Book Review: I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai

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It was a shooting that inspired outrage throughout the globe. On October 9, 2012, 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai was on her way home from school when her school bus was stopped just a few hundred meters from a checkpoint in Swat Valley. A young man boarded the van and asked a single question, “Who is Malala?”

Though none of her schoolmates had answered, some of the girls had looked over at her. The man aimed at her and fired three shots, one of which hit Malala square in the left eye socket. The Taliban bullet was intended to silence the young woman forever, but instead, it only served to make Malala’s voice louder—and this time the whole world was listening. Almost overnight, Malala Yousafzai became the face and the voice of all Pakistani girls who were struggling to get an education at a time when the Taliban was blowing up their schools and demanding purdah or risk violence or even death.

In I am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and was Shot by the Taliban, Malala Yousafzai (with the help of Christine Lamb) bravely tells her story. She talks about how it was like growing up in the beautiful Swat Valley, the Switzerland of Pakistan, and how the Taliban had tried to eradicate all that was wonderful in her homeland—their culture, their history, their art, architecture and music, and the Pashtun way of life.

A Name Fit for a Hero

“I was a girl in a land where rifles are fired in celebration of a son, while daughters are hidden away behind a curtain, their role in life simply to prepare food and give birth to children.” – p.13

When Malala was born on July 12, 1997 in Mingora, Pakistan, her father, Ziauddin, and her mother, Toor Pekai, were over the moon. While most Pashtuns considered the birth of a daughter as a “gloomy” event, her parents saw to it that her birth was properly celebrated. Her father asked the community to throw coins, candies, and dried fruits into her cradle—a custom typically reserved for newborn sons. Ziauddin even insisted on adding Malala to the Yousafzai family tree, which prior to that moment only included the names of male relatives.

He also named her after a revered Afghan heroine—Malalai of Maiwand. Legend has it that when the war against the British broke out, Malalai’s fiancée was among the thousands of Afghans who fought against the invading forces. Like the rest of her village’s women, Malalai took to the battleground to bring aid and water to their troops. When the flagbearer fell, Malalai bravely took his place. She could see that her countrymen were losing hope. So, the young woman took off her white veil, raised it overhead, and began marching with the troops. She cried out, “Young love, if you do not fall in the battle of Maiwand then, by God, someone is saving you as a symbol of shame.” She died fighting for what she believed in.

That Malala had been named after one of the most courageous women in history is incredibly fitting. She is, after all, a hero in her own right. But the choice of her name also reflects her parents’ incredibly progressive views, especially that of Ziauddin’s. Even as a young man, Malala’s father had believed in the importance of education—not just for the boys of the village, but for the girls as well. His dream—a dream that was realized in the early 2000s—was to open a school that all the village’s children could attend. In I am Malala, we actually see Ziauddin’s struggle to keep his school open and afloat.

Ziauddin’s eloquence, high morals, and commitment to education for all made him a popular member of their community. It also made him a target for the ultra-conservative members of the town. One mullah* (Muslim scholar) in particular, Mufti Ghulamullah, tried multiple times to close down Ziauddin’s school. He claimed, “Ziauddin is running a haram* (forbidden by Islamic law) school in your building and bringing shame to the mahalla* (neighborhood).”

Despite the mullah’s many protests, Malala’s father kept his school open. Time and again, Ziauddin argued and won his case in front of the village elders. But what the family didn’t expect was that bigger trouble was just beyond the horizon. Within a few short years after issues began for the Khushal school, the Taliban hit their valley.

The Rise of the Taliban: Children Caught in the Crossfire

“Though we loved school, we hadn’t realized how important education was until the Taliban tried to stop us. Going to school, reading, doing our homework wasn’t just a way of passing time it was our future.” – p.136

When Malala was just ten years old, news broke out about trouble in other parts of Pakistan. Religious extremists had begun banning and destroying DVD and CD shops, attacking cinemas, and harassing men dressed in Western-style clothing. The women were also being forced into purdah—the practice of keeping Muslim and Hindu women covered up and in seclusion. But for the people of Swat Valley, life went on as usual. That is, until the rise of Radio Mullah.

