2005 Book Reviews
Towelhead by Alicia Erian
Rating: • (Read only if your interest is strong)
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Alicia Erian allows her protagonist, 13 year old Jasira Maroun, to be the narrator of her new novel, Towelhead. The title refers to one of the names that this young girl of Lebanese descent is called at her middle school. Perhaps as a result of this first person narrator, all the characters appear one-dimensional, and there are few reference to other cultural images that explain the context of Jasira’s situation. Instead, Erian takes on the topics of inappropriate sexual relationships, along with racial and ethnic prejudice, and the outcome is a disturbing story with unappealing characters behaving in ways that are difficult to understand.
Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter Three, pp. 49-57:
When Daddy found out that Mr. Vuoso was getting a flagpole, he got one, too. He put it in the same exact spot in the front yard as Mr. Vuoso’s, and installed a floodlight that he turned on at night. You had to do this if you wanted to fly the flag at all times, he told me. Otherwise, you were supposed to take it down at sunset and put it back up at sunrise. This was what Mr. Vuoso did, and it drove Daddy crazy. “What is he trying to prove?” Daddy asked, watching him out the dining room window “That he’s more patriotic? Well, he’s not. It’s more patriotic to fly the flag all the time.”
I knew that Daddy wasn’t really being patriotic. That he just wanted to bother Mr. Vuoso and try to teach him a lesson. But I didn’t care. I was glad we had a flag. For once it seemed like we were normal Americans. Like we did at least one thing just like everybody else. The next time I saw Mr. Vuoso, he asked me what Daddy was trying to pull, and I lied and said I didn’t know
It had been almost two weeks since he’d given me the Playboy, and we hadn’t really talked about it. “Thank you for the magazine:’ I’d Whispered the next day, slipping out the door after babysitting, and he’d looked at me and said, “What magazine?” I didn’t feel hurt, though. There was something in his voice that made me think we really were playing a game, and this was just one of the rules.
He’d given me the issue with the lady in the golf cart. I wondered if he’d remembered it from that day he’d caught me and Zack in the guest room, or if it was a coincidence. Either way, I was glad to see her again. Her wonderful smile. I wanted so much to be like her. To be with a man photographer and feel good about showing him my breasts.
I used the magazine a lot. I woke up early in the morning to use it, and went to bed early at night. If I ever woke up in the middle of the night, I used it then, too. More and more, when I used it, I didn’t press my legs together. Instead, I lay back on the bed, let my legs fall open, and touched myself while I looked at the pictures. I touched my nipples, too, like some of the women in Playboy, and it made the orgasms come faster. It was like there was some connection running from my breasts to between my legs. To test out how strong it was, I tried having an orgasm just by touching my nipples, and it worked.
I began to think that my body was the most special thing in the world. Better than other bodies, even. Not because of the way it looked, but because of all the things it could do. All the different buttons there were to push. I wanted to find out what every single one of them was. I wanted to feel as good as possible.
At the end of October, the newlyweds
finally came back from
“No, she didn’t,” I said. “She’s pregnant.”
I nodded. “Can’t you tell the difference?”
He shrugged. “Not really.”
We waited a little while for her to put the food away, then went over and knocked on her door. “Hi,” I said, “I’m Jasira, and this is Zack. We need to get our birdies out of your yard.”
“What birdies?” she said. She was eating almonds from a plastic container. Her T-shirt was snug and showed the shape of her stomach. She had partly blonde hair and partly brown hair. The brown part was at the roots. A whole crown of it. Up by her left eye were a couple of tiny moles that made it look like she was crying black tears.
“We shot some birdies into your yard while you were on your honeymoon,” Zack said, “We just want to get them back.”
“Oh,” she said. “You mean shuttlecocks.”
“What?” Zack said.
“Shuttlecocks,” she said. “That’s the real word for birdies.”
“It is not,” Zack said.
“You want to bet?” she said.
Zack thought for a minute, then said, “No.”
“Smart move,” she said, Then she stepped back from the door a little. “C’mon in. Sorry about the mess.”
There were boxes everywhere, and a lot of rolled-up rugs. Instead of carpeting, the lady and her husband had wooden floors. NPR was playing somewhere, though I couldn’t see a radio.
The lady offered us some of her almonds, but we said no. “What grades are y’all in?” she asked, and we told her. She wanted to know if we liked the schools here, and Zack said yes. I said I liked the ones back home better, and she said, “Oh yeah? Where’s home?”
“You’re kidding,” she said.
“My husband went to SU.”
“C’mon, Jasira,” Zack said, “Let’s go get the birdies.”
