I just read a fascinating article about Muslim girls in literature and thought I’d share it:


I think it’s a very good article, and very accurate in its portrayal. It talks about how Muslim girls are portrayed, putting into words so many of the feelings I’ve experienced while reading some of the books mentioned.

The article takes particular aim at Deborah Ellis’s Breadwinner trilogy and Suzanne Fisher Staples’ Under the Persimmon Tree.

And yet I think the two authors are not at all alike.

Ms. Staples has clearly written her book for her personal profit and gain. She’s built a reputation on her books set in South Asia, as if she’s some kind of expert.

I particularly liked the classroom exercises the article encourages when examining the books in a school setting. There’s one that asks:

  • Who is the author of this story? How do they legitimize themselves as an expert? What might be their motivations? Who are they speaking to and for?
  • I have to admit a certain bias. The fact that Deborah Ellis donated the hundreds of thousands of dollars she received in royalties of her books to women in Afghanistan, makes me look at her work in a completely different light.

    I have absolutely no doubt that Ms. Ellis really does care about the women of Afghanistan and she wrote her books with the best of intentions. And in fact the second two: Parvana’s Journey and Mud City are books that I have no problems with (in fact I recommend them on my Muslim booklist).

    On the other hand, I met Suzanne Fisher Staples and having tried to correct some of her erroneous assumptions, only to be met with defensiveness, I feel much less charitable towards her intentions.

    It would be excellent if teachers were to actually take a more critical look at these works. Delve into them deeper. Ask more questions. Read them alongside other books that are written by people from the culture. Compare and contrast the different viewpoints that the books reveal.

    I was thrilled when a Booklist reviewer suggested that my book Wanting Mor be read alongside The Breadwinner.

    And I know a professor at York University who did just that with excellent results!

    And now there’s another book to add to the list that can be read alongside these two.

    Shooting Kabul by N.H. Senzai, isn’t out yet, but it’s due to be published in June through Simon & Shuster. The author was kind enough to send me an advanced reader’s copy and I finished it in one sitting.

    I found the book riveting, and although there are a few technical spots where the writing could have been a bit smoother, Ms. Senzai’s book answered so many political questions that had always puzzled me!

    Like why the Taliban didn’t just hand over Osama bin Laden. 

    The Afghans have a complex code of social ethics, my mother had intimated some of it to me when I was younger. (I have Afghan roots, my great-great-grandfather called Gulzaman, came from Kabul) and my family’s heritage is Pahtan, which I suspect is closely related to Pashtun.

    My mother had told me that once they took in a person, and they became one of them, the Afghans would never give them up. They could kill them all and their code of honour would not give up a guest.

    Bin Laden, trained and armed by the C.I.A. had fought side by side with the Afghans to kick out the Soviets. He had risked his life for them. Their code of honour forbade them from turning him over now. The fact that there’s a 25 million dollar bounty on his head is irrelevant.

    And the way Ms. Senzai weaved the political history of the conflict in a way that was easily understandable was a blessing!

    One of the biggest problems I had with Deborah Ellis’s book The Breadwinner was how she had simplified the conflict basically painting the Northern Alliance as good guys and the Taliban as bad, when the reality is so much more complicated.

    Isn’t it always so complicated?

    I remember a poster in my grade seven teacher’s home room class. It said: For every complex problem, there is a simple solution–and it’s always wrong.

    All we can do is write the best truth we can, and somewhere between all the different versions out there, is the real Truth (with a capital ‘T’).