The rise of the Taliban in Swat Valley started out innocuous enough. Maulana Fazlullah, a 28-year-old former pulley operator, began a radio program called Mullah FM. He used his program to voice his very traditional views about everything; from haircuts to vaccination, beard length to the ‘proper way of dressing.’ But as Fazlullah gained a large following, his prescriptions to his listeners became more and more extreme. He began speaking out against the education of women and the need for purdah. He turned tyrannical, urging violence against anyone who disobeyed Taliban laws or dared to speak out against him.

Music, movies, board games, television, and all radio stations apart from Radio Mullah were banned. Dancing was banned. And then the Taliban began blowing up schools and cultural sights. They strong-armed their way into Swat Valley, destroying homes, killing offenders and detractors and dumping their bodies in the town square. They tried to scare everyone into compliance, but Ziauddin and his family would not be silenced.

How One Girls’ Voice Landed Her in Trouble with the Taliban

“If one man, Fazlullah, can destroy everything, why can’t one girl change it?” – p.131

At every turn, Ziauddin spoke out against Fazlullah. He organized peace marches, met up with various village leaders, and created a group that was designed to protect the rights of the community, including the right of all children to an education. He also convinced some of his female students to speak out about how the growing militancy in the area was forcing many of them to drop out of school. Malala, of course, was the most outspoken of the girls.

She was determined to let the rest of the world know how the Taliban was destroying her hometown. Like Ziauddin, Malala placed tremendous importance on the education of girls. Her dream was for every girl in Swat to be free to go to school regardless of their financial situation. So, she spoke out. At first, she did so ‘anonymously’ by writing an online journal for BBC Urdu where she talked about life under Taliban rule. To protect her identity, she opted to write under the pseudonym Gul Makai. But her anonymity was short-lived.

Pretty soon, Malala was speaking out against the extremist group freely and openly. She gave interviews to various local and international news agencies. The awards and the prizes began rolling in. And yet, despite the recognition she received, Malala knew that none of it would amount to anything if her dream wasn’t realized.

“I began to see the awards and recognition just like that. They were little jewels without much meaning. I needed to concentrate on winning the war… We decided to spend the rest of the money on people who needed help. I wanted to start an education fund.” – p.201

And just as quickly as the awards came, so did the threats against her family. Now, what makes Malala’s case especially commendable is how she didn’t go into it blindly. In the book, she talks about how she prayed for strength every day and how she’d check the gates and doors at night to make sure they were locked. Malala’s actions exhibited true courage. As the Nelson Mandela quote goes: “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

From Peshawar to Birmingham: The Fight Continues

The day Malala Yousafzai was shot was a day of chaos for the people in Swat Valley. To protect her against further attacks, the gravity of her injuries was kept secret even from her family. She spent the first two days in the intensive care unit of a hospital in Peshawar before being airlifted to the Armed Forces Institute of Cardiology in Rawalpindi, where doctors and nurses worked round-the-clock to save her.

The hospital was put into lockdown. Snipers were positioned on the hospital roof and soldiers were posted all over the area. The Pakistani government was determined to find her shooter, even offering 10 million rupees for any information regarding the gunman.

Although Malala was expected to survive, a sudden swelling in her brain forced doctors to perform a risky emergency procedure that included the removal of a part of her skull. The surgery was successful and the swelling went down, but there was still the question of rehabilitation which was bound to take months. The security risk was too great to keep her where she was.

After much weighing of political ramifications and logistics, the government decided to send Malala to the Queen Elizabeth Medical Center in Birmingham—a hospital that specialized in emergency care and rehabilitation. After a few weeks, her family was allowed to follow her in England, where they have since remained.