We went outside then and picked them all up. When we came back in, the lady said, “Jasira. What kind of name is that?”
I hesitated for a second, and Zack said, “She’s a towelhead.”
“Excuse me?” the lady said.
“It’s a towelhead name,” Zack said, and he laughed a little.
“Who taught you that word?” she asked.
Zack didn’t answer.
“Don’t ever use that word in this house again,” she said, and she walked off and left us standing alone in the kitchen. After a second, we turned and let ourselves out the front door.
“What a bitch,” Zack said once we’d reached the sidewalk.
“I thought she was nice,” I said.
“She’s right,” I said. “You shouldn’t be using that word.”
“I’ll say whatever I want, towelhead.”
We played a little badminton then, and I purposely hit a few of the birdies into the lady’s yard so we could go back and see her tomorrow.
Later, when we went inside, Zack got the dictionary and looked up shuttlecock.
“Does it mean birdie?” I asked, and he nodded. “See?” I said. “She wasn’t trying to trick you.”
Next he looked up towelhead. “It’s not in here” he said.
“That’s because it’s a bad word,” I told him.
“Oh yeah?” he said, and he flipped the pages around to show me spic and nigger. “It’s just a new word,” he said. “They’ll put it in all the new dictionaries.”
He went to watch TV, and I went upstairs. I was getting worried about my tampon supply for November. I had only three left in my bathroom cabinet, and Mrs. Vuoso had stopped refilling the jar on the back of her toilet. It seemed like it had been the same five tampons in there for weeks. And today was no different. I was going to go back downstairs without taking one, but then I changed my mind and slipped one in my pocket. I really couldn’t stand the idea of having to use pads again. They were dirty and smelly, and sometimes I thought this was the real reason Daddy wanted me to wear them. To make me think my body was terrible.
When Mr.Vuoso came home, Zack told him that the lady next door had yelled at him. “What for?” Mr. Vuoso asked.
Zack looked at me, then got up on his tiptoes and whispered something in his father’s ear. After he’d finished, Mr. Vuoso said, “All right. We’ll talk about it later.” Then he turned to me and said, “Everything else okay, Jasira?”
“Good,” he said, and he walked past me into the kitchen.
I left then, and as I
headed down the Vuosos’ front walk, the lady’s
husband pulled into the driveway next door. He drove an old blue truck, which
made me think he’d be wearing jeans when he got out, but he wasn’t. He had on
a gray suit and carried a briefcase. “Hi there,” he said, and I said hi back.
I thought about asking him about
When Daddy got home that night, he gave me a letter with my name on it. It had foreign stamps, and the person who’d sent it didn’t know how to write the address. The city and state and zip code were all on separate lines. I turned the letter over and saw that it was from someone I’d never heard of. “Who’s Nathalie Maroun?” I asked, and Daddy said, “She’s your grandma.” He told me to open the envelope, and I did, and the whole letter was written in French. I asked Daddy if he would read it to me, but he said no. He said that I could take it to school and ask my teacher for help, and that he expected a full translation tomorrow night.
We ate dinner, then I went and sat on the couch with my grandmother’s letter. She used the same blue onionskin paper as Daddy, and her handwriting was long and slim. Ma chère Jasira, it began, which I knew meant My dear Jasira. I read that part over and over again, wondering how I could be dear to someone who’d never even met me. I guessed if I tried, I could probably have figured out the rest of the letter, but I didn’t want to try. I didn’t want to hear a bunch of nice things from someone I didn’t even know. It didn’t mean anything.
The next day, at the
beginning of French class, I showed Madame Madigan my letter and asked if she
would help me. She got very excited, then stood up from her desk and said
she’d be right back. A few minutes later, she returned with Xerox copies of
the letter. She had the whole class break into five groups, and we were each
assigned a paragraph to translate. My group got the one that said: I hope
that one day we will meet and I will be able to kiss your cheeks and tell you
how much I love you. It is important for you to know your Lebanese family.
Please come to
By the end of class, everyone was calling me a towelhead. They also called me a sand nigger and a camel jockey, which I’d never heard of before. Even Thomas Bradley, who was black, called me a sand nigger.
I felt really terrible all the way home. On the bus, I sat by myself at the back and thought about the lady in the golf cart, squeezing my legs together. That helped a little, but then, when I got to the Vuosos’, there was a note for me on the kitchen table. It was from Mrs. Vuoso, and the envelope was sealed. “What’s this?” I asked Zack, and he said how should he know. I opened it, and it said: Dear Jasira, I’ve noticed that my tampons seem to be disappearing from the back of the toilet. I wondered if maybe you had borrowed some? If so, I would appreciate it if you would stop. They’re kind of expensive, and I’m sure if you asked your father, he would get you whatever supplies you need. Thanks, Mrs. V
“What does it say?” Zack asked.
