Alicia Erian’s Towelhead

towelhead.jpg As hard as it is to read novels about childhood sexual abuse, it must be even harder to write them. Alicia Erian has bravely undertaken this task in Towelhead, her debut novel. (She is also the author of the collection The Brutal Language of Love.) But Erian may have taken on too much; her attempt at adding a racial and political spin to the story is ultimately unrewarding.

Set during the Gulf War in 1991, the book chronicles the sexual awakening of Jasira, a teenage girl whose mother, Gail, sends her to live with her Lebanese father in Houston, Texas. Gail is a high school teacher, but she’s nonetheless the kind of woman who is uncomfortable talking about bodies. She’d rather discuss the weather than Jasira’s changing body, so when the teenage girl’s pubic hair starts to grow, Gail refuses to let her shave it. Gail’s boyfriend, however, is only too happy to show Jasira how it’s done, which triggers Gail’s anger and sets Jasira off on the journey chronicled in the novel.

Jasira’s father, Rifat, is an engineer who works for NASA. Immediately after Jasira moves in with him, he starts to beat her for the slightest infraction to his many, sometimes conflicting, rules. He forbids her from having any contact with a black teenager at school. He hangs an American flag outside his house at the start of the war, but only so he can show his neighbors that he’s just as patriotic as them. He accuses Jasira of hogging the attention of his new girlfriend, Thena. He doesn’t bother to wait for Jasira to put her seatbelt on before driving off. He makes her pay for her sanitary pads out of her babysitting money. His bathroom smells like urine. I could go on, but you get the picture. Rifat is a brute, with not a single redemptive quality or glimmer of humanity about him.

Rifat’s foil is his next-door neighbor, Mr. Vuoso, an army reservist who might or might not get called up. Jasira gets a job babysitting the Vuosos’ son, Zack, who shows Jasira his father’s Playboy collection. The two of them spend their afternoons looking through them. When Mr. Vuoso discovers Jasira reading the magazine his reaction is to tell her to “go on home to the towelhead.” The tension between Jasira and this redneck Humbert culminates in his forcing himself upon her. And, not unlike Humbert, Mr. Vuoso seems to struggle with his feelings, teetering between wanting to protect the teen and wanting to abuse her.

Next to the Vuosos live Gil and Melina, a young, recently married couple who befriend Jasira. Melina tries to answer the many questions that Jasira has about her sexuality, and Gil acts as a buffer when the girl needs to be protected from her father. The only other friendship in Jasira’s life comes from Thomas, a smart, hunky swimmer who invites her to his house for dinner. Jasira’s father agrees, but when he discovers that Thomas is black, forbids Jasira from ever seeing him again because “no one will respect [her].” Rifat’s diktat is one thing he has in common with Mr. Vuoso, who tells Jasira that she shouldn’t see the boy or else she’ll “ruin her reputation.”

Jasira’s life at school is quieter than home, until she gets a letter from her grandmother in Lebanon. The letter is in French and Jasira’s father makes her take it to her French teacher. He means for Jasira to get help in translating it, but, instead, the teacher photocopies the letter and uses it as a class assignment, asking the students to translate it. By the end of the day, everyone calls Jasira a “towelhead” (a term she’d first heard from Zach) but also “sand nigger” and “camel jockey.”

Which brings me to Erian’s provocative title, Towelhead. At first, the use of the epithet might be construed as an appropriation, a bold decision to “own” the term, a way to let the reader know how it feels to be on the receiving end of this slur. But when Mr. Vuoso calls Jasira’s father a towelhead, Jasira’s reaction is to distance herself: “I thought about how he called Daddy a towelhead, but he still liked me.” A little later in the novel, Zach looks up the word in the dictionary, and can’t find it:

“That’s because it’s a bad word,” I told him.
“Oh yeah?” he said, and he flipped the pages around to show me spic and nigger. “It’s just a new word,” he said. “They’ll put it in all the dictionaries.”

Whether Jasira is upset or amused by this, the reader is never told. One searches the novel for a point of view, a hint of how the racist term plays in the main character’s feelings. In vain. Jasira, in other words, doesn’t seem to mind prejudice. “Daddy got mad when people made assumptions about him, but I liked it. It made me feel like someone wanted to know me.”

Erian is at her best when she delves into Jasira’s conflicted feelings about her sexuality. In several, carefully crafted, graphic scenes, she describes what it’s like to be a thirteen year old whose father represses her sexuality, whose boyfriend tells her her virginity is his (“that blood is mine”), and whose first sexual experiences come from middle-aged predators and smutty magazines. Jasira’s own pleasure at the attention she receives is unflinchingly observed.

However, Erian’s handling of the race relations that serve as the backdrop for this novel is not particularly illuminating. Gail is the long suffering Irish American ex-wife; Rifat plays the part of the violent Arab; Mr. Vuoso is the racist redneck Southerner; Thena is the Greek-American girlfriend who is forgiving of violence; Thomas is the black boyfriend whose idea of love is “to boss [his girlfriends] around.” The only sympathetic characters, the only people who care for Jasira’s welfare, are the white liberals next door.

Whatever insights about race relations could have been made in this novel were stuck on the cover page.

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