The Tyrant’s Daughter

Exiled to the United States after her father, a Middle Eastern dictator, is killed in a coup, fifteen-year-old Laila must cope with a completely new way of life, the truth of her father’s regime, and her mother and brother’s ways of adjusting.

One thought on “The Tyrant’s Daughter

  1. Seemi Aziz & Melissa Wilson says:

    According to KIRKUS REVIEW:

    A teenage girl from an unnamed Middle Eastern country attempts to come to terms with her dictator father’s bloody legacy in this absorbing character-driven novel authored by a former CIA official.
    Fifteen-year-old Laila lives in a shabby apartment outside of Washington, D.C., with her mother and little brother. She misses her homeland, but return is impossible since her uncle had her father assassinated and took control of the government. “I’m half Here. I’m half There. I’m a girl divided, which is to say I’m no one at all.” While her mother schemes with both American officials and rebels from their country to remedy their untenable situation, Laila reluctantly begins to enjoy the simple freedoms of school and friendships. But worrisome thoughts of her mother’s secretive phone calls and the mysterious CIA agent who lurks around their apartment are never far from her mind. And how will she ever reconcile what she now knows about her father the dictator with the loving man who raised her? Carleson shrewdly makes what has become a sadly familiar story on the evening news accessible by focusing on the experiences of one innocent girl at the center of it. Laila is a complex and layered character whose nuanced observations will help readers better understand the divide between American and Middle Eastern cultures.
    Smart, relevant, required reading. (author’s note, commentary, further reading)

    (Fiction. 13 & up)

    J.C. Carlson, a former undercover CIA, writes a book titled The Tyrant’s Daughter that reads like an expose’ of U. S. foreign policy on Muslims while it strengthens existing stereotypes about Muslim leaders. This novel can generate discussion, if properly deconstructed as it addresses issues that can become relevant in classrooms in questioning discourse about present day Muslims. While I did not appreciate the overall plot of the book I found it to be controversial and thought provoking if it is looked at through the postcolonial lens.
    This novel speaks through a theme of crossing over and living in two worlds of the protagonist, Laila, along with her brother and mother. As she struggles with and questions her new life in the U.S. provided by CIA agents in return for their ability to manipulate the circumstances within their country while living far away. So basically they have bartered their lives and beliefs for their safe existence. The twisted characters of the surviving family develop under skewed current events in the U. S.
    Seemi, I am surprised you are not more outraged by this book’s portrayal of the “Muslim” world clashing with the American one (I am using quotes because the novel’s protagonist is from an unnamed country where Islam is the national religion). This text infuriated me. It seems to play out every Muslim stereotype. From the intrigue of strange conversations over tea and fruit to the despot killing and looting in the name of Islam to the exotic woman using her feminine wiles to seduce the men in power this novel oozes with an Orientalism that is disturbing as well as a political agenda that is, I believe, reactionary and anti-Muslim.
    I would suggest anyone who is interested in political indoctrination read The Tyrant’s Daughter. Start with the cover illustration. There is a close up of a girl/woman whose face is veiled below her nose. The reader’s eyes meet her eyes and they are dark, teary, and kohl lined. Turn to the back and you can read that the author is a “former CIA officer” and there is a commentary included by Dr. Cheryl Benard, a RAND corporation researcher.
    As it is impossible to learn much about a former CIA officer, a careful reader is left to investigate Dr. Benard’s background. RAND corporation, for those of you who don’t know, is a think tank that is employed by the U. S. Armed Forces to analyze foreign policy. I find it odd that an analysis who has worked in that capacity would be commenting on a YA novel.
    Curiouser, is the novel itself. The author writes in her afterward that she didn’t want a specific setting for her novel because:

    When I finally began to write this story, I did not want Laila and Bastien’s home country to be a thinly disguised version of any one particular place-Iraq, or elsewhere, To avoid this, and to avoid the trap of having to be too wed to actual events, I created a melting pot of details, current events, and personal experiences (p. 282).

