Right now, I’m between semesters so find myself in Las Cruces, New Mexico, nestled into the house I plan to retire in—whenever that time comes. Best to leave it all open.
While traveling here, I began feeling lighter and lighter—not unlike the sensation I got as a kid when school let out for summer recess. Time stretched out forever, holding infinite possibilities. Now that I’ve been in New Mexico three weeks, I wish time would slow down. Christmas and New Year have come and gone with minimal fanfare. I did not hang a single decoration, nor did I attend a single party. Blessed relief.
So, what have I been doing?
I’ve taken to reading YA (Young Adult) literature—mostly—pausing from my routine schedule back East. My mother often said that a vacation need not entail travel to an exotic location. The important thing is to experience some kind of change. “It’s the change that refreshes you.” So, I’ve been reading several hours every day—something outside of my reach during the semester.
Here’s some commentary on a couple of favorite books….
THE LINES WE CROSS by Randa Abdel-Fattah is excellent. Set in Australia, Michael’s parents are active members of “Aussie Values,” an anti-immigration group determined to keep immigrants (Muslims in particular) from calling Australia home. We observe Michael’s transformation throughout the book. When he first confronts his father’s racism and xenophobia, Dad says, “I celebrate our [country’s] diversity so long as people assimilate to our values.” Michael’s mom illustrates her husband’s point while cooking asparagus soup, “The dominant flavor is asparagus” and explains that the spices and flavors complement the asparagus, rather than take over.
Mina, an Afghani refugee, attends Michael’s elite high school on a scholarship. She and Michael befriend one another. Their friendship is initially bumpy. At one point, Mina says, “So let me get this clear, Michael. Australia is a big bowl of soup and ‘Aussie values’ is about protecting the asparagus from an overzealous pepper or cardamom pod?” The more Michael learns about Mina’s experience (fleeing Afghanistan, losing her father, her aunt, and her baby brother in the process), the less sure he becomes about the morality of his parents’ values.
YA novels are often filled with a hefty dose of adolescent angst as young people learn to navigate relationships. This one is no exception. Nevertheless, a refreshing aspect of much YA literature I’ve been reading recently is the strength that many female characters exhibit when navigating those relationships. Mina, in spite of her attraction to Michael, refuses to take it upon herself to mentor him regarding the “plight of the immigrant.” As long as Michael is even remotely associated with “Aussie Values,” she keeps him at arm’s distance. It isn’t until she sees Michael sorting out his inherited beliefs, beginning to see through a more nuanced and compassionate eye that she allows herself to interact with him outside the parameters of her school day. In the end, Mina says, “He [Michael] thinks he’s learned from me. He’s wrong. It’s me who’s learned from him. He’s taught me to never give up on anybody.”
THE PAIN EATER by Beth Goobie is another worthwhile read. This novel focuses on the power of story, demonstrating not just how our particular experiences inform our stories, but how, in turn, those created narratives shape our beliefs and reality. Ms. Mousumi’s high school English class is tasked with writing a group novel titled “The Pain Eater.” Each student writes a chapter, adding to what has gone before. Students read their work aloud in class throughout the semester and their peers are expected to respond.
Kara begins the group novel with a story about 15-year-old Farang, a young woman set aside from birth, to serve as the person who eats the tribe’s pain. During the new moon, Farang crawls out of the woods and the high priestess begins the ritual saying, “She comes to eat our pain, so we can be free of it.”
Maddy, one of the students in Ms. Mousumi’s English class, had been assaulted and raped by five masked boys from her high school several months ago. Two of the boys involved in the assault are in her English class. She didn’t tell anybody about the incident when it happened, finding a degree of release and comfort by burning her thighs with cigarette butts. “Fire took away memory and pain, and what is left behind is nothing—a pure blessed numbness….” Maddy’s life shrinks. One of her assailants continues to harass her, threatening her should she dare to speak up.
Subsequent chapter contributions from the class focus on the character Farang, however, the reader understands that the chapters written by individual students take shape based on how students perceive the drama surrounding Maddy. Even though nobody (other than her attackers) knows of her rape, the gossip, innuendo, assumptions, and alliances all create a “reality” that gets articulated in the students’ writing.
Maddy continues to struggle. But, she gets to write the last chapter of the group novel. Farang says, “I’m not eating your pain anymore….I am not going to be silent and secret and full of your hate.…When you look at me, you see everything you did to me or thought about me. It’s not me you hate, it’s yourself….So far in this story, we’ve all been criticizing Farang—every move she makes, every breath she takes. But she isn’t alone—she lives in a village full of people….What about the villagers and their choices? This is a story about all of us—how we are together.”
When she finishes reading, nearly everybody in the class applauds. Maddy had created herself anew by writing her own story.
Having recently immersed myself in dozens of characters starring in YA literature, I’m feeling quite refreshed—especially having noted the strength and resilience of the female protagonists. I’m almost ready to head back to the daily activities of another semester.
Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va. She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of Voice of an Exile: Reflections on Islam and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of What is Religious Studies? : A Journey of Inquiry.