The Pearl The Broke Its Shell is a dual timeline narrative told mostly from the perspective of Rahima, a young woman living near Kabul in 2007. She and her sisters are the children of an opium-addicted father and, with no brothers to help the family, their prospects for improving their life or marriage prospects are grim. Their rebellious aunt, Shaima, suggests that Rahima follow an old custom called the bacha posh, which not only sounds like Klingon the way the narrator pronounced it, but it the tradition of allowing a girl to dress and act as a boy when there are no other boys in a family. She can go to school, run errands for her mother, and chaperone her other sisters. In this way, Rahima becomes Rahim and becomes a boy until she reaches marriageable age and her father marries her and her two other eldest sisters off. By marriageable, I mean she was 13.
The tradition of bacha posh was not unique to Rahima’s family. She had a many-times-great grandmother, Shekiba, who had lived as a man near the turn of the century as well. The secondary timeline follows her story from her small village and farmstead, through the cholera epidemic that wiped out her entire family, and how she lived as a man in order to survive.
This was such a thought provoking novel. Though fiction, it deals with issues which happened in real life and which are still highly relevant today – child marriage, honor killing, domestic abuse, drug addiction, and many other issues. Any one of these things is enough to break a person, but underneath all this is woven the strength of women. Rahima and Shekiba, as well as the other women throughout the book, all suffer hardships, sacrifices, abuses, and losses that are unimaginable. Some, like Rahima’s sister Parwin, are overcome. But others, like Rahima and Shekiba themselves, keep fighting even when they think they’ve come to the end of their strength and can’t go any further or endure anything else life could possibly throw at them. In the end, Shekiba’s story becomes a source of strength for Rahima, and Rahima becomes the pearl that breaks her shell.
I loved the use of bird imagery as well throughout the book. Parwin was fond of drawing birds, there were birds singing and fluttering about in many pivotal scenes. Birds have some significant parts in Islamic culture, from the “Miracle of the Birds” when Abyssinian forces were supposedly annihilated by birds dropping pebbles from the sky to prevent them from entering Mecca and destroying the Ka’bah, to stories found in The Thousand and One Arabian Nights to works by Sufi poets and Islamic mystics. Including the bird imagery elevates the narratives of the women and equates them to many of the mystics or saints from other cultures in some ways, those who were made holy through their suffering, like medieval saints. I am not sure if that is intentional or not, but the image is there all the same.
This mystic thread continues in the book’s title, which is derived from the ecstatic poem “There Is Some Kiss We Want” by Rumi, the 13th century Sufi poet. It is a lovely poem:
A couple of months ago, I sat down to chat with author Judith Starkston about her new book, Priestess of Ishana. With deepest apologies to Judith about the delay in writing this article, especially as she was so gracious about giving me the interview – and feeding me in her own home, no less! – I want to talk a little bit about the awesome lady and the research behind a truly unique new series of books.
The series, which begins with Priestess… and will carry on with a forthcoming book (yay!) is based on Starkston’s research of the Hittite culture. I touched on this a little bit in my initial review of the book both on my blog and the historical novel review site, Discovering Diamonds. Her research is deep and accurate, and I would expect nothing less of her since she is a Classicist who is committed to providing detailed information about the ancient world in a fun and accessible way.
One of the overarching themes I noted in the book involve politics and shows men trying to keep women submissive. Starkston comments, “There are a lot of correlations between the politics of then and now. We like to think of history as progressing, but that isn’t always the case.” She goes on to explain about Hittite culture and how women like Tesha, her main character who is based on the real-life Hittite queenPuduhepa, were allowed to stay queens after their husband died. Often, if they had a son, they would navigate their power to get their sons on the throne, because there was always a king, unlike, for example, in Tudor England with Elizabeth I. But generally speaking, Hittite women had more power and freedom than Victorian women – they had property, could keep children even after a divorce, and they were allowed to initiate a divorce. Priestesses in particular had a key business and financial role as well as religious. The temples are sometimes referred to by scholars as “Little Vaticans” since they held so much power and influence over other non-religious institutions.
The rites and rituals portrayed in Starkston’s book are fascinating and full of magic. They also come directly from existing Hittite records; none of them are made up. While this might seem unbelievable to modern readers, Starkston explains that the Hittite culture is imminently well-suited for a fantasy novel.
