Girlhood, by Masuma Ahuja****

My thanks go to Net Galley and Algonquin for the review copy. This book becomes available to the public tomorrow, February 9, 2021.

From the beginning, it was plain to me that this would not just be another anthology. Every school library has books that include children from many places around the world, but this one is more diverse than most, and it conveys more of the girls’ own words. Included are girls from 31 countries, and most of them are people of color. The United States does not dominate the collection; there are two girls from the U.S. included, but they are not given anchor positions, and neither is from New York or California.

Each entry contains writing done by the girl herself, more extensive than anything else I have seen; I cannot tell whether some of them have been translated, or if all of them wrote in English originally. There are multiple photographs of each girl, her home, and the things that are important to her. Most are students; one is a mother herself. There are a variety of social classes, though none appears to be from a wealthy family. The girls that live at or near what we in the developed world would call the poverty level, do not speak about being poor, but about everyday life. My favorites are the Cambodian, Syrian, and Irish girls, but they’re all interesting. I am pleased to see several Black girls in the mix.

Though the collection is inclusive, none of the girls appears to be, or says she is, disabled in any way. I would like to see at least one such girl. But more concerning to me is that, although twenty percent of girls worldwide is obese, all of these girls in the anthology are either near the ideal weight, or on the thin side. Ahuja does not say how the girls were selected, but I can just about guarantee that the big girls that view this book will not see themselves. I hope future endeavors along these lines will correct this omission. Right now, the message large girls will have is that nobody wants to look at someone like themselves.

Nonetheless, this is one of the best such collections available today. It would be wonderful if there were a way to offer it in different languages and sell it in other countries, too. I recommend this book for middle and high school girls, and in particular to school libraries and humanities teachers.

The Opposite of Fate, by Amy Tan *****

theoppositeoffateThough book stores and book clubs bill this as a memoir, it is really a collection of essays and speeches originally published for other purposes. Though I would love to read an actual autobiography written by Tan, this is an excellent anthology, and I cannot deny it the five stars it deserves.

Tan writes about a wide range of experiences, from contracting Lyme disease to writing the screen play of The Joy Luck Club for Disney. It was nice to see somebody say something positive about Disney for once.

But if there is one really urgent entreaty nestled amongst the wide variety of topics addressed here, it is this: Tan would like to be released from her pigeon hole. Though the large number of her books sold is both profitable and gratifying, she feels both awkward and a trifle outraged as well at having been labeled by the press, by school districts who require that her stories be read, and by any number of other sources as an Asian-American writer, or a writer of color. What, she asks, is required just to be called an American writer? She was born in the USA. It’s accurate to say that she has written a lot of stories, both fictional and true, about her mother, who was born in China. But Tan takes exception to being held up as the one person who is supposed to represent all Asian-American writers.

One might imagine other Asian American writers would take even greater exception, if they could be heard.

I confess that I am at least partially among the guilty, having created an Asian studies label on my own bookshelves. Actually, since I am married to a Japanese citizen, the titles written by and about Asian Americans are crowded by vastly more titles written in Japanese, which take a number of bookcases all by themselves. This is not something that happens in most American homes. But yes, I have also regarded Tan as an Asian-American writer, and she is right in saying that regardless of pigmentation or ethnic background, her prose has won her a place on our shelves. Marketing be damned.

I reflected a bit here. My youngest daughter is half Japanese, half Caucasian. We named her for her Japanese grandmother, and we started attempting to teach her Japanese when she was quite young. She has been to Japan and met relatives there. Yet she would rather be regarded as an American rather than an Asian-American. She pointed out to me that my own side of her counts too; does anyone call her an Irish-American because one parent is of Irish descent?

The score stands at parents 0, offspring 1.

But Tan also reminds us that our lives are not about what has happened to us—and she certainly does a fine job of recounting her own varied, sometimes bizarre experiences—but about whether we take charge of them. In the final essay, “The Opposite of Fate”, she contracts Lime disease and it continues to ravage her health and interfere with her writing until she does a comprehensive web-crawl and diagnoses it herself. Leaving the mystery for physicians to unravel hasn’t helped, and so she does what needs doing. That having been done, the official, medical diagnosis and treatment are fairly straight-forward. The cure isn’t easy or quick, but progress is made steadily. She took ownership of her problem, advocated for herself, and received treatment.

Though the message inherent in the title seems obvious, I find it powerful. Most of us know someone—perhaps even in the family—who seems to ride through life helpless and riddled with excuses for everything. There is nothing for these folks that can’t wait another day, and sometimes another and yet another. They don’t “do” things; things “happen”.

I confess it makes me crazy.

Thus I found Tan’s essays keenly satisfying. She tells hilarious stories sometimes, while others are poignant, but all of them involve decisions at some level, though not always up front and pointed. She doesn’t preach, but she also doesn’t duck and cover. When life presents challenges, she rises to meet them.

One could, of course, say that in publishing these stories, she has created a powerful example for Asian-American girls. But one really shouldn’t.

Because the fact is, she has presented a strong, positive example for everybody.