Monday, April 12, 2010
"A Map of Home" by Randa Jarrar
Musings: A Map of Home is not autobiographical, although Jarrar, also the daughter of an Egyptian-Greek mother and a Palestinian father, similarly grew up in Kuwait and later moved to America. Nonetheless, her novel has a distinctly memoir-like feel to it as Nidali narrates moments from her life not in a traditional narrative form, but in bits and pieces with minimal specifics in time.
In many ways A Map of Home is a traditional coming-of-age novel with the twist of Nidali's family background and living situations. Much of the book concerns Nidali's relationship with her father (Baba) and her parents' own love/hate relationship. Her father's certainty about Nidali's future (she will get her bachelors, then her masters, then her Ph.D. and become a famous writer) and certainty that she will become a whore (even when she's just at the library studying; even when she really is hooking up) Nidali alternatively accepts and rejects. She learns how to challenge her father and get what she wants while also getting stellar grades and pursuing her own desire to become a writer. Her parents' tumultuous relationship forms another central part of the novel, and Nidali describes their interactions with each other in terms of battles and war.
Baba's characterization was one of my favorite parts of the book. He beats Nidali, her brother, and her mother with relative frequency. But Nadali considers his beatings as perfectly normal among the Kuwait families, and Baba obviously cares for and is concerned about his daughter. He is proud of her and wants her to have success in life, even though that success is often guided more by what he wants than what Nidali wants. His and Nidali's relationship is often hilarious, and I loved Nidali's passive-aggressive rebellions (when Baba makes her spend weekends writing college application essays, one such composition begins, "I come from a great line of crazy hoes" (261).) Baba is never demonized, and I found my own feelings towards him shifting back and forth throughout the book. It was difficult to establish the line between Baba evidencing the cultural expectations he was raised in and him unfairly reacting to his daughter. That ambiguity, though, is probably more real to life than a more black and white picture.
The political background of the novel was interesting, but it never eclipses Nidali's story. Some Amazon reviews complained about the explicit cursing and sex, which didn't bother me, but it might be surprising to someone used to reading YA-marketed books of this kind. I enjoyed the book's tone, which is frank, sarcastic, and full of teenage life.
I know I don't read enough literature by and about Arab-Americans, and A Map of Home was a good combination of familiar (adolescent maturity) and unfamiliar (Kuwait in the '80s; Nidali's parents' experiences).
***This book qualifies for the POC Reading Challenge.