I Love I Hate I Miss My Sister

by Amélie Sarn, translated from French by Y. Maudet
First sentence: “The women walk slowly, heads down.”
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Release date: Augst 5, 2014
Review copy snagged from the ARC shelves at my place of employment.
Content: There is violence, some mild swearing, and some teen drinking and smoking. I’ll probably put this in the Teen (grades 9+) section of the bookstore, though I wouldn’t hesitate to give it to a 7th- or 8th-grader who is interested.

Sohane Chebli is many things: 18 years old, a daughter, a sister, a scholar, French, and a Muslim. She lives in an apartment complex full of others of  Algerian heritage, and mostly she and her younger sister (by 11 months), Djelila, get along with their neighbors, schoolmates, and each other just fine.

Then, during Sohane’s senior year, a few young Muslim men take it on themselves to start harassing Djelila because she dresses in jeans and tighter shirts. Because she wears makeup. Because she smokes with her friends. And Sohane, whose path has become more conservative — she wears the hijab — doesn’t step in to defend her sister. Partially because Sohane thinks her sister is wrong for following a path away from Islam. And partially because Sohane’s been expelled from school, due to a French law banning all religious symbols, for wearing the hijab.

I’m going to spoil a bit — it’s not too bad, because from the beginning,  you know this — but Djelila is killed by the Muslim boys for her refusal to conform to their expectations. And it’s that paired with the other side of the coin: Sohane’s constant discrimination for wearing the hijab. (Not that I mean to compare murder with discrimination.) But it got me thinking: why do we feel a need to tell others how to behave? Why did these boys feel compelled to not only shame, but eventually kill a girl for not following her/their religion to the letter? Why did people refuse to see Sohane’s hijab wearing as an expression of her religion, instead interpreting it as an act of repression? It’s a thought-provoking book.

And it’s written well, in tight, short chapters. It took a bit for me to catch the rhythm of the book because it’s translated, but once I did, I was hooked. And I wasn’t disappointed, in the end.

So Long a Letter

by Mariama Ba
First sentence: “Dear Aissatou, I have received your letter.”
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Content: It’s pretty serious and deals with issues of infidelity and polygamy and out-of-wedlock pregnancy. But there’s no swearing, sex, or violence. It’d be in the adult section of the bookstore.

Recently widowed, Ramatoulaye sits down to write a long letter to her best friend about all the events that led up to Ramatoulaye’s husband’s death. It was a happy story:  for 25 years, they were happily married. Ramatoulaye spent her life in devotion to her husband, bearing 12 children. Then one of his daughter’s friends caught his eye, and he woos her, and takes her as a second wife (as is permitted in Islam). That simple act wrecks Ramatoulaye, but she manages to survive as a single mother.

It’s a slim novel, and an interesting one. I didn’t particularly like the format –why, if she’s writing to her best friend, would Ramatoulaye need to recount her friends’ history (which was much like her own; her husband took a second wife. The difference is that Aissatou left her husband)? It didn’t make sense to me, logically, some of the things Ramatoulaye included in her letter. That said, if when I was able to get past that, I found the story was simultaneously enlightening and disheartening.

Enlightening, because that’s an area of the world I know very little about. And through Ramatoulaye, Ba brings to life the ordinary lives of Senegalese women. And disheartening because they have so few rights, as we have come to think of them. I read this book in the middle of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign, and this is a prime example why I need to read more books like this. In my privileged home in my privileged country, it’s easy for me not to think about Senegalese women and their lives. But books like these help me. It helps that Ba is a good writer (aside from the format, of course), and was able to draw me into Rmatoulaye’s life.

And that’s what makes this book worthwhile.