I love Antigone. I loved it when my performing arts school did a slightly modernized version when I was a senior. I loved it when I did a presentation on it for an English class later that year. And I love it now as I write my senior capstone on Funeral Rites in Ancient Greece. What I also love is the utterly brilliant way in which Kamila Shamsie retells the classic myth of Oedipus’ daughter in her novel Home Fire.
The core of Sophocles’ play is about what it means to be a citizen and the struggle one faces when written law and divine law contradict each other. Shamsie nails this theme through the intricacies with which she weaves her narrative, shifting from perspective to perspective. Each of Shamsie’s characters represent the main players in Antigone, but each are additionally of Muslim descent. The ways in which each of these characters relate to their Muslim identity are all very different and these feelings are closely intertwined with the character’s feelings regarding their own citizenship.
Parvaiz becoming a victim of the homegrown terrorist movement in Britain is a perfect translation for the character of Polyneices. There was no natural way in which a novel set in contemporary Britain could include the refusal of a political figure to have a body buried, but a boy who fled his own country to join terrorists and ended up desperately wishing to come home...that does not sound so incredibly unfamiliar. In today’s political climate, with stories like that of Shamima Begum--the girl who left Britain to join ISIS as a 15-year-old only to desperately try to return to the country three years later to give birth--in the news cycle, it is a tale that holds a very grim realism. The modernization of this myth is a reminder that these characters are archetypes and will constantly exist again and again throughout history. Sophocles was contending with these ideas in the 400s (BCE) and in 2019 we see the death of Shamima Begum’s infant son because she wasn’t allowed to return to Britain. How many Antigones must bury their brother before prejudices of citizenship no longer demand it?
R.O. Kwon’s decision to use the character Will as her primary narrator for her novel The Incendiaries changes the context of the novel entirely. Throughout the course of the novel, Will narrates a story that is not even his own, leaving the reader to question the legitimacy of what he is saying. How much does Will really know about what Phoebe is going through? How much of what he tells the audience is purposely misleading, how much is mistakenly inaccurate? Early on in the novel Will claims that what he tells the reader is up to his memory, saying “it’s possible these are just the details I’ve saved,” already taking the blame off of himself should any of these things he says be untrue or misrepresented.
There is something that I find historically pleasing about Kwon’s choice of narrator. How often have men been the ones to tell a woman’s story? Having this thought in the back of my mind creates a deeper meaning for me when contemplating the truth behind the things Will tells us. Will often takes Phoebe’s agency away from her in his telling, saying that she is brainwashed and is acting under the orders of a cult leader. While Phoebe is clearly a target of a cult wishing to recruit her, we still have to ask ourselves whether the events that unfold in the novel are due to choices she makes independently or under the influence of Jejah.
However, due to the possible brainwashing of Jejah, could Phoebe herself have been a more reliable narrator? It is impossible to know how credible Phoebe’s narration would truly be when what we know of her is mainly just from how Will describes her through his idealized version of her. He tells us of the Phoebe that exists in his mind, not the Phoebe that exists in the world.
Something that author Jacqueline Woodson echoes throughout her novel Another Brooklyn is the concept of “growing up girl.” What it means to grow up girl, how race and poverty intersect with that, how it bonds you with others who are also growing up girl. I really loved the language of this; it was as though Woodson was creating a verb out of an experience. Another Brooklyn is a collection of experiences, some autobiographical and others fictionalized, all about growing up girl.
Some of the experiences Woodson uses as examples of this concept she calls growing up girl are wholesome and heartwarming, while others reveal some of the darker aspects of girlhood. One of the lighter aspects is the deep sense of friendship that can come out of the shared experiences of girls coming of age. The love and sense of community that August finds in Sylvia, Gigi, and Angela is incredibly touching and reminds me of the friendships I cherished deeply in the middle school era of my life. These girls help each other navigate Bushwick and puberty and they defend each other fiercely. The 2014 French film Girlhood is very similar to Another Brooklyn in that it follows a young black girl who is living in an impoverished area who is brought out of her shell by three neighborhood girls. Both Woodson’s novel and the film place a strong emphasis on friendship and the ways in which having a community helps in the coming of age process.
