Well, if you're looking for a unique and compelling YA voice, look no further than Sheba Karim's fabulous Skunk Girl. For those of you reading this blog regularly, you'll know that I've been gorging (well, literarily) on some fabulous South Asian women authors' novels recently. So let me place Karim's novel in context. While Neesha Meminger's Shine, Coconut Moon (which came out the same year as Karim's novel) addresses issues of 9-11 politics explicity (Meminger's Sikh protagonist must struggle to find her identity in the context of a xenophobic America), Marina Budhos' triumverate of protagonists in Tell Us We're Home must struggle to find a space for themselves as daughters of immigrant maids and nannies in a wealthy suburban town.
If Meminger's and Budhos' fabulous novels explicitly struggle with racism, xenophobia and classism, Karim's tale is an examination of (Pakistani Muslim) family politics, body image, and the age old push and pull of immigrant parents' expectations and the desire of teenage girls. But most significantly, Skunk Girl captures that snark-a-licious voice of a high schooler to a T. Karim takes a genous helping of smarts, adds a fistful of sarcasm, and just a pinch of self-depracation to brew up one of the most wonderful teen voices I've read in a while.
And that smart voice carries through in her interview (below)... check it out!
Q: The title! That fabulous title of your novel: Skunk Girl. I know it refers to the line of hair your protagonists finds suddenly running down her back - how did you come up with such a powerful metaphor for the shame that so many girls feel about body hair/their bodies in general?
Sheba: The idea just popped into my head one day, and it seemed like such an apt metaphor I couldn’t resist.
Q: "Hair politics" in the South Asian community is often about the waxing, threading, etc. of body hair. In his Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides writes about "the great hair belt" stretching from Greece to South Asia. But it's certainly not something that well-brought up South Asian daughters talk publicly about! :) What inspired you to write about your protagonists' relationship to her body hair?
Sheba: Body hair was something that my South Asian friends and I had to deal with growing up, and it was so embarrassing we were only comfortable talking about it with each other. If you’re going to write a realistic and honest book about how difficult it is to grow up South Asian in the US, than body hair has to be part of it.
Q: The voice in this book is funny, startling, honest, and complex. A wonderful YA voice. But I've read that you didn't know you wanted to write for young people until a children's writing seminar in MFA grad school. How did you 'find' your YA voice?
Sheba: More like it found me! The reason I felt compelled to write Skunk Girl is that I heard Nina’s funny, self deprecating voice so clearly in my head. Since I mostly write fiction for adults, it was very refreshing to write Skunk Girl, and I hope to do more YA writing in the future.
Q: There are several South Asian women writers writing about post 9-11 social politics and young people. How did post-9-11 social politics (the patriot act etc.) impact this book?
Sheba: The book is set before 9-11, so it had no impact on the narrative itself. I think since 9-11 there’s been an increased interest in Pakistan, not all of it positive, and that writers of Pakistani heritage have been able to get more exposure.
Q: The dating politics in Skunk Girl are complicated. Your protagonist neither entirely abides by her parents' warnings against dating nor does she entirely rebel against them. Why did you decide to walk this line rather than, say, painting the parents as entirely in the wrong, or mainstream American mores as entirely in the wrong?
Sheba: The point of this book wasn’t to portray one generation as morally superior to the other, it was to reflect that there inter-generational conflict is always complicit. Nina’s parents have valid concerns, as does Nina. Ultimately, it is up to us as individuals to create our own moral compass.
Q: What sorts of responses has the novel gotten from within the South Asian or Muslim American communities? Outside of those communities?
Sheba: A lot of non-South Asian have really appreciated the insight they felt the book gives into growing South Asian/Muslim American in the States, and a lot of them had friends from this background and felt as if the book gave them a deeper understanding of their friends’ upbringing. The South Asian/Muslim readers have reacted positively, particularly the female readers, as they could relate to Nina’s challenges and moral quandaries.
Q: What are you working on now?
Sheba: I’m currently in India, working on a historical fiction novel set in 13th century Delhi.
Q: What are your childhood favorite books? Current favorites?
Sheba: My favorite book when I was a young child was called “Are You My Mother?” Of course I read all of the Judy Blume books. In terms of South Asian literature, I love “The God of Small Things” and “Midnight’s Children.” I just read “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” by Muriel Barbery and thought it was beautifully written, and the end was quite emotionally searing.
Q: Aasif Mandvi had this great monologue on The Daily Show where he suggested that all South Asian Americans - be they journalists or writers or painters or what have you - are also lawyers, doctors or engineers. Now, I'm implicated in that - as a doctor/writer; what made you decide to turn from law to creative writing? Are you still practicing law? (and if not, are your community 'aunties' tisk-tisking?)
Sheba: I always wanted to be a writer, and when I was accepted into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop it was too wonderful an opportunity to turn down. I haven’t gone back to law and hopefully will never have to. I think the South Asian community is slowly becoming more accepting of creative professions, though it remains an uphill battle for many of us.
Q: Is your writing good medicine? (I think so but I'd like to hear your answer?)
Sheba: Let’s just say if I don’t do it for a while, I start becoming very cranky!
Well, just leave a comment below (with an email address) by next Friday October 29th to qualify to win your very own copy of Sheba Karim's Skunk Girl!!!
Wohoo! Another book giveaway!
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