She says, “When I decided to change the series from straight historical fiction to fantasy, it was actually really liberating. There is so much about how they view the world that is hardwired for magic.” For example, there is a detailed scene where Tesha performs a rite in a cave to banish an evil spirit, which they believed was lingering because a man was burnt to death. The entire ritual comes directly from cuneiform records. Similarly, another ritual, not used in the book but which Starkston discovered about Hittite culture, deals with disputes within a family. When such instances occur, the family would call in a priestess to heal them, believing it was an illness. The priestess would make wax tongues, the family would say the words of the argument, then spit on the wax and burn it. Based on court records, Starkston explains that this ritual and other similar ones showed that the Hittites believed words were the most powerful thing, curses were believed to be real and were feared, and correcting bad words is written into the culture. Such belief is woven into the fabric of Priestess of Ishana at every level.
Another element of the book I truly loved were the mouth-watering descriptions of the food. I’m a foodie and I love to learn about new places and foods based on the books I read. Some of the foods in Priestess were made up to reinforce the fantasy elements, but overall, the foods in the book were also based on archaeological records and DNA studies of the residue from around hearths or pots, which can tell us if they contained wine, grains, cheese, and so on.
Starkston says, “Food is core to understanding a culture, so I really wanted to highlight it.” Indeed, she did. One of my favorite scenes involved Tesha and Hattu eating the stamens of large flowers in the temple. Who knew that eating flowers could be so sexy?
The flowers in this scene were made up, but the rest of the food in the same scene was not. I asked Starkston if she had ever tried making any of the recipes she had written about in the book or discovered in the historical record. Not only has she done so, she actually made a cookbook based on them. They are based on ingredients and techniques available at the time. All the recipes mentioned in her books are collected there and if you sign up for her newsletter, she will send it to you for free. I have tried some of them and I have to say, they are GOOD. My favorites are her hummus, lamb and lentil stew with raisins (though I hate raisins so I substituted with dried blueberries and it was delish), and the almond-stuffed dates. Seriously, the recipes are scrumptious and are fancy enough to impress your friends at a dinner party. That they are based on ancient recipes is just a delightful bonus for history nerds.
Starkston’s series will continue with a second novel, which I, for one, am eagerly anticipating. As yet, there is not a release date for the second book, though she says Tesha’s sister Daniti will be a point-of-view character. This will prove fascinating, as Daniti is blind, having lost her sight from chickenpox as a child. The way Starkston approaches illness and physical imperfection in the novel struck a balance between actual beliefs from antiquity. She is doing a lot of research to create as authentic a character as possible in Daniti. She says, “Since I found no evidence of how blindness might have been treated in Hittite society, or how the blind might have been viewed, I worked from close cultures like Sumerians to extrapolate. But there were split ideas toward blindness in ancient world. They were either thought to have inner visions sent by a god, like Homer’s ability, or they were thought to have a deformity or imperfection. Daniti is viewed by her father as cursed. Whatever went wrong was always the fault of the sick person, for example. So I made her an outcast, which was historically accurate, except that she and Tesha are close.”
Daniti is a strong woman, something Starkston excels at crafting. She creates women who can take on an enemy and do it without a sword. Tesha and Daniti are both women of deep strength.
Do magic and fantasy sit well together within historical fiction – indeed can such novels even be counted as historical? Should ‘historical’ be as accurate as possible without the addition of magic or obvious fantasy, or is there leeway for diversification? Should a book that is clearly fantasy in essence, but has its background of characters and general plot set very firmly within an accurately researched historical setting be considered as historical or as a fantasy novel, set in a fantasy world that is very loosely based in history, and therefore have no right to be classed as ‘historical’? What actually constitutes history or fantasy, anyway? Is the merging of fantasy into history acceptable? In short, of course it is! Within the varied genres of historical fiction, is it not this diversity which makes reading novels set in the past so exciting? The accurate biographical type novels of the lives of known people (usually kings and queens, or men and women of note) is one branch of historical fiction where the known facts are imperative to ensure the overall feel of ‘believability’ is ensured. For the other genres, mysteries, thrillers, romance, timeslip, alternative, it is the depth of the background research that creates the feeling of realism. If fantasy is not acceptable for historical fiction we would be sadly deprived of many wonderful novels and series: Mary Stewart, Barbara Erskine, Du Maurier to name just three – and there would be no Outlander!
