AUGUST 6, 2010
Review by Kaimalino
Na’ima B. Robert’s latest work, Boy vs. Girl is one of the many reasons I feel lucky to be part of The Rock Pool project. This book would never have crossed my radar without my colleagues here, and it would’ve been a shame to miss it.
Faith, friends, family–Robert tackles it all.
The story has enough themes and conflicts to merit a thorough, in-person discussion with the British Muslim writers here at The Rock Pool who can best relate to the cultural backdrop of the story. As soon as I figure out where the “pause” button is on the rest of my life, I’ll be right over.
Here’s the thing that makes Boy vs. Girl such a stand-out: It’s a coming-of-age story with a backdrop of faith that might be written for Muslim teens or might be written for me, a person of another faith who appreciates a good story. It works either way, which is no small feat.
The writing is clear and accessible even though it delves into complicated, but universal, issues. This means Robert’s work will appeal to a broad age-range and demographic.
I admit I had reservations at first. The opening chapters are so sweet and gentle and full of mutual admiration between the brother and sister characters I started to wonder if I’d stumbled across footage of a Muslim take on the slightly saccharine 1950’s American sitcom The Donna Reed Show. It seemed all snuggles and samosas.
But then the actual story began, and intriguing conflicts and internal struggles came non-stop for 200 pages. The main characters, twins Farhana and Faraz, are forced to make thoughtful decisions about how they will live and whose standards they will value. The sugary beginning is necessary as a starting point, kind of a baseline so readers can see and appreciate the spiritual journey the twins take and the choices they make.
It’s plenty compelling; I can say that much without spoiling anything. Where they were once skipping off to the bus stop with no thought beyond homework, Farhana soon must contemplate the many conflicting lines between her faith, her family’s expectations and popular culture and Faraz is dropped in the middle of his neighborhood’s gritty drug culture. This is good reading for parents to enjoy with their children because there are so many issues to discuss, and the characters genuinely struggle to do what’s right.
Occasionally, I felt a bit baby-sat and instructed. There’s a glossary in the back of the book with religious and cultural terms for readers who are unfamiliar with them, and this was definitely helpful to me. But in spite of that, the characters sometimes say words in both Urdu and English as if to define them for readers, like an episode of Word Girl. I get that Robert is trying to help me understand the characters better, and I’m glad because often I really do need to be baby-sat and instructed, but this repetition occasionally felt self-conscious and made me feel self-conscious as a reader. “Oh my goodness—Ummerji is looking right at me! Quick, I should do something dutiful!” I’d think.
The flip side of all these incidental vocabulary lessons is that the cultural expressions the Muslim characters use in the book crept into my mental vocabulary, which was both mind-expanding and amusing. It was if I’d been hanging out with Auntie Najma and she was rubbing off on me. I gobbled up Boy vs. Girl in a couple of days, and ran a 5K race that same week. “I’m heading for a personal best,” I thought at the starting line, trying to get in a good mental place for the run. Involuntarily, my mind tacked on “insha Allah,” and I had a little smile to myself. My smile was bigger at the finish when I saw my time actually WAS a personal best and again, involuntarily thought, “masha Allah.” Here’s hoping it’s not haram for me—a gori Christian– to borrow such expressions. Can running shoes have izzat?
Auntie Najma, Imran and Ahmed Ali are excellent character additions that spur Faraz and Farhana to greater self-realizations. It is through the influence of their thoughtful and deliberately devout (but entirely non-judgmental) Auntie Najma that the twins start to see the differences between living pure religious doctrine versus cultural traditions. All young people should be so blessed with a trustworthy mentor of her caliber. All people of faith should be more than accidentally religious; worship should be from the heart and Auntie Najma models that in a decidedly non-preachy way.
Imran and Ahmed Ali are refreshing because they show Faraz peaceful ways to be an honorable Muslim man. Learning to be true to oneself is a universal issue for readers of every faith, and it’s satisfying to watch Faraz come into his own genuine sense of personal honor and spiritual devotion even though there is plenty of angst along the way.
There are so many more angles of Boy vs. Girl worth discussing. The title gave me the impression the twins would be in conflict with each other, but I’ve decided it’s more a reference to the double-standards they are required to follow and how they compare and contrast with each other. Faraz and Farhana must navigate through the stress of religious and cultural gender roles. The story does not have a traditional beginning, middle and end so much as a beginning, a series of turning points and then a new beginning.
I’d gladly read a sequel featuring the best-friend-character Shazia and a deeper investigation of her conflicts. Forbidden love-interest Malik, too, is a mysterious character and surely struggles with his own set of issues. (Dude, what are you thinking?)
The essay question I’d assign after reading this is: Is it better to do the right things (Shazia wears hijab) for the wrong reasons (her family insists, but she’s not completely sold on it) or is it better to do the seemingly wrong things (Auntie Naj preparing to marry outside of the Pakistani community) for the right reasons (her fiancé is also Muslim and will encourage her in her spiritual goals)? So many thought-provoking questions, all worthy of further analysis by Robert’s many readers. You should be one.