It took almost three months before Malala could join her family in their temporary lodgings in the West Midlands. A month later, she underwent another surgery to restore her hearing and help reconstruct her skull. Since her successful recovery, Malala has become the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize (2014) and has continued her activist work for girls’ education in Pakistan. And though the book may have concluded with her recovery, her fight continues today.

Not a Quick or Easy Read but an Incredibly Important One

At just 310 pages, I am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban is a pretty slim volume. It’s certainly one of the shortest autobiographies I’ve read thus far. And yet, despite just being over 300 pages long, with a good few pages dedicated to pictures of Malala and her family, it still took me several days spread out in the course of three months to finish the book.

To be clear, it’s a very well-written book, and a definite page-turner from a quarter in onwards. But it did take a while for me to get used to the writing style. Part-history lesson and part-narrative, I am Malala is a highly informative book that intersperses the history of Pakistan’s politics with Malala’s own experiences. The book provides multiple heavy but eminently necessary backgrounders on the changing sociopolitical climate of the country. The shift in tone can be a little hard to read or jarring the first few times you encounter it, but the deeper you go (and the more you understand about her homeland and their culture) the more gripping the book becomes.

It’s a heavy book to be sure, but it’s one that should be read by as many readers as possible.  Malala’s story is one that must be told again and again until it generates the force needed to create positive change.

Rating: A

Featured Poem: Wild Geese by Mary Oliver

Wild Geese by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

For a hundred miles through the desert repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

Love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

Are moving across the landscapes,

Over the prairies and the deep trees,

The mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

Are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

The world offers itself to your imagination,

Calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –

Over and over announcing your place

In the family of things.

(1986, Dream Work)

Last January 17, the world lost one of its brightest and finest literary luminaries. At 83, the National Book Award- and Pulitzer-winning poet Mary Oliver passed away at her home in Florida. Oliver was undeniably one of the most well-loved and influential poets of the last century. She was also an incredible rarity; a titan of literature who enjoyed both commercial and critical success throughout her lifetime.

Oliver was an exceedingly skilled and introspective poet. Her poems often garnered favorable comparisons with the works of the legendary Emily Dickinson. Like Dickinson, Oliver had no qualms delving deep into the human psyche. She would use sharp and beautiful imagery that often featured the elements of nature to help illustrate mankind’s unbreakable connection to his environment.

Now, Mary Oliver’s extensive literary repertoire is stock-full of stellar poems. But for this post, I’d like to feature a piece that’s very close to my heart. It was a gift from a treasured friend, (hi, Lauren!), and is one that I keep coming back to. Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese is one of those poems that hold in their words a wellspring of wisdom and meaning. It’s one that gives me immeasurable comfort when I’m feeling down and inspires introspection when I’m stuck in a rut. At the risk of sounding cheesy, to me, Wild Geese is an effective balm for the overthinking mind. A much-needed breather we all can use once in a while.

An Analysis of Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese”

In Wild Geese, Oliver demonstrates her keen understanding of man’s restless pursuit of purpose and innate sense of displacement. She urges the reader to look to nature for the answers to his/her unspoken questions. Written in simple verse, the poem is both an easy and comforting read.

Now, in terms of structure, there’s really not much to dissect here. Wild Geese is written in freestyle with eighteen lines and a single stanza. It’s devoid of rhymes and reads more like advice from a wise friend rather than a traditional poem that begs for translation or analysis. But don’t let its simplicity and straightforwardness fool you. For what Wild Geese may lack in grammatical or structural complexity, it certainly makes up for in depth and impact.

Now, one of the things I love most about Wild Geese is its incredibly strong and unforgettable first line—You do not have to be good. As far as first lines go, that one is pretty golden. In my opinion, it ticks a lot of boxes. What do I mean by this? Well, by using the word You, Oliver is both able to command the reader’s attention while establishing both an atmosphere of intimacy and urgency in the work. It’s almost as if the line tells you, “hey, listen for a moment. This is important and this is for you.”

