BEIRUT — Every few years I take a few months’ break from reading books on the contemporary political and social issues of our days, and instead plunge into the exhilarating world of fiction writing. The power of novels, short stories and other forms of writing is that they allow a reader to transport him or herself into endless other worlds, time periods, cultures, and human conditions. They allow individual readers to discover — one story at a time — that their own fears, dilemmas, anger, pride, and wonder are shared by millions of other people around the world, that we are not alone in our struggles.
So last month I ventured very far afield to read a tale of adolescent youth in ethnically mixed British society, whose main characters are two teenage British-Pakistani girls struggling with issues of identity, class, family, prejudice, religion, and youth gangs, against a backdrop of politics, history and global wars. I read the book to experience the ability of literature to transport me to an alien world of British-Pakistani teenage girls — and to re-discover how good writing lets us empathize with the sentiments and life struggles of the people who inhabit those distant worlds.
I also read the book, You’re Not Proper, by Tariq Mehmood (HopeRoad Publishing, London) because of a fleeting comment to me by the author, a colleague and friend at the American University of Beirut, when I asked him why he was writing about teenage girls in urban England. He replied: “Each person has a story worthy of telling, and the world wants to hear those stories.”
That struck a chord with me, because I also teach non-fiction writing to university students and journalists (even though some of my critics often claim that my own political analysis veers into the world of fiction, but that’s part of the thrill of our brazen craft), and I always tell my students that even a journalistic text should transport the reader into a new time and place, with its own characters and struggles.
So I started reading about the two main teenage characters, Kiran and Shamsad, and their families and friends in a northern England town with a significant Asian immigrant population. The big issues in the girls’ lives include the usual teenage things — friendship, acceptance, boyfriends, parental controls, status in the schoolyard — but also issues distinct to that community and time, like religion and its role in personal and public life, racism and anti-Muslim discrimination, links with the home country in Pakistan, relations with white English boys, and, “dark kids who realize they’re not white, and their struggle to know how they fit into the society around them,” in Mehmood’s words.
When I asked him again why these girls’ stories should interest readers around the world, he quickly charted a global context of English language children and youth literature that is overwhelmingly dominated by white Western writers and publishers — “the world of imagination of young children is so utterly white, and has been colonized to the point where non-white kids have lost both their past and their future.”
The actual story of Kiran and Shamsad is an emotional and family mini-thriller of sorts, with mixed white-dark families, complex and hushed pasts, captivating characters, personal transformations, and half a dozen tragedies and joys. The actual story is only half the tale of the book.
“By writing the stories of these young girls, they suddenly become human,” Mehmood told me, as he guided my discovery of the world of youth literature and British-South Asian communities. “Each one of us has a story that deserves and needs to be told. If it is not told, then someone else’s history becomes the story of our own lives. Writing and reading such stories helps us recognize that each flower has its own scent, and it transforms us. Reading the stories makes us ‘we’, otherwise we are all only ‘i’. Reading other people’s stories also helps us grasp the universal sense of hope. Young kids are not necessarily locked into prisons. Their walls are imaginary, and they can break out of them. Kids should be proud of their lived experiences, and they can change their world if they wish.”
As I journeyed through the several worlds that Mehmood had experienced, and has captured and crafted anew in this captivating story, I was also reading news and analyses of current global encounters that also touched on political, cultural, religious and racial dynamics, and important issues of dignity, respect, pride, and rights — such as Iran, China, “Islamic State,” Ukraine, trans-Mediterranean migrants, Baltimore, and many others.
I think my journey into Kiran’s and Shamsad’s lives helps me understand these current events a bit more profoundly and accurately. I suspect also that what I understand better through the thrill of reading is, in fact, myself. We can’t ask for much more on a lazy summer day.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. Follow him on Twitter @ramikhouri.
Copyright ©2015 Rami G. Khouri -- distributed by Agence Global