Young adult novels have always been mainstream as far as publishing success is concerned. But over the last decade, sparked off by the work of J.K. Rowling and Philip Pullman, their critical visibility also seems to have grown by leaps and bounds. Perhaps there’s something to be said for the animal magnetism of Edward Cullen, after all.
But does the new significance of books about adolescents begin and end with vampires and werewolves? Reams of ink have been spilt about what these supernatural creatures lurking amid the everyday horrors of high school actually say about their reading audience. However, books such as Sheba Karim’s self-assured debut novel remind us that the biggest battles in teenage life aren’t always about defeating racist wizards or concealing superhuman tendencies. The problems of race do not confront all of us in the form of noseless evil like Lord Voldemort; sometimes they can just be about the way your peers turn their nose up at your early curfew and your father’s choice of car music. As you sympathize with werewolves weeping into their knuckle hair, spare a thought for the South Asian girl who has to battle the outgrowth on her cheeks armed only with a bottle of Jolene herbal bleach.
Skunk Girl: Penguin India, 232 pages, Rs250.
Karim’s protagonist, Nina Khan, is by turns a sulk and a sass. As the only Pakistani-American in the backwoods town of Deer Hook, upstate New York, her attitude is part of her slim arsenal against the forces conspiring against her: the profound differences between her and most of her fellow students, the exasperating generation gap with her fond but oh-so-Asian parents, the insecurities about following “super-nerd” big sister Sonia (straight As, Harvard, pre-med), and the flutter in her stomach every time the cute new Italian-Jewish boy in class winks at her.
Sounds familiar? Yes, sometimes wearyingly so. Readers familiar with the work of authors such as Randa Abdel-Fattah might find Karim treading the same ground, examining the problems of bright young Muslim women in a world where expectations of them are constantly changing. Karim’s 1990s setting renders a US not too distant, but not especially close, to the insecurities of post-9/11 Muslim America. For better or worse, this makes Nina’s sturm und drang a little more individualist; a little more politically diffuse. It offers us a glimpse into a world where white patients might drive out of their way not to see a Pakistani-American doctor purely because of the colour of his skin. Call it a simpler racism, if you will.
The book’s strength is Karim’s writing, which makes light work of balancing the darkness of the pre-“post-racial” world with the annoying but perennially interesting problems of teenage girlhood: singledom, first love, heartbreak—and hair.
As the narrative progresses, Nina loses some of the sulk and piles on the sass, much to the reader’s joy. She goes from being simply mortified about how different she is, to having an inkling of why being different might be okay—even good. Even as she grapples with strict rules about dating (short version: vetoed), hanging out or being seen with boys, fondly imagined by her parents as the worst things a Pakistani Muslim girl might do, her one-sided romance with Asher Richelli is constantly threatening to blossom into something outside the privacy of her clever head. It’s another matter whether she can date him without betraying her family and her sense of self, of course, or worse—revealing that embarrassing line of fuzz that runs down the nape of her neck.
Last year, a host of American celebrities, from Ellen DeGeneres, Neil Patrick Harris to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, responded to the wave of anti-gay bullying and teen suicides that appeared to sweep the US by making simple video messages with a single assurance: It gets better.
Nina’s problems are apples to those oranges, but as Skunk Girl ends, there is a faint echo of that miraculous notion in the way she develops her own guardian angels: a dry wit and common sense that also happen to be the book’s saving graces. Sometimes, being so singular can offer you unexpected room to grow. Maybe that’s how it gets better.