When I find an author who writes a unique story, and who does it really well, it is a delight. When that story is also based on actual fact, as Judith Starkston’s novel is, it undergoes an alchemical change from just a fun story into a jaw-dropping narrative of women in the ancient world, struggling to gain their own agency, find their strength and bravery, give love to those around them, and fulfil a destiny. It provides an insight into what life was really like and shines a light on the human condition. We can look beyond the elements of fantasy and see the real people behind the magic.
And really, isn’t that what good literature is supposed to do, be it fact or fantasy?
In late-14th century France, Charles VI “the Mad,” rules. Probably a lot of people would like for France not to be ruled by a guy who is off his rocker, including his brother, the Duke of Orleans. Then, at a masquerade ball, the king and several of his friends decide to cause some mayhem and dress up like wildmen. To do so, they stick fur and leaves to themselves using pitch. This turns out to be a spectacularly bad idea, because a spark, presumably from the Duke of Orleans’s torch, catches on one of their outfits, causing four of the men to burn to death and the king to narrowly escape the same fate. Everyone suspects the Duke. However, some other people attending, including Christine de Pizan (yes, that Christine de Pizan) see something others didn’t – another torch, which was thrown from a spot far away from the Duke’s location. He still had both of his torches and yet there was a third torch on the floor, in the middle of the burning men. The Queen, Isabeau of Bavaria, asks Christine to find out who wants the king dead, for she is certain that he was the target of an attempted assassination. Aided by a colorful array of sidekicks, including a prostitute who actually makes her living at embroidery, a dwarf who works for the Queen, and a deaf girl who takes care of the King’s lions, Christine undertakes an investigation. It leads her from the twisted politics of the court, to various potential targets and culprits with different reasons to want the victims dead, and straight into the sights of a killer.
In the Shadow of the Enemy is actually the second in the Christine de Pizan series, but it was the first one I’ve read. That made no difference to my utter enjoyment of the book, though, as this story is a standalone. The first book was referenced enough that it filled in any gaps there might have been, sometimes a little too thoroughly – there are totally spoilers for the first book, so I didn’t think that was very well done at all. I’m still going to read the first book, though, and just hope that I’ve forgotten what the spoilers are by the time I actually get around to it.
I adore the fact that Christine de Pizan, author of The Book of the City of Ladies (Penguin Classics), is the protagonist here. I love it when real women from history are the stars in literature interesting new ways. She is a complex character, and all the secondary characters are multifaceted as well. Marion the prostitute was my second favorite, with her big personality and capacity for warmth and generosity and her inexplicable reluctance to tell people she isn’t actually a prostitute anymore. Christine’s mother, Francesca, was also a fun, minor addition. She reminds me of my grandmother in a lot of ways. The one thing I thought was weird was Klara’s utter and sudden change of heart regarding her husband Martin and her views on her brother, Willem. Those both seemed too convenient for me, but in the scheme of things, I can overlook this minor quibble.
The mix of medieval attitudes towards people, including those deemed “defective”, such as dwarves or deaf people, and even towards Christine herself, is so realistic. People thought Loyse, the deaf girl, had demons because they didn’t understand that she acted as she did simply because she couldn’t hear or understand others. The dwarf, Alips, was viewed with deep suspicion and hatred because it was thought that dwarves bring bad luck, or that the way they look on the outside reflected a corrupt soul. And, of course, women were viewed as second class citizens and were treated as such. So much religious bullshit. The research that clearly went into the novel is apparent and appreciated. The imagery brings to life medieval France in an immediate way, from the descriptions of the court and its kitchens and gardens to the streets and their various inhabitants. The plot was pleasingly complex and included a lot of history about French warfare, or at least one battle in particular. Overall, this was a fast, fairly light read and I happily recommend it. I even went to the library and got the first one in the series. I’ll read a few other books before I read that one, though, to see if I forget the spoilers for it that were in this book. Hmph.
*This is a much longer and more detailed review of the one which was originally published by the Historical Novel Society.
