Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Review: Towelhead

Towelhead, Alicia Erian, Simon & Schuster 2005, $9.99 (Amazon Kindle edition)

Adapted for cinema by Alan Ball,
starring Summer Bishil.
Towelhead, by Alicia Erian, is not a book for a reader who wants to be comfortable while reading. Towelhead is a departure for Erian, who typically writes short fiction and screenplays on themes of female sexuality and love. Her first novel is a book that forces the reader into the stormy and confused mind of an adolescent girl in an almost impossible situation.

The protagonist and narrator of the book is Jasira, a girl who is thirteen at the onset of the Gulf War. Jasira is cursed with an early puberty and quick development. Living in Syracuse with her mother, Gail, a middle school teacher and a fairly progressive woman, we would think that she would be adequately prepared for this stage of life. But, when Gail refuses to listen to Jasira talk about her body and won’t help her with the problems that body causes in her everyday life, such as teasing resulting from excess body hair, Jasira turns to Gail’s boyfriend Barry for help. When Gail discovers that Barry has been helping Jasira shave her pubic hair, instead of defending her daughter, Gail blames her and sends her to live with her domineering, exacting, and neurotic Lebanese father in Houston, Texas.

In Texas, rather than getting a fresh start, Jasira has all the same problems. Her father is just as disinterested in and disgusted by her body as her mother was, their army reservist neighbor behaves even more inappropriately toward Jasira than Barry did, and her body still causes awkwardness and misunderstandings. Added to these problems is considerable anti-Arab racism from Jasira’s new classmates and neighbors; her father’s exacting and hypocritical discipline, constant neglect, mercurial temper and physical abuse; an insistent school boyfriend; a nosy and well-intentioned neighbor; and a powerful sexual awakening. The action of the story flows from the collision of all of these circumstances one after another, fraught throughout with a jittery tension.

At heart Towelhead is a coming-of-age story, but the jewel in its crown is Jasira’s voice. Jasira speaks and narrates so plainly and artlessly that at first she seems outlandish and ignorant. But Jasira comes to the reader deeply hurt and confused by the neglect, shame, and isolation she has experienced at the hands of her parents and a world that views her body as her fault, for which she should take responsibility. Once the reader is used to her bold and direct style, Jasira becomes incredibly easy to identify with. In Jasira, Alicia Erian has dared to present adolescence in all its unspeakable confusion, contradiction and uncertainty. Realistic and darkly comic, Jasira’s journey through her thirteenth year inspires many feelings, among them fury, righteous indignation, pity, despair, and hope.

For this and many reasons, Towelhead may be of interest to readers who generally read nonfiction accounts of comings-of-age and sexual awakenings, as well as abusive childhoods. Towelhead is difficult to classify because it is a coming-of-age novel written for adults. The protagonist is thirteen and childish, and yet the narrative is erotically charged. If this sounds strange and disturbing to you, I would recommend picking up the book and challenging yourself to face the hard truths it contains about sex, parenting, adolescence, and society’s perception of women and their bodies. 

Alicia Erian has also published a collection of short stories titled The Brutal Language of Love, and has taught creative writing at Wellesley College. She is now working on a memoir. Towelhead was adapted into a film also called Towelhead or Nothing is Private, written and directed by Alan Ball.