYNCABLES AT ANY AGE (2003), FIST OF IRON CHEF (2004), and PEBBLES (2005), as well as the A.C.E.-sponsored HD documentary  THE CUTTING EDGE: THE MAGIC OF MOVIE EDITING (2004). Jennifer currently teaches filmmaking at Houston Community College’s Audio Recording and Filmmaking Department, Spring Branch Campus. She is also a longtime member of Women in Film in Los Angeles, California.

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To see more kinds of reviews like the ones in this series, check out these blogs by Melanie Page and Lynn Kanter. And of course go to the Sappho’s Torque Books page here to see other reviews by me and by other contributors to the Women Writers Wednesday series.

The Women Writers Wednesday series seeks to highlight the contributions of women in literature by featuring excellent literature written by women authors via reviews/responses written by other women authors. If you’d like to be a contributor, wonderful! Leave a comment below or send me an email, tweet, or Facebook message with your idea.