Black Lily is the tale of Zenobia and Lily. Zenobia was born into poverty, the daughter of an impoverished young girl who became the mistress of a shipping mogul. It is possible he was Greek or Middle Eastern but if it ever said, I missed that part. He was surprised when Zenobia was born blonde. Lily is a black woman who was brought to London from the Caribbean on a sugar and slave ship as a toy to a rich lord. She was a kept woman for a rich merchant who ended up being connected to Zenobia in a surprising way. The lives of these women continue to intertwine in intricate, often horrific, ways, and they both have to learn how to navigate society to her best advantage when her value is entirely decided by the men who control them. Lily ends up being a hidden driving force throughout Zenobia’s entire adult life in ways she never even knows. In turn, Zenobia unwittingly is a savior of sorts to Lily. Another woman, Lily’s maidservant, Agatha, is yet another link between the three women, forging deeper connections and bonds that are strong enough to keep the secrets they all hide from society and the men around them. Read More »
Circe is the tale of a fascinating but somewhat overlooked woman from Greek myth. She is the daughter of the sun god Helios, a lesser divinity, immortal, and a witch. She has the power to transform things and she knows the inherent magic in plants. Most of us know her from her role in The Odyssey, which was significant even if it wasn’t long. This novel tells her tale from her childhood, her self-discovery, and how she finds a place for herself in the harsh world of the gods.
I absolutely loved how Circe deals with her role in and among the gods. She never has an easy time – she has the worst time, really – but she is a woman in a man’s world and she still makes a place for herself. She is seen, and forces the divinities to acknowledge her in some way, whether any of them like it or not, including her. I think this really mirrors the experiences of modern women in that we still struggle to be seen and be taken for granted, not be underestimated, and not shuffled off or ignored as though we are worthless.
When Circe encounters Prometheus, it sets the stage for her entire life. She learns she can defy the gods to an extent. Perhaps she will be punished for her defiance if she gets caught, but she also learns they don’t actually know everything and there are things people can do and get away with that they never know about. She manages to make this idea central in her own life, defying the gods in subtle and not so subtle ways.
I really loved the way crafts were woven throughout as well. They were, however, divided by traditional gender roles. It makes sense within the context of the narrative, though, since Circe, Penelope, Medea, were expected to know certain things and not others, and vice versa for Odysseus or Daedalus. The women knew weaving and spinning, herb lore, healing and midwifery. The men knew smithing, metalwork, sculpting, and woodworking. Breaking down crafts by gender roles reinforces the roles and highlights the fact that even the gods are similar to humans in this world, which is super interesting because, even though the gods are immortal and have various powers, they are still limited in some ways with what they can do. They are governed largely by their emotions and desires. In many of the ways that count, they act more like immortal toddlers than as wise beings. Humans tend to be more reasonable in some situations than the gods, which I think is interesting. Is it how Circe sees the gods and humans, or is that how it truly is here? Intriguing commentary, either way.
There are just too many things that could be discussed for one review – how parents view their children and vice versa; the relationship between Circe and her sister Pasiphae or her brother Aeetes; how Daedalus affects Circe; Medea; Penelope, Telemachus, and Odysseus; power dynamics; transformations of a multitude variety. Like the Greek myths themselves, you could probably write a dissertation about the ways to interpret this novel, how the characters influence each other and the world around them, gender roles and expectations, or the role of choice and fate. I loved this book, and I love strong women, and strong women figuring out that they are strong is just the best.
I haven’t even gotten into the sheer beauty of Miller’s writing style. I think I will have to do a separate post just with my favorite lines from the book.
In any case, this is very highly recommended and an excellent way to get a ton of Greek mythology without reading the source material, if that isn’t really your thing. Though everyone should read The Iliad and The Odyssey at least once in their life.
One of my favorite authors, still sadly an obscure name, is Christy Nicholas. I had the good fortune to review a few of her books forDiscovering Diamonds. A few of her other books are also reviewed on DDRevs by my fellow reviewers which I didn’t read, but they are worth checking out for sure. One reason I enjoy Nicholas’s books so much is because she imbues them with so much feminine power. They are accurate within the scope of their timeframe, yet the women in each one are strong, bold, as feminist as possible. She pushes the boundaries of creating feminist characters and isn’t shy to use mythical characters, such as The Morrigan, to be more feminist. I fucking love it.
