Towelhead (Erian)

Towelhead
Alicia Erian, 2005
Simon & Schuster
336 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780743285124

Summary
It is August, 1990. Saddam Hussein has just invaded Kuwait, and Jasira's mother has bought her daughter a one-way ticket to Texas to live with her strict Lebanese father. Living in a neat model home in Charming Gates, just outside Houston, Jasira struggles with her father's rigid lifestyle and the racism of her classmates, who call her "towelhead."

For the first time, the painful truth hits her: she's an Arab. Her aching loneliness and growing frustration with her parents' conflicting rules drive her to rebel in very dangerous ways. Most disturbingly, she becomes sexually obsessed with the bigoted army reservist next door, who alternately cares for, excites, and exploits her. (From the publisher.)

Towelhead became a 2007 film titled Nothing is Private.



Author Bio
Birth—1967
Where—Syracuse, New York, USA
Education—B.A., State University of New York, Binghamton;
   M.F.A., Vermont College
Currently—lives in Massachusetts


Alicia Erian is an American author born in Syracuse, New York, to an Egyptian father and American mother. She received a B.A. in English from SUNY Binghamton and a M.F.A. in writing from Vermont College.

A writer of short stories, some of her work has appeared in Zoetrope, Playboy, and the Iowa Review. She has published one collection of short stories; Towelhead is her first novel.

Erian lived in Brooklyn, New York, for a time with ex-husband David Franklin, but now lives in Massachusetts, where she taught creative writing at Wellesley College (2004–2008). She has worked as a film director and screenwriter, and has also attracted interest from Julia Roberts' production company, American Girl Films, as well as Francis Ford Coppola.

Erian's first published work was a collection of short stories titled, The Brutal Language of Love, published in 2001. Each story features a female protagonist and are heartbreaking tales of love and sex, and dilemmas caused by the intertwining of the two.

Alicia Erian's 2005 novel, Towelhead is a coming of age story about a thirteen-year-old girl named Jasira, who is sent from her Euro-American mother's home in Syracuse, New York to live with her Lebanese father in Houston, Texas. The novel has been adapted into a film written and directed by Alan Ball, starring Summer Bishil, Aaron Eckhart, Toni Collette, Maria Bello, and Peter Macdissi.

In 2008, Alicia Erian wrote the screenplay for the short film "Hammer and Anvil," which was developed at the Sundance Institute's 2008 January Screenwriters Lab. (From Wikipedia.)



Book Reviews
Towelhead is the kind of book that attaches unusual reflectiveness to that particular echo of war. Jasira is old enough to know that women sometimes have sex with departing soldiers because these men may never return. But she's too young to know whether, since Mr. Vuoso will not have a combat assignment, he ought to qualify. Ms. Erian gives this gutsy book its full share of such unthinkable questions.
Janet Maslin - New York Times


Erain's gift for conjuring characters is so strong; she has a sophisticated take on people and charts with real precision how and why the human comedy becomes seriously unfunny.
Jeff Giles - New York Times Book Review


War, statutory rape, child abuse, and racism are hardly the stuff of comedy, but in Towelhead, Alicia Erain succeeds in blending this weird and sometimes shocking mix of elements in a funny, poignant, and utterly readable first novel.
Susan Coil - Washington Post


Erian takes a dogged, unflinching look at what happens as a young woman's sexuality blooms when only a predatory neighbor is paying attention. After 13-year-old Jasira is sent to live with her father in Houston ("I didn't want to live with Daddy. He had a weird accent and came from Lebanon"), she finds herself coming of age in the shadow of his old world, authoritarian ideas, which include a ban on tampons (they're for married women, he insists) and a friendship with a boy who's black. Trapped between her father's rigidity and a wider culture that seems without rules, Jasira is left to handle puberty on her own, as well as her budding sexual desire and an ongoing longing for love and acceptance. Her creepy neighbor, Mr. Vuoso, senses her desires, and she responds eagerly to his sexual overtures. His willingness to eroticize her is heightened by how exotic—as well as distasteful—he finds her, a half–Middle Eastern child living in America on the eve of the first Gulf War. He hires Jasira to baby-sit for his son, and it's clear that their relationship will destroy them. The writing is not subtle—indeed, it can be quite clunky—but as a meditation on race, adolescence and alienation, the novel has moments of power.
Publishers Weekly


Sent to the United States by her mother when Saddam Hussein invades Kuwait, Jasira must cope with her strict father and the realization that she is an Arab. This full-length debut from a gifted story writer is an in-house favorite.
Library Journal


Jasira's narration is so relentlessly focused on her sexuality and the horrifying abuse she suffers that it becomes hard to read. The historical context—the novel is set before and during the first Gulf War—may be intended as parable, but Jasira's pain consumes the novel so fully that it overwhelms political symbolism. Instead, it is Jasira's straightforward, understated voice that gives power to this.
Booklist