    This novel is, to put is as the author does, “…pure fiction that is inspired by real events” (p. 284). The real events, in this case, have been seen through the eyes of an American who worked for the CIA. This author is not of this “world” of which she writes. The “real events” were filtered through the eyes of this CIA officer. I find this troubling. Because the real events were real to the people who she is referring to and to obscure them in a stereotypical Islamic state of despair and terror is irresponsible, fear mongering, and disrespectful of whomever “they” are.
    This text cements the idea of the “other” but giving its protagonist a horrific past and unsure future in a place that is so foreign it can’t be named and if it cannot be named it cannot be understood.
    Melissa, your comments have not surprised me in the least because I have the same insight into the book and its varied storylines that frame and condemn the Muslim world in more ways than one. But I still think this makes it a necessary entry point into the various issues explored therein. It relates closely with the media (mis) representation that it merely reinforces the stereotypes that the media represents.
    Most of the awarded and well-known books set in the Muslim world have the exact same cover in which the veiled woman is looking at the audience with a look of appeal of the oppressed Muslim female. Merely observing recent books for instance the Breadwinner trilogy, Shabanu Daughter of the Wind, Where I Belong, Ask Me No Questions, Does My Head Look Big in This to name a few novels and then Ziba Came on a Boat and One Green Apple in picturebooks, the very same kind of Muslim girls are highlighted in each looking at the audience in askance as if saying: what did I do to deserve the horrifying life I have as a Muslim female? I think that is where the analysis of such books needs to begin.
    The authors of most of the books are not from the regions that they write about. They have either visited through the Peace Corps, as journalists or now as a CIA operatives, which seems to lend credibility to the experiences, they are adding to their pieces of fiction.
    What I found interesting was that the two female characters, i.e. the mother and daughter, are both represented as scheming and mysterious who get their way in the end. This adds to the new or not so new category of the Muslim female (one sees the scheming and manipulating female in the character of Scheherazade in the age-old tale of A Thousand and One Nights). The mother uses the CIA agent to get money to her country and then influences the poor people of her homeland to create a revolt in which her brother-in-law is killed leaving her as the director and choreographer of the future events as the mother of the king, her son. Laila, on the other hand, ends up realizing that her strength is in her being the power behind her very young and impressionable brother; the future king of her country, “my way is quieter. More fitting of an invisible queen.”(p.273) And the last sentence says, “I am the invisible Queen” even though she has learnt from the mistakes of her parents (p.280). The readers are left holding their breath not knowing if she will remain true to being different or the same as her parents. The unnamed region and its circumstances thus become a representative of the whole Muslim world and is understood as that by the reader.
    The author also indicates her being influenced by the events in Pakistan and the Bhutto family when she wrote this story. In seeing how Benazir Bhutto struggled to follow in her father’s footsteps and became one of the worst examples of a foreign educated, corrupt leader that Pakistan has ever seen and was assassinated, points the audience to think about the precarious Muslim world teetering on the brink of annihilation as if that is what the end of the Muslim and their world should be.
    Seemi, your response has really got me thinking about the reasons for the The Tyrant’s Daughter’s afterward (commentary) in which Dr. Cheryl Benard discusses the fate of Laila, the young protagonist, in terms of Benazir Bhutto and Sonia Gandhi. She entitles it “Truth in Fiction,” which leads me to believe that the commentary’s purpose it to anchor this fictional story in the “truth” of Pakistan and India.
    According to Dr. Benard, Leila can follow the path of Bhutto, who she describes as a “…slender (am wondering why her being slim even needs to be commented on) young woman, poised, confident, articulate…” (p. 286), a western educated woman, who couldn’t govern her own country without being a pawn in its corruption, who was killed by the “tyrants” when she finally grew up and accepted the West’s help. Or Leila can follow the “fairytale” life of Ghandi, who went from being a waitress in a small Italian town to the prime minister of India. Bhutto is positioned as the “Invisible queen” who was a pawn of the evil patriarchy while Ghandi is the wise European who had the agency to govern a huge country. Leila can choose her path, but it is clear that the paths are constructed from a Western perspective.