And then there’s the actual message—You do not have to be good. It’s a bit unsettling, isn’t it? A little left-field and off-kilter. First off, the line carries a certain level of gravitas that you usually find in the middle or at the end of a, particularly poignant piece. It’s almost in media res, as if you blinked and suddenly found yourself already in the middle of an existing and serious existential conversation. And then the line sinks in and it’s strange advice. Almost as if the poem is urging you to unlearn one of the first lessons you’re taught in school and at home—be good/do good.

The rest of the stanza continues in this vein, before culminating into solid advice:

You do not have to walk on your knees

For a hundred miles through the desert repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

Love what it loves.

I could be over-reading, but in this humble reader’s opinion, the words good and repent, and the image of walking on one’s knees through the desert, seem suffused with religious subtext. It might be the Catholic in me, but to be good and to repent for one’s sins are basic moral requirements of the faith. As for the kneeling, it seems to suggest both worship—an acquiescence and prostration to some societal/moral/religious higher power—and penance for sinning, which if you think about it, aren’t most of the seven deadly sins essentially products of giving in to our baser “animal instincts?” And then you have the final two lines of that stanza—“You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”

I’m 150% sure that Mary Oliver isn’t encouraging us to throw all mores and scruples to the wind and to lead sinful and meaningless lives. But I do believe that she’s telling us that if we want to be happy, we need to shrug off any and all unrealistic and irrational expectations and demands that society may have of us. We need to trust our own judgment and instincts to define and direct our lives.

To illustrate, I sincerely believe that there is “being a good person” and then there’s society’s idea of what being a good person (woman, wife, mother, daughter, son, husband, father, etc.) would entail. And the very notion of ‘good’ being somewhat subjective allows for its multitude of definitions and descriptions. As the definition of good expands, so too does its conditions and caveats—and sometimes, these caveats are antiquated or have very little to do with the notion of good itself. So, why then, do we have to be burdened by outdated, irrelevant, and unhelpful societal expectations? Through Wild Geese, Mary Oliver tells us, “It’s okay. Go ahead and drop that ball.” Pretty darn good advice, if you ask me.

Now, apart from urging us to unburden ourselves of society’s demands, Mary Oliver also encourages us to look to Nature for comfort and guidance. As we fret and fuss over the direction of our lives, as we lie awake at night feeling anxious about the future and feeling so very alone, as we go through the numerous human crises that will plague us in one lifetime—identity, quarter life, midlife, late life, etc.—

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

Are moving across the landscapes,

Over the prairies and the deep trees,

The mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

Are heading home again.

Through this beautifully written passage, Oliver encourages us to find comfort in nature. See how its many elements and creatures remain unperturbed—absolutely sure of their place in this earth. Like the wild geese, we are called to “head home” back into nature. To regain our appreciation and sense of awe when faced with its wild beauty and undeniable order. There is no need to be lonely, because as Oliver reassures us, we are not alone. We are a part of something bigger.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

The world offers itself to your imagination,

Calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –

Over and over announcing your place

In the family of things.

 

Book Review: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

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“The caged bird sings

With a fearful trill

Of things unknown

But longed for still

And his tune is heard

On the distant hill

For the caged bird

Sings of freedom.”

  • From the poem, Caged Bird by Maya Angelou (1983)

 

THE caged bird has long been the symbol of man’s struggle against the shackles of oppression. In his 1899 poem, Sympathy, African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, wrote about knowing how the caged bird feels. How it grieves for its loss of freedom, and “beats his wings till its blood is red on the cruel bars.” This image of the caged bird crying and clamoring for freedom is one that made an indelible mark on Maya Angelou’s young mind.

In her masterful 1969 memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, (the first volume of a seven-part series), Angelou herself is the caged bird trying to break out of a world rife with racism, sexism, and strife. Detailing her early years to her adolescence, this poignant autobiography shows us Maya Angelou’s transformation from a withdrawn and self-conscious child to a confident trailblazer whose works would eventually influence, give voice to, and elevate an entire nation.