A tedious, fairly moronic take on the pubescent hormone surge, told by a 13-year-old girl. Jasira, prosaically named after Jasir Arafat by her now-divorced Lebanese father and Irish mother, can't help attracting men, with her 34-inch "boobs," so-called by her sexually jealous mother, who sends her to live with her "cheap and bossy" father. But it's even worse in Houston, where Daddy works for NASA and lives in a housing complex with a pool she won't use because of the abundant pubic hair she's embarrassed about, and where Mr. Vuoso, the father of the neighbor boy she baby-sits, gives her a Playboy magazine (she practices masturbation) and comes on to her. Her own father, Rifat, being an old-style Arab, "doesn't like bodies," is horrified by Jasira's incipient womanhood, and forbids her to use tampons or to befriend a black boy from school, Thomas, who genuinely wants to have sex with her. Added tension simmers between Mr. Vuoso, who's a rabidly patriotic military reservist ("towelheads" is his epithet), and Rifat, who bitterly resents the American war machine aimed at the Arabs. The story consists largely of unedited and utterly uninteresting dialogue that goes on and on to demonstrate how Jasira, who seems to have no will of her own, thinks (slowly). Given the meanness around her—from her petty but envious mother; her irascible father, who's prone to strike her; and the manipulative and insulting Mr. Vuoso, her seething crush across the street—she receives little guidance as a sexual creature. Not even the cool and pregnant neighbor Melina, who senses the crisis and gives Jasira the progressive primer Changing Bodies, Changing Lives, is able to protect Jasira from herself—that is, from the explosive sexuality that's entangling her and everyone around her in a kind of gruesome physicality. Storyteller Erian creates a hypnotic effect through her characters' repetitive dumbness—in a first novel that's annoying and memorable.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions
1. Why does Jasira's mother send her to live with her father? Does her mother feel threatened by Jasira's budding sexuality? Do you think this is common between mothers and daughters? Why does her mother stay with her boyfriend after she finds out about his inappropriate behavior with Jasira?

2. Discuss the ways Jasira's life with her father changes from living with her mother. Is Jasira's father's corporeal punishment appropriate for a 13-year-old? Is corporeal punishment appropriate for children of any age? How much of Jasira's father's punishment style is due to cultural differences? At what point does her father's physical punishment cross over into abuse?

4. As Towelhead unfolds, the Gulf War begins. The characters hold a wide range of opinions about the war. Compare Jasira's father, Mr. Vuoso, and Melina's views about U.S. involvement in the Gulf War. Are the children's opinions (Jasira, Thomas, Zack, and Denise) about the war revealed? How did the people around you react to U.S. involvement in the Gulf War? Was it different from their opinions about the more recent U.S. involvement in war in the Mideast? If yes, how?

5. How does Jasira handle the racism she experiences at school, from her neighbor Zack, and her father and mother when she dates an African-American? Should she have handled it any differently? Compare how she and her boyfriend Thomas react to racism. Why or why not are you surprised by Jasira's father's racism toward Thomas, given that he has experienced racism too? What are the best ways to handle overt (i.e., name-calling) and covert (i.e., nasty looks or aversive behavior)racism? Do you think racism against Arab-Americans will continue to increase?

6. Jasira allows her mother's boyfriend Barry and her neighbor Mr. Vuoso to touch her sexually. She does not seem to think that these grown men's sexual advances are inappropriate. Why do you think this is? What do we know about Jasira's emotional health before and after she moves to Texas?

7. Jasira and Thomas are both 13 years old. Do you think their level of sexual knowledge and activity is "normal" in the United States? How should parents or authority figures handle the subject of teenage sex?

8. Even in the best of circumstances, every parent makes mistakes with their children. Are Jasira's parents "good" parents? Why or why not?

9. Mr. Vuoso gives Jasira a Playboy magazine when he discovers her looking at it. What does this gift reveal about him? Mr. Vuoso has a large collection of Playboy magazines. Do you think his taste for pornography made him prone to rationalizing his behavior with Jasira? Or did he understand what he was doing? Was Mr. Vuoso a child molester, a rapist, or neither? Was his punishment appropriate for what he did?

10. Jasira becomes aroused while looking at the naked women in Playboy. Does this indicate that she may be a lesbian or bisexual? Why or why not?

11. How does Jasira's father's discovery of the Playboy in her room change Jasira's life? What would her life have been like had he not discovered the Playboy?

12. What role does Melina play in Jasira's life? Jasira doesn't feel happy about Melina's pregnancy, and in fact, resents the forthcoming new baby. Why does she feel this way? How does she feel about the baby at the end of the book?

13. Toward the end of Towelhead, Jasira's father and Melina become friends, albeit wary ones. What causes them to bond? Will their friendship last?

14. Though Towelhead primarily focuses on the personal lives of its characters, it also reveals the political climate of 1991. Discuss some of the specific behaviors (i.e., the proliferation of American flags) and feelings about the Mideast that have changed in the United States since then.
(Questions issued by publsher.)

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