    Of course this text is a Western construct and plays in to the mystery and danger that is the Orient. It takes the easy way out by refusing to contextualize its story. And it plays around with the cultures of some Muslims that reinforce their otherness. The mother in the story drinks alcohol to cope, the daughter tries to have sex with her Christian boyfriend, and the young man who helps the protagonist is portrayed as a terrorist. These Muslim people are given “freedoms” in America and use them to go against the “repressive” unnamed place of origin. This seems to be saying to the reader, look, they are just like us, except they aren’t and never will be.
    This otherness can’t be taken off like the protagonist’s veil. It is her destiny to be “invisible,” while her mother’s destiny is to tell the story each night to lull the men in to letting her live. This book can be used as a foray into critical literacy, but in a country that knows little about Islam or Asia, it seems that it will be read to confirm all that we think we already know.
    Seemi’s Take 3
    Melissa, the issue here is that Bhutto, the father, was really never a tyrant. He was a foreign educated statesman who was all about the masses. He was falsely accused of murder and condemned to death by hanging. It was a sad day for Pakistan. His daughter on the other hand was full of false convictions and was corrupt beyond anyone’s comprehension. She literally sold Pakistan. Her husband, the past president of Pakistan, Zardari was known as Mr. 10%. He would charge each new business that came into Pakistan and added the proceeds to his own pocket. So Benazir Bhutto could never throw off the image of being a person who was too weak and not a great statesperson. The concerns with ‘otherness’ are reinforced when there is a generalization of the perception of ALL leaders of the Muslim world as being evil tyrants. The differences with the audience of the text then become too huge to ever be surmountable. I agree that this perception of ‘otherness’ cannot be taken off like the Leila’s veil. It is an image that sticks in the mind of readers.
    The problem is not only with the representation of the female characters but also the male characters within the story. The father, of course, is a tyrant but loves his daughter and wife. So his varied personalities confuse the daughter and the wife who believe that he is the best while he does evil things to the masses that have to obey him.
    The brother in this story creates a concerning twist as well. He is presented as such a prince who expects to be obeyed at all costs. He is spoiled beyond belief. The mother spoils him at all costs. Leila is shocked every time she is expected to serve him. The representation of the boy/king assures the reader with the manner in which this character will turn out when he begins his rule without a positive male role model in the absence of his father and with his mother as the influential person in his life.
    Melissa’s Take 3
    Yes, Seemi, the male characters are also problematic. I think the author tried to present the father as a human being, not a monster, by showing his human side through the stories the mother tells Leila about him. Of course, the stories could be just that, stories she concocted to control her daughter. The Uncle is the true monster, the evil and hypocritical Muslim cleric who will usurp power and make an unjust country even more so through Islamic law. This Uncle embodies what the U.S. fears. He is the Taliban or El Qaida or Hamas. The man who leads his people away from the West further in to “otherness.” One could say this story is a bit analogous to Iran, where the Western-corrupted Shah was overthrown by a Muslim cleric.
    What is disturbing to me is the way the author marries Islam to repression and violence and ignorance. There is nothing that I read in the text that showed Islam as a religion, like all others, that can be used to suit a variety of agendas. I could say what Kathy Short always says that this text shouldn’t be read alone, but in the midst of a text set showing multiple viewpoints. But what texts could be included that don’t have the same biases and political and social agendas? What texts can we share with children and teachers that show a Muslim country or people as just a country or people, who are the same and different, but mostly the same.
    As someone who believes children’s literature has a disciplinary role in the construction of children’s political views, I think it is important for scholars and teachers to examine texts closely to see what is being said, but more important, to see what is left unsaid. The Silent Queen, Leila the protagonist, embodies this role. She is subservient to her mother, her country’s regime, her younger brother, but we never really learn who she is as a just a younger person. This absence makes it easy for the reader to dismiss her and her story as just another girl behind a veil, a strange and mysterious girl who will never be known or knowable.