(SPOILERS BELOW)

The Unwanted Child: An Attempt at Normalcy in Stamps, Arkansas

“Stamps, Arkansas, was Chitlin’ Switch, Georgia; Hang ‘Em High, Alabama; Don’t Let the Sun Set on You Here, Nigger, Mississippi; or any other name just as descriptive. People in Stamps used to say that the whites in our town were so prejudiced that a Negro couldn’t buy vanilla ice cream. Except on July Fourth. Other days, he had to be satisfied with chocolate.  (p. 49)

Picture this: Two small children onboard a train—a three-year-old girl and a four-year-old boy. They sit on the edge of their seats, clasping each other’s hands so tightly their knuckles turn white. They’re traveling from Long Beach, California, to Stamps, Arkansas, and don’t seem to have anyone else with them. A journey of over 1,500 miles with no one to watch over them. Their tickets are pinned to the boy’s coat pocket, and if you look closely enough, you’ll find tags on their wrists addressed to the porter. The tags read: “To whom it may concern…”

Nowadays, such an occurrence is hard to imagine. Nobody in their right mind would send two preschoolers on a cross-country train trip without adult supervision. And if someone ever did, it’s the type of event that would cause an uproar. The children’s parents would likely be sued for neglect. But times were very different in the 1930s. While it was always heartbreaking for train passengers to see these children frightened and alone, it happened often enough that the children’s parents never really got into much trouble.

The example above is by no means a pretty picture, but it is an accurate one. This was how Maya Angelou and her brother, Bailey, came to live with their grandmother, Momma, and Uncle Willie in the heavily segregated town of Stamps, Arkansas. Their parents had just put an end to their “calamitous marriage,” and likely thought that it was the best arrangement for their children.

After all, Momma was a strong, resourceful, and successful businesswoman. She was the proud owner of the Wm. Johnson General Merchandise Store—the Store that provided for the everyday needs of the town’s entire Black community. And true enough, Momma did a great job raising Maya and Bailey. She gave the kids as much love, care, and discipline as any great mother could give. But while their home life provided the children the stability they needed during those early years, it still proved impossible for Momma to completely shelter them from the hardships that came with living in the racist south.

At a young age, Maya and her brother became privy to the dangers and difficulties that came with discrimination. During the cotton-picking season, Black workers from town would enter the store, thrumming with optimism over the promise of an abundant harvest. By nightfall, they would return, deflated and bone-weary. Their hands sore from an entire day of picking prickly cotton, their hearts heavy and their pockets still near empty.

There was also the looming threat of the KKK riding in at any time, looking for an excuse to punish a Black man for one crime or another. Any man with dark skin would do. It was punishment by proxy. The segregation also meant that medical services were hard to come by; as nearby white doctors and dentists refused to treat anyone with ‘colored’ skin. As Maya later observed, equality only came in the event of a national crisis.

 “It was when the owners of cotton fields dropped the payment of ten cents for a pound of cotton to eight, seven, and finally five that the Negro community realized that the Depression, at least, did not discriminate.” (p.50)

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Book Review: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

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Author: Margaret Atwood

First Published: 1985, McClelland and Stewart

Genre: Fiction, Dystopian, Speculative Fiction

“And when Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and said unto Jacob, Give me children or else I die.

And Jacob’s anger was kindled against Rachel; and he said, Am I in God’s stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of thy womb?

And she said, Behold my maid Billah, go in unto her, and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.” – Genesis 30:1-3

Last September 17, Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale made history when it became the first show from a streaming site to win a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series. The critically acclaimed television series went on to win eight other highly coveted awards, including Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series (Elisabeth Moss), Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series (Ann Dowd), Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series, (Reed Morano for Offred), and Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series (Bruce Miller).

Now, one of the amazing effects of the show’s unprecedented success is how it brought a resurgence of interest in Margaret Atwood’s chilling literary masterpiece. Thirty-two years after its initial publication, The Handmaid’s Tale continues to resonate with and strike fear into the hearts of its readers. The book is eerily timely with its surfeit of warnings on how absolute power and fanaticism can swiftly and radically eradicate the seemingly small but ultimately significant freedoms that we enjoy today.

