Friday, October 24, 2014

Pearls and Shells

As noted in the post I wrote about my interview with Laurel Corona, “Hidden Lives,” historical fiction can play a special role in illuminating the everyday experiences of women—even today, when historians have made considerable progress in “giving voice to the voiceless,” to borrow a phrase. Nadia Hashimi, author of The Pearl That Broke Its Shell and the subject of my October interview, performs this service for two characters—one in the present, the other in the past. Rahima, the main protagonist in the novel, lives in the early twenty-first century; her great-great-grandmother Shekiba a hundred years earlier. Yet their stories compare and contrast with each other in startling and illuminating ways.

Shekiba and Rahima live in rural Afghanistan, on either side of the cultural divide represented by the modernized, peaceful Afghanistan of the 1950s and 1960s—before the Soviet invasion, the Taliban, and al-Qaeda sent the country reeling back in time. Hashimi’s parents grew up in that period, when women could achieve an education and even study abroad, and it constitutes a major theme of our interview. It is important to remember the existence of that Afghanistan, which is slowly re-emerging from the shadows of fundamentalism and war.

But that Afghanistan is not the world Rahima and Shekiba inhabit. Shekiba, burned and disfigured in childhood, loses most of her family to a cholera epidemic. Her mother goes mad, then dies, leaving only Shekiba to assist her grieving father until he, too, passes away. She has no opportunity to attend school. Rahima’s father pulls his daughters out to protect their honor after one too many boys thoughtlessly teases them and marries her off at thirteen to a warlord three times her age. Shekiba, too, marries men not of her own choosing and must adapt to homes in which she is not the chief wife. Both suffer abuse from their husbands and in-laws; both experience the powerlessness forced on them by birth.

A grim tale, you may think. Yet in the end it is not, because even this traditional (re-traditionalized?) society offers an “out.” Rahima, the third of five daughters, becomes a bacha posh—a girl dressed and treated as a boy—which allows her to return to school and work to support her family. Shekiba finds her way to Kabul, where she joins the women dressed as men who guard the king’s harem. Each of them learns to look others in the eye; each of them internalizes the greater power, authority, and self-confidence enjoyed by men. Each of them uses that experience, when life forces her back into female roles, to fight for her identity, to break the shell that would keep her in her place. Their solutions differ, and in that we can trace the changes wrought by time. But the process itself is timeless. Their journey is the same as ours, as anyone’s.

The rest of this post comes from the New Books in Historical Fiction site. By the way, the Kindle and iBooks versions of The Pearl That Broke Its Shell are $1.99 through October 27, 2014.

Women in the Western world take many things for granted: the right to an education and a career, to walk in the street unaccompanied, to make personal decisions, to choose a marriage partner—or whether to marry at all.

Female characters in historical fiction seldom enjoy such control over their own lives. Even today, as Nadia Hashimi shows in The Pearl That Broke Its Shell (William Morrow, 2014), the lives of women in rural Afghanistan remain as constrained by traditional demands as they were centuries ago. Afghanistan is far from the only place where such a statement applies.

Yet this restricted cultural space includes customs that temporarily allow girls to live as boys or women as men. Male dominance of society can, it seems, withstand the cross-dressing of individual females. Through the lives of two young women living a century apart—Rahima, whose family turns her for a while into the son her mother did not have, and her great-great-grandmother Shekiba, ordered to don men’s clothes and guard the king’s harem—Hashimi explores the contradictions of gender stereotypes, the power of tradition, and the lessons of her own heritage.

What is given can also be taken away, and Rahima and Shekiba are soon forced to live as wives and mothers after experiencing the greater freedom and authority granted to men. As they struggle to retain their sense of themselves in a world determined to return them to their place, each of the women must decide whether to adapt or to escape.

“Seawater begs the pearl to break its shell,” wrote the thirteenth-century poet Rumi. This lyrical, passionate, uncompromising novel reveals the undying power of the human spirit even in the harshest of circumstances. It should be on everyone’s list.

And just a reminder: the GoodReads giveaway of The Winged Horse started yesterday, so if you live in the United States, don’t forget to sign up. And if you don’t live in the United States, send me a message (you can find contact information on the “About Me” page of this blog). I’ll make sure to let you know when I launch a worldwide giveaway.

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