By Seemi Aziz, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ and Celeste Trimble, St. Martin’s University, Lacey, WA
In Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed, Amal is an outspoken Pakistani teen who is confident in who she is. She lives in a small village in Punjab (the largest province in Pakistan comprising 62% of Pakistan) and is educated there. She wants to be a teacher and loves reading. She lives there with her father, mother and many younger sisters. Her mother is pregnant again and afraid that she will bear another girl. Amal happens to come in front of the car of the son of village elder and powerful local landlord, Jawad. She confronts the rude person and as a result the landlord calls in Amal’s family debts. Amal ends up in the landlord’s home as a payback. She befriends other servants as well as Jawad’s mother. She has it easy as she is only person serving the mother and not doing any menial labor. In her time there, she discovers criminal actions by the landlord and reports it. She ends up connecting with Asif (a U.S. educated teacher) in the village’s literacy center, funded, ironically, by the Khan family. This is where she learns that the significant family she works for is not invincible. Indentured servitude, class, gender and literacy are some of the themes this novel explores.
Various awards and reviews for this book are: Booklist, 04/01/18, Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, 05/01/18, Catholic Library World, 09/01/18, Horn Book Magazine, 11/01/18, Kirkus Reviews starred, 04/01/18, Publisher’s Weekly starred, 03/12/18, School Library Connection starred, 08/01/18, School Library Journal starred, 06/01/18, Voice of Youth Advocates (VOYA), 04/01/18.
SEEMI: I find this story shallow and insignificant in the YA genre it belongs to. It begins like a Bollywood film set, and throughout readers sense a certain romance between Amal and Jawad. He seems smitten by her in a Beauty and the Beast theme. The criminal record seems to be just an added turn as an afterthought, not as the main idea of the book. The author, being from Pakistan, does not inculcate any information that makes the text authentic in nature. There are no Urdu terms that makes this text accurate in any way.
CELESTE: I want to know more specifically about your negative feelings about this middle grade novel because all the reviews that I’ve read are considerably positive. Have you seen anyone else reviewing this novel in a way that is in line with your feelings? I’m particularly interested in other Pakistani reviewers’ thoughts, but I haven’t found them. I listened to this via audiobook, and so I did not have the opportunity to go back and read again after you expressed your dislike of the novel.
I did notice a bit of melodrama, or rather a lack of nuance, perhaps what you refer to as a Bollywood film set. The overarching topics in this text, for me, are Amal’s interest in reading and books and the concept of indentured servitude. I read the literacy element of the story as directly related to the popularity of Malala Yousafzai’s story around the world, especially for girls and young women. However, the indentured servitude storyline is heavy-handed and perhaps this storyline doesn’t frame the concept of girl’s schooling well. However, I speak as a far-removed outsider, and I’m sure there are many elements that I, and many other reviewers miss, simply because we do not know enough about Pakistan. I’m interested, also, in your comment about how Saeed is from Pakistan, and therefore this is an #ownvoices novel. Yet it does not live up to the high standard that we expect from #ownvoices novels in terms of authenticity.
SEEMI: Ok, so I am glad we have little more time to give to this one novel merely because it grapples with the same youth-action trope within Internment but at a surface level manner. By giving significance to Malala and literacy, the author merely pushes a saleable story that the publishers in the West would love to sink their teeth into. The “to be seen and not heard” trope falls flat in this narrative. Yes, the concern is that not many Pakistani critics have come across to critically review this book.
When I first came across this story, I thought it would be a significant one given that it is from an insider to the culture. Then, I realized that it pushes the same poverty narrative that is thrust on to the reader in the Shabanu plot along with the West as a savior narrative when Amal meets a U.S.-educated literacy instructor at the literacy center set up by Jawad’s family. He guides her to rebel against the family. She is afforded all the luxury as a handmaiden for Jawad’s mother, that would not have been possible if a person like Jawad wanted to get back to her for speaking out. She has free range of the house with time to explore and find the library, projecting her love for literacy. The character development is not effective, to say the least, and the plot falls flat with lack of effective language and authentic details. The issue of complicit parents, as they initially stop her from going to school because her help is needed in the house and later agree to expose their daughter to servitude rather than reacting to it, is also a concern. The father is shown as loving towards his daughters but then just lets go of Amal, which seems unreal. Amal is given permission to go back and visit her family. When she does go, she realizes that she does not fit into the poor abode now that she has been exposed to Jawad Sahib’s luxurious home. Yes, the evil of influential landlords who are also powerful
politicians in Pakistan needs to be exposed and addressed, but it needs to be in an a more powerful manner, not this lukewarm novel that has received so numerous accolades and awards.
I recently went and watched Disney’s Aladdin just to see how far Disney had come from the racist animated version. I found the same tropes existing there that did in the previous version with the word “chaotic” explaining home in Arabia and a princess who needs to be seen and not heard in a Muslim country. The discourse that frames Muslims and oppression of women are predominant. The princess wants to be Sultan, but the father can not think of it. She is projected as if she has to marry to provide a MAN to run the fictionalized state. Amal has the same concerns within the novel. The song “I will not be speechless” projects a change but as something that would garner applause from western audiences, not realizing that Muslim women were never speechless throughout history of Islam, starting from the wives of the Prophet Muhammad to my mother who helped; physically, verbally, and spiritually create a country, Pakistan, when she was a young teenager. Also look at the national podium where women like Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, both Muslim Congresswomen, are speaking truth to power as we write this piece. In connecting fiction to
reality further concerns arise. The issue also arises when female characters like Malala, Amal, Jasmin and Shabanu become representative of discourse framing women in Islam and Pakistan, as characters who stood up and spoke out as who are divergent rather than the norm.
CELESTE: I really appreciate your perspective. I am particularly compelled by your last statement, that we are led to think about these real and imagined girls and women who stand up and speak out as divergent, because I recognize that as a very true and highly attractive trope in much of children’s literature and media. I wonder how much this idea of disruption or the norm of speaking out comes up in Saeed’s recent stand-alone, but film connected novel, Aladdin: Far from Agrabah. Additionally, I wonder if these same issues are present in Saeed’s YA novel, Written in the Stars. I think, sometimes, in trying to write for a younger audience, authors oversimplify, resulting in a novel that seems to rely on stereotypes and harmful tropes that might not be present if writing with older readers in mind. This conversation has been important for my thinking because I wonder about, and worry about, if I am reading with enough of a critical eye, in general. Most of my reading is outside my own cultural identity, and in reading as an outsider, I often trust reviews uncritically. You remind me that I should always be reading with a critical eye, even for #ownvoices authors and reviewers, and that I should always search for multiple review perspectives. Thank you.
SEEMI: Before we stop talking about this book I want to touch on the term “unbound.” This term enhances the typical rhetoric framing Muslim women as bound and not free. So from that term alone the reader expects more of the same–a plot not necessarily questioning or challenging the accepted norm. I wish this novel was more effectively written on the major issues of lack of literacy and the power of vicious, corrupt politicians in killing and burying their evidence. Corruption at the highest level of office is not an uncommon one, globally. The issue is more about there being a lack of effective checks and balances within a said government.
[Editor Note: Amal Unbound is reviewed in WOW Review, Volume 11, Issue 2.]
Author: Aisha Saeed
Publisher: Nancy Paulsen Books
Date Published: May 8, 2018
Throughout July 2019, Celeste and Seemi give their takes on books on the theme of displacements and its representations. Check back each Wednesday to follow the conversation!