A braided life

Last modified: 8/5/2012 12:00:00 AM
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It is rare to drive the length of Loudon Road these days and not see foreign faces: a cluster of Congolese women in colorful dresses, a group of Bhutanese children playing soccer in the park, an Iraqi man and his Afghan friend walking from their apartment complex to McDonald's for lunch. As we drive our kids to the ice cream shop or Target or the mall, there are amazing stories all around us that we may never hear.

That's why Terry Farish's new book, The Good Braider, is nothing short of a gift to our young people. Perhaps gift is not quite the right word here, falling as weightlessly as it does into our culture's yawning materialism - but let's stop short of wringing our hands over the American teenager's life of ease (that we even have the luxury of such a worry is a worry unto itself).

The point here is not to chastise our children for their iPods but to open their eyes to the world around them - a world that has found its way to their own schools and parks and shopping malls. This, Farish does with grace, authenticity and restraint.

Director of the New Hampshire Humanities Council's literacy program, Farish spent hundreds of hours with teenagers from the Sudanese community of Portland, Maine, one of the largest Sudanese populations in the United States. She began the project as a documentarian but ultimately chose another way to tell their story: through the dreamy, distilled language of free verse, a format that works stunningly well for both its efficiency and understated intensity.

The Good Braider tells the story of Viola, a teenager from South Sudan whose family has to flee to a refugee camp in Cairo, Egypt, before being resettled in Portland. With unforgettable imagery, it describes her struggles to survive in her war-torn country, her anguished months of waiting in the dusty camp and her adjustment to life here in the United States.

Recommended for ages 14 and up, the book doesn't spare readers the horrors and tragedies the Sudanese people have suffered. But Farish has a skill for knowing just how far to go. In the opening pages of the book, she describes how a boy on the street tries to protect Viola by telling a soldier she is his sister, and how he pays for it with his life:

''The soldier lifts his perik.

The boy spins, runs like a gazelle.

No! I cry out loud.

The blast fills my ears.

Prrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr

Mother!

Is all I think.''

Viola's relationship with her mother is among the most complex themes of the book and will surely be among the most troubling for American readers. Back home in Africa, Viola accepts her mother's authority unquestioningly, knowing she'll pay for a sin as small as inattention with a blow to the face. But in the United States, Viola begins very quietly to assert her independence, and when doing so causes her mother to act in a way most of us would deem unthinkable, she responds by calling the authorities.

The incident highlights the enormous generational/culture clash many refugee families face here in America: the older generation clinging to its traditions, the younger generation embracing the culture, the language, the jaw-dropping trends even as they remain largely adrift.

Farish uses the African tradition of hair braiding to symbolize the way Viola learns to make something new from the strands of her varied experiences. At home in Sudan, she and her mother create beautiful braids for women all over their village. In the refugee camp, she lets her hair become knotted and unruly, asking a boy she has befriended, ''What does it matter about a refugee's hair?''

His answer is profound:

'' 'Braids are from our culture,' he says, this boy who reads and knows all the American capital cities.

'They are the African designs we give to the world.

When you are ready, you will braid.' ''

The boy, whom Viola has to leave behind, cheerfully insisting he'll get his resettlement assignment soon, is right. After many months in the United States, Viola still wears her hair cropped and one day wonders aloud to her ESL teacher why she no longer braids.

Her teacher corrects her.

''You do braid. In your very young life, you've braided together the few good things you've been granted so far on your journey.''

This is one of the blunter passages in a book that dwells in subtleties, symbols and delicate interpretations of an unfathomably difficult journey.

Without sacrificing authenticity, Farish also braids beads of optimism into the tale: an American friend who teaches Viola to drive, a successful first year of school, a gradual peace between her and her mother. And even as she presents us her losses and grief, she does so with a bittersweet tenderness rather than a tone of empty despair.

Near the end of the book, one of Viola's friends persuades her to braid a white girl's hair. It is a fleeting passage, without build up or incident. But it leaves a lasting image of an American young person gaining something new and beautiful from her African neighbor.'




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