Sunday, February 16, 2014

Tracing Letters in the Dust

It’s hard enough to write across national boundaries and cultures, to get inside the customs, traditions, and values of another people, and it might be even harder to write across the boundary of gender, a woman writing from a man’s perspective, say, or a man writing from a young girl’s point of view. Yet with a seemingly effortless grace and authority, Trent Reedy does both in his novel, Words in the Dust.

From the opening paragraphs, Reedy draws the reader into Zulaikha’s world with an immediacy and detailed accuracy that is astonishing when you consider that as an American soldier on duty in Afghanistan, Reedy had only limited exposure to the Afghan people and their culture during his one year tour of duty.

Here’s how he starts the story: 
I traced the letters in the dust with my finger, spelling out my name: Zulaikha. Squinting my eyes in this middle time between night and morning, I checked to make sure my brothers and sister were still sleeping. Then I began to write the alphabet. Alif, be, pe, te .... What was the next letter? 
 I wriggled my fingers in the cool brown powder before I swept out what I’d written. “I’m sorry, Madar-jan,” I whispered, hoping that somehow her spirit could hear me. “I’m forgetting what you taught me.”
In many ways Words in the Dust is a story of recovery—recovering the memory of what a young girl’s mother taught her, as well as recovering the memory of her mother, too (whose life was cut short by the Taliban when it was discovered that she was reading Taliban-banned literature), and recovering the values that her mother held dear and hoped to pass on to her.

On its most basic level, though, the story is about a girl’s attempt to recover the happiness of a childhood that was lost because of her cleft lip, a physical disfigurement that has led people (both family and strangers alike) to say unkind things about her appearance and has prompted other children in the neighborhood to mistreat and tease her:
“HEEEEW-HAAAAAW! HEE-HAW!” Salman shouted until his face was red. 
 “You so ugly, Donkeyface. Why don’t you put on a chadri? Nobody wants to see your ugly mouth!” Anwar held a hand up to shield his eyes from my face. 
 “Leave me alone, Anwar,” I shouted, but my words came out as crooked as my teeth. 
 I shouldn’t have spoken. Omar and Salman launched into a cruel imitation of the way my cleft lip forced me to mispronounce words. But Anwar just smiled coldly and slowly stepped forward. I tried to make my legs stop shaking, but they felt as weak as soggy naan.
It’s a bleak world that Zulaikha inhabits, but she sees a glimmer of hope for her future when an American soldier offers her the chance of a life-changing operation to repair her mouth.

In her world, though, hope, much like happiness, is not given to many, and Zulaikha has to convince herself that hope is worth struggling for, even though it remains just beyond her grasp. Each time it comes within reach, it appears to elude her yet again… and again.

With the help of Meena, a kind teacher, the same older woman who taught her mother, and her sister, Zeynab, who possesses the kind of physical beauty that Zulaikha believes can make her own life perfect, Zulaikha finds a way to embrace hope in the future. In doing so, she finds herself transformed, not only physically (thanks to the operation), but spiritually as well.

As Suzanne Fisher Staples, the Newbery Honor author of Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind, has written about this book, “With great compassion and honesty, Reedy touches us with the familiar light and darkness that live in every human heart. I love this story—it leaves no doubt that hope and love speak the same language everywhere.” 

Indeed, Reedy has accomplished something magical in these pages, showing us how hope and love cross cultures and genders to reside in the hearts of people wherever they might live.

For more information about Trent Reedy, visit his website:

And for more information about Words in the Dust, take a look at:

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