One of the darker aspects of growing up girl according to the novel is the way in which girls are sexualized at a very young age. When the girls started to mature physically “something about the curve of [their] lips and the sway of [their] heads suggested more to strangers than [they] understood” (74). The undesired attention from men is an insidious part of growing up girl, forcing children to become conscious of the way in which adults watch them with predatory eyes. Gigi’s sexual assault is an obvious example of the terrors that face girls, especially those that are growing up in a bustling urban area like New York City. Though what happened to Gigi was tragic, her friends have her back and even go with her to purchase razor blades, seeming to me like a perfect metaphor for girlhood; sharp edges might slice you, but you can learn to fight back.
Adults often wish to decide what media children should be allowed to view. One of the most popular forms of censorship has been, for ages, banning books that are deemed to be inappropriate for youths due to controversial subject matter. One of these books is Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street.
The novel was published in 1984 and is a coming of age story with autobiographical elements. It follows Esperanza, a Chicana teenager struggling with growing up in an impoverished neighborhood, and it gives the reader a glimpse into the ways in which the cross-section of race and poverty affect adolescents during the turbulent time of puberty and the navigation of young-adulthood. The choice to ban this book does a great disservice to other Latino youths who may be growing up in a similar situation, or to any youths living in a family faced with economic instability. Though it is likely that school boards who decided to ban this novel were doing so in protest of exposing young adults to the themes of sexuality and sexual assault rather than the issues of poverty and race, they still chose to take a book with a valuable perspective out of their libraries.
Additionally, it is foolish to censor discussion of sexual assault among youth; creating a taboo around talking about something horrific encourages survivors of this type of behavior to keep silent about what they have gone through. Students who read The House on Mango Street may recognize the struggle Esperanza goes through when she is assaulted at the fair after being ditched by Sally and decide that it is time for them to come forward about their abuse. It could help someone struggling with how they come back from assault to find new ways to move forward. Just simply seeing the representation of something like this happening to another young adult could help inspire someone who is feeling alone.
The House on Mango Street offers valuable perspectives that can be useful to any young adult, whether they are Latino or not, whether they have been sexually assaulted or not, whether they grew up impoverished or not; the novel helps to inform readers of experiences in certain parts of the population and being exposed to these experiences that may differ from their own can help make youths more compassionate and understanding of the issues of others.
Both the novels Red Clocks by Leni Zumas and Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi toy with the concept of using a child in some way to make up for a gap in another part of your life.
Ro’s desire in Red Clocks to become a mother stems from her unresolved issues regarding her brother’s overdose. She considers herself to be a failure, having believed it her duty to keep him alive. To find some sort of redemption, Ro desperately tries to have a baby she can name after her late brother and take care of in his stead. However, just like trying to (single-handedly) save her brother from his vices was futile, becoming a mother is not in Ro’s cards. The idea of having a child filled a hole that existed in Ro for a very long time and that possibility being taken away from her forces her to confront the other issues she had been ignoring in her life. This pushes her to plan different ways to take action instead of remaining passive about her situation and the world itself.
The character of Snow in Boy, Snow, Bird represents what happens to a child when they exist to fulfill something missing in an adult’s life. Snow is doted upon not for her happiness, but for that of the grownups around her. The adults delight in her beauty and view her like a little doll. Olivia in particular seems to live vicariously through Snow, as though wishing the same childhood upon herself retroactively.
While Ro in Red Clocks wanted a baby as a sort of redemption for herself, the Whitman family in Boy, Snow, Bird use Snow as a pillar on which they can uphold their status as a white-passing family. Both novels present the idea of filling some type of void with a kid, and both seem to come to the conclusion that this benefits no one. Snow was clearly better off living with her aunt than being in the toxic atmosphere of Flax Hill. Ro really questions why she wanted to be a mother in the first place which leads her to a place beyond being the biographer and into her own exploration of passions and purposes.