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Alicia Erian’s Towelhead //

11.23.09
bylgoode

towelhead_bookcover_medAlicia Erian’s novel, Towelhead, reads as something of an opus to Hillary Clinton’s infamous line, “It takes a village.” But Erian fills her village with amounts of rape, racism and even female-on-female misogyny that pinpoint the importance of a healthy, cohesive village in raising a child. And what fills the village also makes this one of the most painful books I have ever read. Yet, I would argue that the pain of reading through the most difficult scenes forces worthwhile thought about sexuality, parenting and their intersections with racism that call out for exploration and discussion.

Barely ten pages into the novel, Erian sets the stage for the main character, Jasira’s inability to make good choices and say, “no.”  Also apparent, is that Jasira’s mother would make a far more interesting case study for psychological study than Jasira herself. That fact seems to be a running gag that almost every adult seems laden with more psychological problems than the budding and deeply damaged Jasira.

While Erian makes light and dark humor of these psychoses, I found myself feeling that the humor at times betrayed the wretchedness of Jasira’s experience. My primary point and case: her next door neighbors, the Vuoso’s frozen cat. But sometimes, the best metaphors are the most pungent ones. And that cat drives the point home whether you can find humor in it or not.

New York Times reviewer, Jeff Giles, suggested that Erian’s choice of Towelhead as her novel’s disturbing title fails to point to the novel’s primary focus, teenage sexuality. He writes, “… the novel isn’t primarily, or even secondarily, about race and politics. As much as anything, Jasira’s being an Arab-American … seems a metaphor for the annihilating loneliness of being 13.” I don’t have an issue with Giles, simply the quickness to which he and other such reviewers have been to disregard the importance of race and politics in making Jasira so vulnerable to the adults around her.

Being Arab-American clearly defines the cultural circumstances which incapacitate her parents’ attempt to assist her in exploring womanhood. Both parents’ interpretation of Jasira’s identity places a mirror to Jasira. So reflected to Jasira is jealousy towards the beautiful,  blossoming and threatening Arab otherness (from her mother) and a stereotypically conservative view of unspeakable and shameful sexuality (from her father). Both reflections send the distinct message that she should feel shame and trap Jasira in a constant conflict that anyone who’s experienced puberty can recognize while making it a distinctly Arab-American experience.

Jasira’s being an Arab-American girl also acts as the catalyst for all her negative sexually charged encounters. The most egregious example, Jasira’s rape at the hands of her neighbor (Mr. Vuoso), highlights the importance of the girl’s identity in how men perceive her. Vuoso’s inner struggle over Jasira’s age and vulnerability disappear. He stops seeing Jasira’s age and a sweet girl subject to repression by an imagined Arab tyrant of a father. In Vuoso’s eyes, Jasira transforms into a towelhead, an object that he can manipulate and lay all of his hatred upon in a most brutal manner.

But it’s too easy and unfair to the complexities of Erian’s work to paint Jasira as a victim of incompetent and sometimes hateful adults. I feel sorry for Jasira, but it’s impossible to do so without noting that her horrifically painful experiences are both thrust upon her and sought out by her. And the book’s resolution, after a heart-wrenching, difficult scene, can reaffirm as well as elicit questions as to the origins and effects of Jasira’s journey.

For readers who have experienced Nabokov’s Lolita, Towelhead will cover familiar, yet distinctive, territory. Erian’s ability to toy with her readers’ perceptions evokes pity, pain, frustration and horror in ways that repulse and compel. The further you delve into the book, earlier scenes shift and change masks, inviting investigation and reinterpretation of the clouded waters of sexual violence, exploration and racial identity disturbed in its pages.  I recommend you read Towelhead and investigate these questions for yourself.

Towelhead has since been adapted into a film of the same name, directed by Alan Ball.

Buy Towelhead on Amazon

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About the Author: Lori Goode keeps the dream alive moonlighting as a reviewer, while passing her days (and nights) near the nation’s halls of power in Washington, D.C. Her experiences ranges from research to education but she’s always had a keen eye for the arts, particularly film.



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