With the current global political climate being rife with fear and skittish unrest, the book gives us a preview of a possible worst-case scenario. It acts as a cautionary tale that spreads ice-cold dread deep into the marrow of its readers. It offers us a glimpse of a fate that is worse than death. After all, mere continued existence may be a condition of living, but it’s certainly a poor substitute to feeling alive, right?

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Featured Poem: Woman to Man by Ai

Powerful, violent, gritty, gut-wrenching, and polarizing—these are just some of the words that come to mind when I think of Ai Ogawa’s poetry. The narrative poet is known for her short and intense dramatic monologues, her chilling offerings of a slice of someone else’s life. The fact that her poems are also told in first person narrative allows both Ai and the reader to step into her characters’ shoes. And bear in mind that these shoes are far from comfortable.

When Ai chooses her characters, she does so from the most marginalized and disenfranchised groups in the country—the outsiders, the downtrodden, the forgotten, the racially profiled, and the voiceless. She probes and exposes the underbelly of American culture and society, choosing to write about ‘taboo’ topics like abortion, child abuse, murder, and spousal abuse. Ai then, gifts her narrator with a voice so violent and so strong the reader cannot unhear it. The echo of her stories stick with you and into you like invisible needles, long after you’ve forgotten the actual words.

Now, for today’s poetry review, we’re doing an analysis of the poem, Woman to Man. The poem was first published in 1973 in Cruelty, Ai’s first collection of poetry. When Cruelty first came out, it did so in the midst of the second wave of feminism, and in the same year, the National Black Feminist Organization was founded.

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Book Review: The Dowry by Margaret Culkin Banning

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Author: Margaret Culkin Banning
Published: 1954
Genre: Romance, Drama, Fiction, Social Commentary

At first glance, Margaret Culkin Banning’s 1954 novel, The Dowry, reads like a brilliantly written but simple exploration of how ambition, insecurity, and betrayal, can wreck a wonderful marriage. Our lead characters include Katherine “Kay” Ryland, a 37-year-old interior decorator with her own design firm, and her husband, Stephen “Steve” Ryland, a 38-year-old lawyer and Speaker of the House who’s on the fast track for Radisson’s governorship.

Although the two are very much in love and committed to their marriage, cracks in their 17-year union surface within the first few pages of the book. Despite Stephen’s success in his political career, Kay is their family’s main breadwinner. She earns a lot more than her husband. And while he had initially been thankful for her contributions to the family, constant reminders of this fact was wreaking havoc with his pride.

When he finds out that Radisson’s current governor is keen on passing the baton to him, Stephen realizes that taking on the 2-year governorship means that Kay would have to give up her company. As Governor Elston points out, being a governor’s wife is a full-time job. Things are further complicated when Stephen meets Lisa Bowes—a rich and beautiful widower and the niece of Governor Elston’s wife.

Stephen falls for the beautiful and manipulative Lisa. He wants Kay to divorce him, but his wife is keen on saving their marriage. Kay and Stephen’s heartbreaking story unfolds alongside the stories of a medley of well-written secondary characters.

Now, for this particular reader, The Dowry isn’t a story to be chewed lightly. A novel of this magnitude deserves a more thorough digestion. So, indulge me as I attempt to go through the most significant themes in this densely packed narrative.

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Women in Literature: Five Writers Who Have Helped Shape My Identity

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Today is International Women’s Day—a day to commemorate the social, political, cultural, and economic contributions of women throughout history. To celebrate this beautiful event, I’ve decided to share the five writers whose works have helped shape me into becoming the woman I am today.

In Kate Bolick’s seminal piece, Spinster, she borrows the term ‘awakeners’ from Edith Wharton to describe the five historical and literary figures who, through their works, have become her boon companions for life. The following women serve as my constant companions, my top five personal awakeners.

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