Below are a couple reviews, submitted as a guest post by Cathy Smith, who is also a reviewer at DDRevs. My own reviews of Nicholas’s books that have already been posted can be found both onDDRevsas well as on this blog.
Legacy of Hunger, book one of Christy Nicholas’s Druid’s Brooch Series, takes readers on an unforgettable quest from the shores of 1846 America to the distressed Irish countryside of Valentina McDowell’s ancestors. Driven by her mother’s legends and a desire to find an old family brooch, Valentina finds early on in her quest that she will discover friendship and come to realize the betrayal of enemies. She will see beauty and face tragedy. Guided by her mystical visions, Valentina’s journey is filled with joy and sorrow as each step of the quest prepares her for what awaits at the end.
Nicholas does an excellent job developing the story by painting detailed descriptions of the characters themselves, their past, and their present. Readers also feel the intensity of the characters’ personalities through the descriptive images of the ship’s voyage across the sea and of the Irish villages and countryside. Nicholas stays true to the history of 19th century Ireland. She uses this history, as well as the legends from the ancients, to provide readers with a real-world sense of Valentina’s adventures.
As I experienced Valentina’s journey to find the answers to the mysteries that haunted her from childhood, I thought of a time when my own father told me the story of his grandmother who came to America as an indentured servant during the An Gorta Mór – The Great Hunger. He told the story of how she met my great-grandfather while working off her servitude in a well-known Colorado bar. As I read Nicholas’ story, I realized that the legacy of hunger is a legacy that affects generations of people even into the 21st century.
Although Nicholas provides closure in the last chapter and epilogue, the happily or not so happily ever after resolutions of the individual character stories left me with deeper questions. It is my hope to see future novels that develop some of these characters’ journeys.
Legacy of Hunger is the story of the Irish people who suffered during the Great Hunger. It is the story of how Valentina McDowell journeys to find her strength, courage, and inner soul by overcoming the challenges to complete a quest that reveals her destiny.
Other books by Christy Nicholas:
Nicholas also has a standalone novel that I reviewed for DDRevs as well, Call of the Morrigu. The full review is here, as I forgot to post it to my own blog before now.
In late 1700s Ireland, rebellion against oppressive English rule was on the rise. In one quiet corner, however, society was still relatively peaceful. Theodosia “Dosey” Latimer lives with her grandfather in their family’s country estate of Strokestown. On the property, they discover a mysterious cave filled with ancient carvings and decide to try to excavate it. In the process, they accidentally awaken The Morrigan. Yes, that Morrigan. The mythical Irish war goddess. Now it is up to Dosey and her grandfather to teach Morrigan how to behave like a proper 18th century lady – and keep her out of the rebellion coming their way.
This was, simply put, a remarkably fun read. Author Christy Nicholas weaves in mythology and history smoothly throughout the narrative. Readers are given glimpses of Celtic myth alongside bits of information about the 1798 Irish Rebellion, led by Wolfe Tone. Parts of the story were surprisingly funny as well. Morrigan learning 18th century table manners is exactly what you would hope for.
The parts of the book that I most appreciated were its many feminist elements. Feminism was a necessary component of the plot for Dosey to be able to grow as a character and a woman. She also was a product of her time and none of her actions were unbelievable or out of place in the story. However, it’s hard for me not to cheer and fall in love with characters who make comments like “I do not understand the shame your society has for the body. It is a glorious thing, full of life and pleasure” or “You are power. You are woman. All woman are power.” Here, Morrigan was reflecting what was understood to be the typical pre-Christian culture of ancient Ireland (or at least the author’s interpretation of it), but it remains highly relevant in today’s society where women’s rights are still challenged and threatened by the patriarchy. Having a mythical character speak the words makes them no less relevant, and allows a certain safe distance from which we can examine our modern morals and values. I loved it.
My only criticism is that I felt some of the secondary characters could have been developed a little more. I wanted to get to know Nan better, and Cillian and Marcus. They were fine, but they felt like they were placeholders or extras just playing a necessary part in a formula. However, they were not totally flat or one-dimensional, either, and they served their respective purposes well enough.
Overall, I loved this book and look forward to reading more by this author. Strongly recommended for anyone who is interested in Irish mythology, history, or the influence of women on either subject.
