New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2013
*Please note that the following post may contain spoilers and does not summarize the text, as it was written as part of my coursework for LIS 7220 Materials for Young Adults, and the first group of intended readers are my professor and classmates, who should be familiar with the book. If I make adjustments or an additional post with summary/review information in the future, I will post an update link here. Now read on!
This was a surprisingly difficult read for me. It took longer than usual for me to get into the meat of the story, which is what usually drives my reading engine, because of the (entirely necessary!) history of Pakistan and Swat Malala begins with in order to help set the story. This might have a lot to do with the fact that I have been fairly removed from our recent wars and events since 9/11 in many essential ways. I felt it was important for me to pick up on each bit of information, but I suspect that I would have gotten the essence of what was being said, what was important, had I been exposed to the text as an audiobook, where not only the text but the reading often helps frame the story.
The book, and my reactions to it, also made me feel very American in ways I’m not usually comfortable feeling. Aside from brief moments in which Malala mentions talking with her friends about Twilight and getting Ugly Betty DVDs later, so much of what is being recalled in the text is heavy and consequential that I felt a disconnect from Malala as a fellow. The child-diary-entries in A Stolen Life made me feel connected to the protagonist through empathetic feelings (it helps that I have a lot of cats), but Malala, and I feel this may have been the result of her cultural and language differences from me, Malala felt outside of me, and that is not my normal experience with memoirs. This also might have a lot to do with the fact that I read primarily fiction, so I tend to relate to literature personally when I can make emotional connections with the characters.
That said, this is still a book which I think could appeal to a lot of teens. It definitely feels skewed female, especially since the book is by a teen girl advocating for education rights for girls, but putting that aside, Malala has many of the same heroic qualities that teen protagonists in dystopian fiction of late have, eg standing up for beliefs, being singled out as “different,” etc. Because this is a true story as well, I suspect it might have a strong resonance with teen readers who are more disposed to nonfiction than fiction as well.
Overall, I did not find the structure overly impressive. It is straightforward and based along a time-line, aside from the intro to the text in which we are given the scene in which Malala was shot, which should be no surprise to anyone who has also read the front cover. It is possible that putting emphasis on the shooting is what readers who are vaguely familiar with her story recall of it before picking up the book, or also that it is sensationalist marketing and sells.
Either way, the most interesting part of the book for me came up in the last chapter, in the last ten pages, in which Malala ruminates on how she defines herself and how others define her. When she says, “People say, ‘Oh, that’s Malala’ — they see me as ‘Malala, girls’ rights activist,” compared how to those who know her in day to day life see her, I started to see something really worth reading for me. Unfortunately, as I said earlier, I don’t see enough of “the same double-jointed girl they had always known, who loved to tell jokes and drew pictures to explain things” (pictures like these would have been a welcome addition, in my opinion. I ate up the few pictures of Malala in the book and tried to use them to connect to the girl in the narrative, but would have liked more to connect with; the pictures in which Malala is smiling pre-shooting are what ultimately gave me the most meaning, when she writes so much of her parents fears of her forever losing her smile.
So although this is an inspirational text, and I think has been and will be enjoyed by many, it reads with more static feeling (like that of an unimaginative biography) than a memoir, at least to me, and I’m not sure if this challenge to the genre is effective. As I said earlier, this makes me feel a gap between being Pakastani and American, and I definitely do not think that is the goal of the text. I just wish there were more of a cultural bridge for me to grab onto when reading. Maybe it was in the background information I had such trouble with initially.