02 Apr Making Martyrs
By Hasan Altaf in Guernica
The cover of I am Malala suggests an entirely straightforward book: a courageous answer to the question posed by a gunman in the back of a school van. The simple portrait that looks out from the bookshelf broadcasts Yousafzai’s bravery (her bare face to answer a man covering his) while also, with its undeniable echoes of the National Geographic photo of Sharbat Gula, the “Afghan Girl,” offering an amuse-bouche to the audience: Herein lies a tale of heroism, of wild and untamed lands, of danger and the exotic amid the mountains and valleys. But the tension that runs just below the surface, steady and undeniable as undertow, is also present right on the cover, with the double-barreled, reductive subtitle identifying Malala Yousafzai as “the girl who stood up for education and was shot by the Taliban.”
That subtitle indicates the seesaw between the person as a subject and a person as an object; it hinges on the difference between admiring a person for what they have done in the world and defining them by what the world has done in return. In Yousafzai’s case the two are inextricably linked (although the Taliban need little excuse to shoot anyone, even children), but I am Malala is all push and no pull: It forces its author into the smallest box possible. To satisfy a hungry audience the book has adopted elements of a thriller, but more than that, more than memoir or biography or even autobiography, what the collaboration with Christina Lamb has produced is an autohagiography. With bated breath, we watch a living, breathing teenager participate in her own canonization.
This is, in large part, a question of the book’s intentions: It’s billed as an answer, and this time the question has been posed not by a gunman but by an eager audience. That audience, of course, has certain expectations and demands, explicit even if unspoken, of sixteen-year-old Swati girls who choose and are able to tell their stories. They must provide not just drama and heroism, but also stark clarity. The book’s answer therefore has to be simple, direct, and short, not just in its portrayal of the author herself, which is difficult enough, but also in terms of the larger environment that she comes from, lived in, loved, struggled with, and was hurt by.
I am Malala is at its best when most clearly and completely Malala Yousafzai’s – which is to say when it digresses and indulges in the truer, and therefore more complicated, answers to “Who is Malala?”….
Hasan Altaf is a writer whose work has appeared in the New Orleans Review,The Millions, 3 Quarks Daily and India’s Seminar magazine.