**This review will very much have all the spoilers. Consider yourselves warned.**
In Girls Burn Brighter, two young women form a strong friendship through the harshest adversities. Poornima is the daughter of a sari weaver. Her family is fairly poor but they have enough to eat and to hire Savitha to help with weaving after Poornima’s mother dies. Savitha is from a poor family, so poor they have to resort to digging through the landfill for food. When the two women meet, they form a deep bond, one of those once in a lifetime friendships. When Poornima’s father begins arranging her marriage, Savitha encourages her to hold out for a man who is young and kind with a bunch of good sisters. A match is finally made and Poornima’s marriage is set. Then, a cruel act drives Savitha away on the eve of Poornima’s marriage and each woman embarks on a new part of life, alone. Eventually, another horrific act drives Poornima away from her marriage and off to seek Savitha, a journey that takes her from her home village to Mumbai to Dubai and eventually to Seattle.
The title itself made me nervous when I first started reading and began to understand more about the plot (I rarely read more than the blurb when I pick a book, and I never read reviews before I read a book, so I stay spoiler-free). I had worried that someone was going to get burnt to death because she’s a girl. However, I liked that it served more as a discussion on the strength of women even through adversity. After Poornima’s husband and MIL burnt her with oil, she realized she was supposed to fade into obscurity and invisibility. Instead, her inner light burnt brighter and she was more her own person, and managed to carve out a life for herself, even if it wasn’t what she might have wanted. It was her own and she took no shit from anyone. Savitha had a brighter light at first, which was utterly extinguished by her rape and subsequent capture by the brothel owners, but she eventually remembered it and saved herself.
I think that the relationship each woman had with her own father was a major factor in how each handled her circumstances. Savitha had a good and loving relationship with her father, and when she encountered abuse and horrors, she was unprepared to deal with it. Conversely, Poornima hated her father, who was an abusive drunk, and when horrible things happened to her, she adapted and survived and did what she needed to in order to get out. She never seemed surprised or terribly hurt when people were awful, which is terrible in itself. It seems like a fucked up way of learning how to deal with real life, like some kind of Grey’s Anatomy version of parenting – preparation through emotional, mental, and physical abuse and neglect.
Girls Burn Brighter was a shocking novel to read on multiple levels. Strangely, I was startled when I realized it was set in the current time. There were references to some years, one of them being 2001, and I was simply amazed, I assume because of my ignorance about the culture, that it was in a modern setting. It just felt like something that would have happened in an earlier time, the crushing poverty, the cruelty, effectively selling your children into slavery. Things like that aren’t supposed to happen now. But of course they do, which is a central theme of the novel. The way Poornima and Savitha were handled in this novel was really eye-opening for me, not because I am unaware that women deal with things like domestic abuse, rape, or sex trafficking every day, but because the story put a face to these issues. Why else read but to gain a deeper understanding, empathy, and compassion for people whose situations in life are totally incomprehensible to us? I can’t fathom being drugged and taken to a brothel, being forcibly addicted to heroine, then forced to go through withdrawal, then sold into sex trafficking. But it happens. I can’t imagine living like Poornima or Savitha, having an arranged marriage, having a man who is so insecure with his masculinity that he feels it necessary to scar me for life by holding me down and pouring boiling oil on my face. But it happens. Actually, the conflict between Poornima and her husband, when she suggests she isn’t barren but perhaps he is, reminds me of the story Margaret Atwood tells about her male friend and the group of women: She asked him why men are afraid of women and he says it’s because men are afraid women will laugh at them. She asked a group of women why they are afraid of men and they said it’s because they’re afraid the men will kill them. There was so much of that woven throughout this narrative, of small, insecure men feeling threatened by women and so they hurt them to keep them under control or in terror.
Mohan might have been a somewhat sympathetic character since I think he didn’t want to be a part of his father’s “empire.” But since he didn’t actually do anything to stop it, and helped to bring girls to America to further the empire, I found him simply to be pathetic rather than sympathetic. He was a revolting figure, who oddly added rather a lot to the story. He was conflicted about what was happening, but too weak to stand up and do what was right. He wanted to study literature but was too weak to say so, and so studied it in secret on his own time. His small kindnesses to the women made him that much worse, because at least no one expected his brother or father to be kind at all.
