In Towelhead, Alicia Erian’s debut novel, readers are offered a view of what it might be like to grow up a child of two parents of different cultures. We may not leave with any more idea about that than we had coming into the novel but we will get a glimpse of a whole lot more than we probably bargained for.
Thirteen year old Jasira, the main character of the novel, is at once notably naive and sophisticated as she determines the best way to walk across the thin ice of her parents’ making. Her mother, a controlling, self-centered, unloving school teacher won’t show Jasira how to shave her bikini line so that Jasira may feel comfortable at the swimming pool. For some unknown reason, Jasira’s mother is uncomfortable with Jasira’s developing body. Her mother’s boyfriend steps in and does the shaving, swimsuit on, and when her mother finds out, Jasira is sent away to live with her father.
If the reader is looking for some relief for Jasira in the home of her father, they will be disappointed because Daddy turns out to be even more uncomfortable than her mother with not only Jasira’s body, but the very idea of her existence. Not only are Daddy’s rules unreasonable but they are unpredictable and Jasira has to second guess everything that comes out of her mouth.
Next door lives a pedophile who throughout the book seems to be the one abuser of the three (mother, father, neighbor) that holds any amount of conflicting feelings and guilt regarding his actions whereas the mother and father remain oblivious to their offenses.
Added to the mix are the politics of war (although Erian does not dig all that deep in this area); adolescent sexuality; and racial issues.
Jasira is lucky to find an advocate in another neighbor: a pregnant newlywed with more of a world view than others around Jasira, who ultimately rescues her from both of her parents and the pedophile.
Among the criticism Towelhead has received, one fot he things that stood out to me was the complaint the narrator sounds younger than her thirteen years. Initially I thought the same thing. The first sentence: “My mother’s boyfriend got a crush on me, so she sent me to live with Daddy,” sounds as if it came from a girl a couple of years younger than Jasira’s thirteen. It’s only after reading further that I was able to gain some insight as to why Jasira’s mental and emotional health may have seemed arrested at times. Under the constant emotional and physical abuse of her parents it would have been more unbelievable if she had come across as mentally, emotionally, and spiritually together.
This is a book that is not easy to read—Erian’s straight storytelling does not make the abuse Jasira endures more comfortable for the reader. For that reason among others, I recommend you do read it.
- Originally from Vermont, I now live in North Carolina. My work can be found in recent issues of REAL: Regarding Arts and Letters, The Jabberwock Review, The Emerson Review, Storyglossia, The MacGuffin, Confrontation, Passages North, SmokeLong Quarterly, elimae, wigleaf, and Pank, among others, and forthcoming from Gargoyle #57 and REAL: Regarding Arts and Letters. One of my stories has been translated into Farsi by Asadollah Amraee, and many others by Jalil Jafari, two of which have been published in the Iranian journal, Golestaneh Magazine. For two years I worked as an assistant editor for Narrative Magazine. Currently, I serve as a mentor for Dzanc's Creative Writing Sessions. I'm working on two novels and a short story collection. In May, I was awarded the Carol Houck Smith Contributor Scholarship for the 2011 Bread Loaf Writers' Conference.