Where I Belong
Where I Belong.
New York, NY: Holiday House, 2011. $17.95,
ISBN 9780823423323 / 0823423328.
Note: Thirteen-year-old Khadija, a Somali refugee, becomes a model for a famous fashion designer to help her family back home. Then her younger brother is kidnapped and held for ransom, The designer's daughter Freya and 14 year-old Abdi, whose family Khadija lives with in London, try to help and protect her.
This novel for young adults tells the story of a Somali refugee, a teenager called Khadija, whose fortunes and misfortunes begin when she, shortly after her arrival in London, is spotted by a famous female fashion designer. When Khadija, in an email to her younger brother in Somalia, mentions her hope of striking it rich and thus being able to help her family back home, someone in the Somali community intercepts her message and sets up an elaborate blackmail scheme. This scheme comes to involve (among others) Khadija, the fashion designer, the latter's plain but smart and sympathetic daughter, and takes all of them to Somalia. There, in one of the small coastal towns known for piracy, the story comes to a dramatic conclusion.
The novel's (British) author is Gillian Cross (née Arnold), who has written more than forty books for children and young adults, and has won many honors. Her talent is obvious from this book as well. The novel is well written; includes beautiful descriptions and evocations of emotional and physical landscapes; has a great plot that keeps you turning the pages, and, finally, presents characters that are colorful and interesting. Because the fashion designer is such a single-minded and out-of-control personality, the plot can soar without being completely unbelievable.
From an Africanist perspective, too, the novel has many positive features. The Somali protagonists of the novel are diverse in more than one way: young and old, male and female, honest and dishonest, and members of the Somali diaspora in Britain as well as people in Somalia. Some of the main Somali characters are mean and deceitful and almost succeed in their elaborate scheme of using Khadija's love of her brother to blackmail the fashion designer. However, others are quiet and decent family people, who work hard to make ends meet, encourage their children to do well in school and try to give them a sense of transnational belonging. If anything, it is the fashion-designer's unassuming and big-hearted daughter who, at the end of the story, gets short shrift. Both her parents reconfirm their love for her, but her future remains otherwise unclear. On the other hand, Khadija's young Somali step-brother, whose father turns out to be one of the blackmailers, bonds with the fashion-designer's husband and appears to be heading for a career in photography. Khadija herself, meanwhile, even though it was her veiled body and not her face that were the focus of the fashion show, is simply (and not very persuasively) propelled into a future as a rich and successful fashion model. This is disappointing; with the international fame of a few Somali models such as Iman and Waris, and in the context of the more general sexualization of racial otherness, young Somali readers, especially teenage girls, hardly need to be encouraged to dream of striking it rich as models. They might have benefited from a more realistic positive role-model. Nevertheless, this well written novel is suitable for teenagers everywhere: highly recommended.
Published in Africa Access Review (February 6, 2011)
Copyright 2012 Africa Access
||Grade: M / H
Reviewed by: Lidwien Kapteijns, Wellesley College
Subject: East Africa / Somalia / Fiction / Sankofa