Growing up is hard enough without the added conflicts of different cultures and warring parents. But that's exactly what Jasira, the 13-year-old Arab-American heroine and narrator of Towelhead, has to contend with. Alicia Erian's first novel is raw, sexually frank and pulls no punches. Jasira lives with her mother, until the day her mother decides that her boyfriend is paying far too much attention to her budding daughter. But this is no modern-day Lolita. Jasira is more like a 21st-century female version of Holden Caulfield: innocent, sexually alive, naive, stubborn, intelligent and curious. She is promptly packed off to live with her Lebanese-born father in the deceptively quiet suburbs of Houston. There she attempts, with sometimes disastrous, sometimes humorous and sometimes heartbreaking results, to find her way to a true sense of her own self.
Jasira arrives in Texas in the fall of 1990, just as Saddam invades Kuwait, and just in time to face her schoolmates' taunts of "towelhead" and other racial slurs. Her next-door neighbor, an Army reservist whose son she baby-sits, is torn between his contempt for her Arab father and his intense attraction to Jasira herself. Her father, a strict and uncommunicative man, cannot handle the ramifications of his daughter's puberty, and responds with the back of his hand. Lonely and confused, Jasira looks for solace elsewhere. She finds it both with those who would abuse her innocence, and with kinder folk. Despite minimum parental help, she eventually learns to tell the difference between the two.
Erian's own background is mixed: her father is Egyptian and her mother Polish. Her previous book, a collection of short stories called The Brutal Language of Love, won rave reviews. Towelhead has been optioned by American Beauty writer Alan Ball. It is a tale simply told, in straightforward language, about age-old truths that are anything but simple.
Jehanne Moharram grew up in the Middle East and now writes from Virginia.