Monday, August 1, 2011

Words in the Dust

As a student at Vermont College, many authors, such as Louise Hawes for example, discussed the importance of desire in a strong story and the desire connected to high stakes for the protagonist. In other words, the protagonist's desire must be palpable and if she fails to get what she desires, there has to be important emotional consequences.

When I read the 2011 novel, Words in the dust,  by Vermont College grad Trent Reedy, I was swept along by the desire of the thirteen year-old protagonist, the Afghani girl named Zulaikha. I was also swept along  by what I imagined would be the consequences of her failure to get what she desires. Few problems are more compelling.

Zulaikha was born with a severe facial deformity, a cleft lip, or incomplete fusion of her upper lip. It not only looks (she believes) grotesque, it makes it difficult to speak clearly and to eat without dribbling food. Older women pity her. Boys are cruel and call her "donkeyface." To further complicate matters, she lives in Afghanistan where corrective surgery is not easily available, and in a culture where a girl's future, finding a husband, depends on her beauty. Marriage, she is convinced, is the only possible vocation in her world.

What does Zulaikha desire?  She desires a normal mouth, and to fit in. The stakes are high. If she remains the way she is, she will never marry and she will forever feel a freak in her town. When a possiblity arises of corrective surgery at an American military base, it seems to good to be true. Will she have the support she needs to get to the base, and will the Americans come through?

There is another desire line, her desire to read and write like her mother. This is a  compelling desire as well, but one less visceral compared to the desire for a normal face.

A thorough review of Words in the Dust can be found on School Library Journal. There is much to think about in this debut novel, written by a American soldier who served in Afghanistan, about a very different and complex culture. His book changed my perspective concerning the conflicts Afghan people encounter, women in particular. Although Reedy suggests it might be more desirable for women to tell their own stories, few Afghan women can read and write, so he chose to tell this story that was inspired by a real Afghan girl.

The setting and the culture were fascinating. But it was Trent Reedy's ability to put Zulaikha's desire on the page so provocatively, that kept me caring and reading. Will she get what she wants and how will she do it?

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