The unrelenting brutality Poornima and Savitha endured really underscored how this is just the way it is for so many people, especially women, in so many parts of the world. It wasn’t so gratuitous that it was overdone, but it was an exhausting read. The end didn’t help, and I can see that it might be deeply unsatisfying to some readers. Personally, I thought it was perfect, because how could that particular scene be written ideally? I don’t think it can be, but the promise of it has to be enough. I do think Savitha was opening the door, and I do think it was ultimately a hopeful ending. The story at the beginning, with the old woman tending the trees that she called her daughters, seems to me to be foreshadowing of the end, that the women are strong enough to endure anything. Same with the owl’s story and how, if two people want to be together, they’ll find a way to do it. Poornima’s and Savitha’s friendship transcends anything they had endured, and for them not to find each other is not to be considered. I do choose to be hopeful at the end of the story.
Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal
I read it as a: paperback
Source: my own collection
Length: 295 pp
Publisher: William Morrow
London-born Nikki utterly rejects her Punjabi culture’s traditional views, especially arranged marriage. So she is naturally horrified when her older sister, Mindi, actually decides she wants an arranged marriage and asks Nikki to post a marriage profile on the temple’s announcements board for her. Nikki does, grudgingly, and while there, discovers a notice for a job teaching writing at the local Punjabi community center. She takes the job and quickly learns it is not a creative writing class, as the flier had implied, but a basic adult literacy class given to mostly older widows who had never been educated in their native language, let alone in English. Understandably, they are uninterested in learning to read and write using the texts for kindergarteners, which is all that is available to them. What they are interested in is storytelling. Specifically, telling romantic and generally filthy dirty erotic stories. So Nikki uses that to help empower the women, many of whom had never been encouraged to speak up or felt loved in their marriages, going against her culture and customs to do so. At the same time, she inadvertently stumbles across some evidence from the death of a young woman that may prove she hadn’t died in the way everyone had been told, placing Nikki and the widows in danger with the local gang of self-appointed “morality police.”
I loved every word of this novel. I thought it was so interesting to see the differences in the younger and older generations in this very traditional culture. I know next to nothing about Punjabi traditions, and so it was kind of shocking to me to know that arranged marriages are still a thing for many of them even living in Western countries. I am a bit confused by some things that I read when getting ready to write this review as compared to what was written in this book. For example, multiple sites indicate that Sikhs value gender equality, and yet it seems that some of them, at least the very traditional people, get bent if a girl is not a virgin when she gets married. Honor killings were a thing in this book. Of course, wayward sons didn’t seem to get anything worse than ignored/cut off from family, but girls get murdered. So I don’t get that at all. Not sure if that’s just typical religious hypocrisy or patriarchal bullshit or what, but there it is. Then there were The Brothers, the self-appointed bunch of moral police/thugs who try to reign in the widows from telling their stories. Word to the wise, little boys: don’t fuck with the grannies. It will not go well for you.
Aside from me being confused by religious contradictions and hypocrisy, which should come as a surprise to absolutely no one who knows me even a little bit, I just loved this story. I think it was interesting that Nikki got so involved with the widows. At first, it could seem like it was self-serving on her part, that she simply wanted a job, but I think she quickly realized that she could make a difference to the women and to the community as a whole. Also, when she tells the widows that some people don’t even know about Southall, the London Punjabi community, and that they should change that, I do think it is because she sees a lot of potential in the women themselves, and has tapped into her own latent desire to do social justice, even if she herself wasn’t aware of it yet. The widows are able to help her, and themselves, accomplish something new and daring in part because of their almost invisible role in the community. As one of the women stated, no one ever listens to old women talking because it’s like white noise. They used their low position in society to effect change, because no one knew what they were up to until it was too late to stop them or contain it. That’s fucking phenomenal.
This invisibility also shows just how much younger generations disregard the lives and experiences of their elders. No one ever thinks about how our parents or grandparents have lives and individual identities that have nothing to do with us. They have and had desires and fantasies just the same as our own generation, whatever generation that may be. Sometimes, I suppose that realization comes as a surprise to people. Having the widows write their fantasies is such a delightful way to show the young’uns that they were not, in fact, the first ones to discover stuff to do in the bedroom, or anywhere else.
