Growing up is hard enough without the added conflicts of different cultures and warring parents. But that's exactly what Jasira, the 13-year-old Arab-American heroine and narrator of Towelhead, has to contend with. Alicia Erian's first novel is raw, sexually frank and pulls no punches.
Jasira lives with her mother, until the day her mother decides that her boyfriend is paying far too much attention to her budding daughter. But this is no modern-day Lolita. Jasira is more like a 21st-century female version of Holden Caulfield: innocent, sexually alive, naïve, stubborn, intelligent and curious. She is promptly packed off to live with her Lebanese-born father in the deceptively quiet suburbs of Houston. There she attempts, with sometimes disastrous, sometimes humorous and sometimes heartbreaking results, to find her way to a true sense of her own self.
Jasira arrives in Texas in the fall of 1990, just as Saddam invades Kuwait, and just in time to face her schoolmates' taunts of "towelhead" and other racial slurs. Her next-door neighbor, an Army reservist whose son she baby-sits, is torn between his contempt for her Arab father and his intense attraction to Jasira herself. Her father, a strict and uncommunicative man, cannot handle the ramifications of his daughter's puberty, and responds with the back of his hand. Lonely and confused, Jasira looks for solace elsewhere. She finds it both with those who would abuse her innocence, and with kinder folk. Despite minimum parental help, she eventually learns to tell the difference between the two.
Erian's own background is mixed: her father is Egyptian and her mother Polish. Her previous book, a collection of short stories called The Brutal Language of Love, won rave reviews. Towelhead has been optioned by American Beauty writer Alan Ball. It is a tale simply told, in straightforward language, about age-old truths that are anything but simple.
Jehanne Moharram grew up in the Middle East and now writes from Virginia. Copyright 2005 BookPage Reviews.
BookPage Reviews August 2008
In her moving debut novel, Erian bravely examines the dynamics of sexual attraction as it develops between a young girl and the older men she encounters. The girl is 13-year-old Jasira, who attracts the attentions of her mother's boyfriend, Barry. When her mother finds out about their affair, she sends Jasira to live with her father in Houston. Stern, old-fashioned, of Lebanese descent, her father has a short temper and takes little interest in Jasira's development as a teenager, except to lay down harsh rules. He won't allow her to buy tampons—he believes they should only be used by married women—and outlaws her friendship with an African-American boy. Behind closed doors, though, Jasira experiences a sexual awakening that leads her to Mr. Vuoso, her father's slightly seedy neighbor. Mr. Vuoso's sexual interest in Jasira is complicated by her Middle Eastern lineage—a quality he finds strangely repulsive. Erian's frank portrayal of their relationship, including Mr. Vuoso's ambivalence about Jasira, lends the book a powerful authenticity. When Mr. Vuoso engages Jasira as a babysitter for his little boy, it becomes clear that nothing will prevent the two of them from pushing their relationship to its limits. Written with brutal honesty from the perspective of Jasira, the book takes an unflinching look at race, sex, gender and cultural differences, couching these complex themes in a story that's skillfully constructed and extremely readable.
A reading group guide is included in the book.
Copyright 2008 BookPage Reviews.
Kirkus Reviews 2005 January #2
A tedious, fairly moronic take on the pubescent hormone surge, told by a 13-year-old girl.Jasira, prosaically named after Jasir Arafat by her now-divorced Lebanese father and Irish mother, can't help attracting men, with her 34-inch "boobs," so-called by her sexually jealous mother, who sends her to live with her "cheap and bossy" father. But it's even worse in Houston, where Daddy works for NASA and lives in a housing complex with a pool she won't use because of the abundant pubic hair she's embarrassed about, and where Mr. Vuoso, the father of the neighbor boy she baby-sits, gives her a Playboy magazine (she practices masturbation) and comes on to her. Her own father, Rifat, being an old-style Arab, "doesn't like bodies," is horrified by Jasira's incipient womanhood, and forbids her to use tampons or to befriend a black boy from school, Thomas, who genuinely wants to have sex with her. Added tension simmers between Mr. Vuoso, who's a rabidly patriotic military reservist ("towelheads" is his epithet), and Rifat, who bitterly resents the American war machine aimed at the Arabs. The story consists largely of unedited and utterly uninteresting dialogue that goes on and on to demonstrate how Jasira, who seems to have no will of her own, thinks (slowly). Given the meanness around her-from her petty but envious mother; her irascible father, who's prone to strike her; and the manipulative and insulting Mr. Vuoso, her seething crush across the street-she receives little guidance as a sexual creature. Not even the cool and pregnant neighbor Melina, who senses the crisis and gives Jasira the progressive primer Changing Bodies, Changing Lives, is able to protect Jasira from herself-that is, from the explosive sexuality that's entangling her and everyone around her in a kind of gruesome physicality.Storyteller Erian (The Brutal Language of Love, 2001) creates a hypnotic effect through her characters' repetitive dumbness-in a first novel that's annoying and memorable. Copyright Kirkus 2005 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.
Library Journal Reviews 2005 February #2
Forced to leave home in upstate New York when her mother's boyfriend gets a little too chummy, 13-year-old Jasira ends up living with her Lebanese-born father in Texas. There she must adjust to her father's restrictive code of conduct, get used to a new neighborhood and school, and survive the anti-Arab climate that prevailed during the first Gulf War. More rejected than loved by her parents, Jasira is a confused little girl with a grown-up body who finds herself craving the inappropriate attention of other adults, even as a motherly neighbor keeps a protective eye on her. The sexual abuse of children is a delicate theme to handle-how do you write about it without actually contributing to such exploitation? In her first novel, Erian (The Brutal Language of Love: Stories) solves the problem by having Jasira narrate her own story, so that readers come to understand her desperate need for affection, overwhelming sense of guilt, and confusion over the difference between what her head and her body tell her. The result, if not exquisitely written, is both poignant and engaging. Recommended especially for public libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 12/04.]-Rebecca Stuhr, Grinnell Coll. Libs., IA Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal Reviews 2004 December #1
Sent to the United States by her mother when Saddam Hussein invades Kuwait, Jasira must cope with her strict father and the realization that she is an Arab. This full-length debut from a gifted story writer is an in-house favorite. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Publishers Weekly Reviews 2005 February #4
Erian (The Brutal Language of Love) takes a dogged, unflinching look at what happens as a young woman's sexuality blooms when only a predatory neighbor is paying attention. After 13-year-old Jasira is sent to live with her father in Houston ("I didn't want to live with Daddy. He had a weird accent and came from Lebanon"), she finds herself coming of age in the shadow of his old world, authoritarian ideas, which include a ban on tampons(they're for married women, he insists) and a friendship with aboy who's black. Trapped between her father's rigidity and a wider culture that seems without rules, Jasira is left to handle puberty on her own, as well as her budding sexual desire and an ongoing longing for love and acceptance. Her creepy neighbor, Mr. Vuoso, senses her desires, and she responds eagerly to his sexual overtures. His willingness to eroticize her is heightened by how exotic-as well as distasteful-he finds her, a half-Middle Eastern child living in America on the eve of the first Gulf War. He hires Jasira to baby-sit for his son, and it's clear that their relationship will destroy them. The writing is not subtle-indeed, it can be quite clunky-but as a meditation on race, adolescence and alienation, the novel has moments of power. Agent, Peter Steinberg. Author tour; film rights to Alan Ball (Six Feet Under). (Apr.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.