The Good Braider by Terry Farish
New York: Amazon Children’s Publishing, 2012
*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!
Structure and Form
I studied poetry for my undergraduate degree, and I have read a limited number of texts intended for children or young adults which are poetry which also tells an explicit story. The Good Braider calls itself “a novel” on its cover, not a book of poetry/verse; I feel like that definition resonates for many of the books I have read which fall under this broad category (and which often have to do with a variety of cultural backgrounds, interestingly). I ultimately find myself reading these sorts of books as a novel with stylized voice.
That said, this book did resonate with me as poetry. I have a particular weakness for when poets use line breaks well, and there were quite a few which stood out as I read the text.
Poem: Be Free
Page (hardcover ed.): 14
Lines: The boy turns. His eyes flash to mine / and away. I move my thigh almost but not quite / in step with his, as if we can outstep this war.
Why this is amazing: The line breaks visually simulate the movement and aversion of the Viola and the boy. It has a beautiful rhythm and fear.
Page (hardcover ed.): 96
Lines: “In America,” / he says, “everyone has.”
Why this is amazing: A wonderful line which is not just about cell phones in America, but an outside view of America as a whole. It is not surprising that this ends a stanza, where it can rest its weight and resonance.
The sparse poetic language of this text makes it rather accessible. My copy from the library has a “juvenile” sticker on it, but I might avoid it with the regular children’s crowd, instead saving it for Tween and Teen readers, particularly because of the (although not terribly explicit, still very disturbing) rape scenes and recollections.
That said, I think this book could be incredibly good for an older adult audience, as well as for readers who are ESL. I had never quite grasped until reading this text how writing in verse could make the text and content easier for immigrants, which might also explain why many of the books I have read regarding immigrant and refugee life use this form.
That said, the author of this text does not use English as her second language. I think this may also be a major reason for listing the book as a novel on the front cover, to ensure that readers to not pick it up and start reading it as a memoir, something claiming to be nonfiction, and then get upset when they realize it is not true, at least in many denotative ways.
I myself had to go looking for a reminder of whether or not this was a “true story” after reading the first few poems. I think this speaks to how well the voice is throughout, honestly. I could have mistaken it for a memoir in verse.
That said, I am glad that there is an author’s note (mostly under acknowledgements) to explain her involvement with refugees and her own experience regarding the text. It helps set my mind at ease when letting myself be so taken away with a story, and the historical note was also useful. It is interesting that the historical note is at the end of the text. If put at the beginning of the text, I believe the book would lead a reader less to identify with it as memoir than as explicit fiction, which would cause it to lose some of its power.
Shame and Cultural Context
And here’s where I say I am not an immigrant but I am the child of an immigrant refugee (not from South Sudan but from Vietnam) and so (not completely, but similarly) share some of the experiences of being torn between being in America and being held, particularly by a mother, to cultural standards outside of the place in which I live.
Page (hardcover ed.): 133
Lines: explain again to my mother. While I wait for Abby, / I listen to the mothers talk. / “Never has a child talked back to me as they do here.”
(and Poem: Accident on the Highway, page 190, Lines: She yells to me, “Go and clean the bathroom. / What kind of daughter would leave hair in the sink? / Even if she’s yelling, I’m glad to hear her voice.)
Potential amazing bit: Poetry! If read out loud, “I listen to the mothers talk,” can also be heard as, “I listen to the mothers’ talk.”
How I relate: I grew up thinking of my “mother’s talk” as a constant comparison to my cousins, who better adhered to Vietnamese Culture of respect for elders, as well as to how things were in America versus how better they were in Vietnam, including my “talking back.”
Page (hardcover ed.): 157
Lines: “You kiss that boy. I see you kiss him.”
Why this is amazing / How I relate: This is a notable segment of the text and is set up to be, as the poem which chronologically should fall before it, Fire, is used as the preface or introduction to the text, and this poem brings us back to that moment at which we began. Viola is hurt badly and the relationship between daughter and mother is questioned and rests heavily on the difference between what is socially correct in America versus Sudan. Also, Viola is accused of doing something much less innocent than what her actions actually were, most likely through the paranoia and fear of her mother. I have been here, again and again.
In Fire, Viola compares how “[i]n Juba, the pot would need huge flames / to build the water to this boil,” and she views the traditional Sudanese food bubbling “over the red electric coils.” This is a wonderful (and scary) image of how life in America converges with life in Sudan. Life is easier – water boiling does not require such fire. But there is still the reaction of Viola’s mother as if to a larger trespass – a kiss, a fire – and she punishes her according to life in Sudan, not life in America. Conflict. Yikes. I have been here, again and again. Not always with physical violence, but I relate and I imagine a lot of readers, both immigrant readers and first generation children of immigrants, would also feel similarly. I too have been accused of trespasses regarding my own sexuality and chastity which were not true but which also would not have merited note if I’d come from an all-American family.
On these notes, I’m deciding to close. I am also an only child due to the loss of a younger brother. Very different situation again, but suffice it to say that this book, although I am not from Sudan, although I am not a refugee or an immigrant, resonated strongly with me.
Also, I have wonderful timing. My mother just called while I was writing about her, and I should call her back, as it’s Mother’s Day.
- The Twin Cities has a high number of Somali refugees living here, and I’ve interacted with a lot of Somali kids when volunteering at Hennepin County Library. I wondered if they would like this book, and how even though this is about Sudan, how those of us who have refugee communities in our own could relate, and how it would help. I remember getting a ride home from a friend (remaining nameless) who complained about the Somalis in the cities all not knowing how to drive, and I wanted her to read this book.
- I did not touch on the rape in this novel very much. I think that is a powerful and difficult subject and it was handled well and pretty truthfully.
- The image/metaphor of braiding works in this text, especially when you think of it in multiple ways as it is introduced – the three family members braided together, the elements of Viola’s life coming together, her heritage as defined by braiding. It is not overwhelming and that’s good.
- I appreciated the references to Walter Mosley, a notable African American writer who writes using some decidedly American style (noir-type mystery), as well as Langston Hughes, African American poet. I thought these were subtle choices in author references which added to the text.
- I saw some wonderful pictures of braiding at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts by J. D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere recently and this text also reminded me of that (although these hairstyles are from Nigeria, so…not the same).
If you’re reading…thanks for reading.