One thought on “Mud City

  1. Pritchard & Wilson says:

    Melissa’s Take
    Shauzia is a14-year-old Afghani orphan living in an UN refugee camp in Pakistan. The novel develops immediacy by not giving her background story but rather plunging in to the bleak present. Living in the widow and orphan section of the camp under the protection of her former PE teacher, Shauzia’s meaning that keeps her going after all the tragedies she has endured is the promise she made to her best friend Parvana (of the Breadwinner trilogy) to meet in the future in Paris at the top of the Eiffel Tower.
    Armed with her intelligence, resourcefulness, courage, and dog, Jasper, Shauzia leaves the camp in order to save up enough money to get to the ocean where she will hop a boat to France and be safe in the field of lavender. Like other female characters from this region she masquerades as a boy in order to be able to set out on her own. Things don’t go as she plans and yet I believe she will make it to Paris or wherever she wants to be eventually.
    Interesting for the issues it doesn’t examine- religion, gender inequality, and history- this text is more fascinating for the issues it does tackle. The main one being that Shauzia is an orphan, a child by her chronological age in our culture, but this makes little to no difference in her life. She does what she has to do and assumes adult roles with no fanfare. The adults in her life have failed her long ago and she believes she can make a home for herself and her dog on her own. There is no sentimentality in this text. No victimizing a young person. Instead the author allows her agency.
    When Shauzia is rescued from jail by a wealthy American family and brought to stay in their home things could have become post colonially saccharine. She has all the food she can eat, safety, and the protection that the American money can give her. But she is so impressed by the Western generosity that she shares it with all of the people coming to the house to ask for help, rendering her American “friends” as false as they bring her back to the refugee camp while making themselves feel better by justifying that they are not responsible for saving all of Afghanistan.
    These American do-gooders are shown in a true harsh light, which is certainly a criticism of the West’s interactions with this region of the world. Without thinking it through, they believe that their food and luxury bought with money made by working at a multinational corporation can somehow assuage their guilt when surrounded by poverty and inequality. But this largesse is reserved for one girl, in a place where millions of children are displaced and starving because of a war that has nothing to do with them. When Shauzia attempts to truly share it scares the Americans and they are only too happy to throw her back to the United Nations, washing their hands of all the chaos that their lifestyle and government helped to create.
    This is a subversive novel, truly subversive as it challenges the power relationships of children and adults as well as what could be seen as an analogous power relationship between the East and the West. And the story is pretty darn good too!
    Gail’s Take
    I’m going to pick up from Melissa’s comments…. I was so disappointed in the American family, but then again, as Melissa points out, it would have been “colonial saccharine” if they had swooped in and “saved” Shauzia. When Shauzia asked Barbara why they were helping her, Barbara replied, “Tom’s salary goes a long way over here…. We like to share what we have.” And yet, when Shauzia naively “shares their wealth,” they send her back to the refugee camp. Their role in the story was a perfect way for Shauzia to reflect upon her life prior to the war and since and to juxtapose the positionality between the wealthy and the refugees.
    One of the things I most liked about Shauzia was her unshakable belief that she would prevail–she would show Mrs. Weera she could achieve her dream, she would make her way to the sea, and she would get to France and the lavender fields. Ironically, I read Mud City while on a flight. I took a break from the novel and picked up the airline magazine; and there to my surprise was a picture of a lavender field in France! It was incredible and I imagined the picture Shauzia carried must have looked a lot like this one. It was a sight worthy of a big dream and a strong character like Shauzia.
    Lately, I have read a number of YA novels where the adults have failed the children, usually the parents. In Mud City, the failure is on a much larger scale–beyond parents, beyond political political leaders who have a duty to protect those they represent–the failure is global. Ellis takes us from the issue of war in a particular country and its impact on the most innocent, to the nature of nations, NGOs, and others (like the American family) in paying only brief attention to a crisis before moving on to another, leaving those in the greatest need to the mercy of the elements.
    I would hope those reading this novel will be moved to –at the very least–think deeply about what it means to help those in need, as well as the difference between one-time aid and sustained, on-going transformation. Those like Ellis, who is donating the royalties from this novel to Street Kids International, and Gordon Sato, who developed the Manzanar Project (see The Mangrove Tree: Planting Trees to Feed Families by Cindy Trumbore), challenge us to take our world citizenship seriously.

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