    Seemi’s Take 4
    I agree and have been a proponent of texts being read not only deeply but also critically. My research has proven that no text should be read in isolation but the concern is that each of the texts written about Muslims holds the same stereotypes that reinforce the negative worldview about them. I also agree that Laila’s character is easily dismissible as she embodies that certain negation in her Muslim self. Her identity is changing with her changing circumstance. She wants to be who she is but cannot as she is trying to comprehend her past. I as a reader pity her and then dismiss her as just another oppressed Muslim female.
    I also want to mention that group of poor citizen’s belonging to the fictitious country who are now housed in the US. The west thus becomes savior in this prevalent story. Amir and Nadeen’s story is heart wrenching as both are left with physical and mental scars of Leila’s father’s tyrannical regime. Carlson’s bringing in the poisonous chemical gas was very strategic – suddenly the WMD becomes authentic, present, and very real as a danger in this war against terror. This group of people, as representatives of the poor masses, is used again and again. The mother uses them again, to get the uncle killed. Geographically so far from the homeland they have left to find a safe haven, the same group of elite ex-ruler is still manipulating them.
    Melissa’s take 4
    Seemi, I have really enjoyed discussing this novel with you over the last four weeks. It seems that our takes are similar in that we both find The Tyrant’s Daughter troubling on so many levels. I think it would be great if you could share texts that you believe offer readers a chance to explore Islam or life in a Muslim majority country in a more balanced way. This is your area of expertise and I am now chomping at the bit to read something that can balance this book out.
    Seemi Take 5
    I know Melissa and I deviated from the norm in the way My Take/ Your Take is usually done, but there was a method to this madness. We thought this was necessary discussion to take place in the present global scenario that frame Muslims in a certain way. This book provides a logical narrative that reinforces many stereotypes but in a manner that makes it acceptable, why? Because a so-called expert in the field of Middle East writes it, she has been a CIA agent; so credibility is unquestionable; she seems to have evidently done her homework . . . therefore it must be a true and acceptable narrative. Most of the narratives about Muslims are the same, usually written by outsiders to the culture who in some way claim authenticity by proximity. A renowned example is that of Suzanne Fisher Staples (who recommended this book as a must read for all Americans). Taking one book and deconstructing it week after week for our audience has brought the significance of critical reading to the fore.
    We as readers need to be aware of the issues and read books about the Middle East with a clear perception that the reality being presented needs to be read critically as there are always two sides to the story. Also be aware that generalities create stereotypes and an author does have a certain agenda that becomes clear as one deconstructs the text. So again I urge the reader to wrestle with a text rather than merely walking on top of it . . . a concept I learned from Paulo Freire.
    Melissa Take 5
    Seemi, I have enjoyed discussing this novel with you. This exercise really does illustrate the importance (and fun) of reading critically. But more than that (and I am piggybacking on what you said) it brings up what authorial responsibilities are and what they aren’t. I think this author was trying to avoid being responsible for portraying a culture accurately by not naming the tyrant’s country. At the same time, she is positioning herself as an “expert,” which would lead the reader to believe that she knows what she is talking about. I find this combination insincere and confusing.
    I am left wondering if I would have this issue with a book marketed to adults. I also wonder if my concerns are very different from people who want to ban books based on their own concerns. As I tell my students, all teachers censor books by simply choosing what children will or will not read as part of their curriculum. Would I use this text as a teaching tool? No, not unless what I was teaching was critical literacy. My gravest concern isn’t with the book itself, it is with the political subtext I read in to it. But as Seemi started out the conversation, maybe this kind of text is important as it could help to foster a conversation about tacit theories we hold true about the Orient, Arabs, Islam, and our own place in the world.

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