“Nothing,” I said, putting the note in my pocket.
“Are you in trouble?”
“Then what is it?”
“We need to go next door to get the birdies I lost yesterday.”
“Why?” he said. “We still have a bunch left.”
“I’m going next door,” I told him.
“I don’t want to go,” he said.
“So stay here.”
“You’re supposed to be babysitting me,” he said.
“I thought you didn’t need a babysitter.”
He ignored this and said, “If you go next door, you can’t get paid for when you’re gone.”
“Fine,” I said.
He checked his watch. “You can’t get paid from starting now”
“Fine,” I said again, and I left.
I went over to the lady’s and knocked. At first no one answered, then she came to the door wearing a pair of pajama pants and a Tshirt. “Hi,” I said, “I need to get our birdies again.”
“Sure,” she said. “C’mon in.”
I followed her through the living room and into the kitchen. She was setting up a large spice rack on the counter, and I noticed that she had a lot of the same ones as Daddy: cumin, coriander, turmeric, cardamom, fenugreek.
“Where’s your friend?” she asked.
“He’s at home.”
“What a mouth on that kid,” she said, shaking her head.
“He didn’t mean it,” I said. “He’s only ten.”
“I don’t care how old he is.”
She started alphabetizing the spices. She seemed very organized, like Daddy, even though she dressed kind of messy. After a while, I Went outside and got the birdies. When I came back in, I tried to think of something else to talk about so I wouldn’t have to go back to the Vuosos’. “What’s your name?” I asked.
“Melina,” she said.
I nodded. “Do you have any tampons?”
She laughed. “Tampons? What would I be doing with tampons?”
I didn’t know what she meant by this. She stopped working then and looked at me. “You don’t get your period when you’re pregnant:’ she said. “All that blood stays in your uterus to keep the baby cushioned.”
“Why?” she said. “Do you need a tampon?”
“Not right now,” I said. “But I will soon.”
“Can’t your parents buy you some?”
“It’s just Daddy,” I said. “That’s who I live with.”
“Well,” she said, “can’t you ask him?” I shook my head. “No.”
“I’m not allowed to wear them,” I said. “Not until I’m married.”
“Huh,” she said, “I guess I never really heard of that.”
“That’s Daddy’s rule,” I told her.
“Where’s he from?” Melina asked.
“Huh,” she said again. Then she said, “What’s with the flag?” “Excuse me?” I said.
“You guys live on the other side of the Vuosos, right?” I nodded.
“So why does your father fly the flag?”
“Daddy hates Saddam,” I said.
She looked at me like she didn’t really understand. “Mr. Vuoso thinks Daddy loves Saddam,” I tried to explain, “but Daddy doesn’t. That’s why he put the flag up.To prove it.”
“Why does your father care what that guy thinks?”
I thought for a second, then said, “I don’t know.”
“Because that guy is a pig,” Melina said.
“Who?” I said.
“Vuoso,” she said. “He reads Playboy.”
“He does?” I said. Suddenly it seemed like something I should keep a secret.
Melina nodded. “We got some of his mail on accident yesterday”
“Did you give it back?”
“Hell no,” she said. “I threw it out.”
“You threw out his Playboy?”
“Why shouldn’t I?” she said.
I didn’t answer.
“I’ll throw out whatever I want.”
I felt really upset then. Not just because Melina had thrown out a Playboy, but because she seemed to think it was such a bad thing to like. I didn’t want her to think that way I wanted her to like it as much as I did. I wanted us to think the same way about everything. “Well,” I said, “I guess I better go.”
“Sorry about the birdies,” I said.
“Don’t worry about it.”
It was a short walk back to the Vuosos’, but I slowed it down by not cutting across their front lawn. When I walked in the door, Zack said, “What took you so long?”
“I was only gone ten minutes,” I said.
“You were gone fifteen minutes,” he said. “That means you lose fifty cents.”
“Whatever,” I said. I didn’t really care. Mostly, I just wanted to think about Melina. How you could see the nub of her belly button poking through her T-shirt.
Towelhead could have been one of those post-9/11 novels that brought increased understanding and unity. Instead, it’s an average coming of sexual awareness story that is played out in ways that are likely to disturb many readers.
Steve Hopkins, July 25, 2005
ã 2005 Hopkins and Company, LLC
The recommendation rating for this book appeared
in the August 2005 issue of Executive Times
URL for this review: http://www.hopkinsandcompany.com/Books/Towelhead.htm
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