Overall, I just loved this book and definitely recommend it. It would make a great book club selection.
Persepolis is the graphic novel memoir of Satrapi’s early life in Iran. It begins when she was about 10 but gets more in depth when she is around 12-14. She takes her readers through the political upheaval and conflicts that took the region from a progressive nation to the fundamentalist regime most of us think of now, all through the eyes of a young girl who lived through it all.
This was an incredible read. I know it’s been out for ages but I only now got around to reading it, and I’m so glad I did. On just a surface level, this is a terrific book to teach people about the basic history of the region and the more recent political issues that have resulted in the rise of such fundamentalism. On a deeper level, it shows readers what it was like to live through it, from being a child who doesn’t really understand what is happening, to a beloved family member being executed, to seeing your best friend’s body lying in rubble because her house got bombed. Yeah, that one hit me right in the feels. If anyone reads this and isn’t moved or doesn’t feel compassion, they’re just fundamentally broken. I think this should be required reading in all modern history classes for high school kids, to be honest.
The scene that did me in, and which makes this something that ought to be required reading for any high school kid, is summed up keenly by the below image. This was one time when graphic novels absolutely conveyed emotion better than prose. I needed no written words to know what she was feeling, because the image captured it. I was feeling it with her.
Sixteen year old Zarin Wadia is a girl caught between family, social, and peer pressures. Orphaned at four, being raised by her hateful aunt and spineless uncle, Zarin has never really remembered a time when she felt loved. Her only friend is a boy she sees from her balcony who waves to her as he heads out to school each morning. When her aunt and uncle move her from her hometown of Mumbai to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Zarin has even more rules to follow, for interactions between men and women in Saudi are highly regulated and women are closely guarded. Zarin begins rebelling against the societal boundaries, learning to avoid the religious police as well as her aunt, just for an hour or two of unsupervised freedom. When she encounters Porus, a young man working at the neighborhood deli, they each recognize each other as the balcony friends they had been in Mumbai ten years earlier. Porus, against his mother’s wishes, stands by Zarin through bullying, slandering, assault, and abuse, determined to be everything for her that she never had before. When the two of them die in a horrific car accident (not a spoiler, it happens on the first page), the pieces of their stories come together in astonishing ways, revealing slowly just how Zarin came to be known as “a girl like that,” and how very, terribly wrong rumors and reputations can be.
This book was devastating. Utterly, completely, beautifully devastating. The pain the Zarin endured for so much of her life was tangible and leapt from the page. The bullying the girls at school put her through is something kids today across the world might be familiar with, which is disgusting as it is. Added to that was the way misogyny and violence towards women is codified into so much Arabic law. No, there was no hint of Islamophobia in this novel, as some reviews implied. It doesn’t make the author anti-Muslim to point out that Saudi Arabia actually has plenty of misogynistic laws reinforced by religious police. It was interesting to learn more about the region, and the various other cultural groups that live there besides Muslims. Zarin and her family are Zoroastrians, a small minority within the community. They don’t speak Arabic, or at least not well enough to defend themselves if they had been detained by the religious police. They spoke Hindi and Gujarati, mostly, and a little Arabic and Avestan. In my ignorance, I had never heard of Gujarati or Avestan in my entire life before reading this book. So I learned a few things, which is always good.
There were too many things that were sad and mad me cry in this. I loved the parts that made me happy, too. Porus is such a sweet character. We need more like him. The one thing I wanted more of was to know why her aunt was the way she was. Did she have schizophrenia? Early onset? Was she just an evil person? What happened to make her like that? What happened to Zarin’s uncle to make him lose his balls and not defend a child under his care from abuse? We also only got a little closure with the schoolmates. I get that the story was Zarin’s and not theirs, but they contributed to the misery of her life, so it would have been nice to know what happened to them beyond just a couple. I suppose we had some answers regarding the biggest offender, but I still wanted more about the other girls in the end.
I cannot overstate how much I enjoyed this book, how gutwrenching it was, and how important I think it is that everyone read it. It’s a major discussion on a multitude of topics from bullying to rape culture and toxic masculinity to the long term impact of an abusive home environment. It pulls no punches, nor should it.