CM . . .
. Volume XX Number 26. . . .March 7, 2014
God Loves Hair.
Vivek Shraya. Illustrated by Juliana Neufeld.
Vancouver, BC: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2014.
110 pp., pbk. & epub, $18.95 (pbk.).
ISBN 978-1-55152-543-3 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-55152-544-0 (epub).
Grades 9-12 / Ages 14-17.
Review by Rob Bittner.
From the instant a girl is born, her parents worry. How will we keep her safe? How will we make sure that she is educated enough, worthy enough for a husband? How will we afford to pay for her wedding, her dowry? My mother is part of a collective of four daughters, each one representing a series of burdens. She has a brother too, but his presence in the home is light or at least one the family is happy to bear and even display proudly. He is his parents’ greatest achievement, the assurance that the family name will live on. No one worries about him. He is a man, he can stand on his own two feet.
God Loves Hair is a lovely collection of short stories from the talented Vivek Shraya, with complementary artwork by Juliana Neufeld. The book’s format is unconventional, and with its unusual shape and the accompanying pictures, it looks more like a picturebook. Shraya’s stories navigate the complexities of sexuality, gender, racial difference, religious belief, and ways of belonging. Each story, though self-contained, works with the next to build a fragmented but steadily progressing narrative of growing up non-conforming in a Canadian-Indian family. The stories are very brief and avoid dancing around sensitive themes such as masturbation, dirty thoughts, cross-dressing, and God. Each tale of growing up, wanting to belong in a community that struggles to accept difference, defies heterosexist assumptions and works to give young readers a rich and nuanced insight into Shraya’s own experience of growing up in a Hindu family in Alberta.
I listen for silence. When it’s safe, I roll onto my stomach, squeeze my worn-out baby blanket, and quietly push my body up and down against the bed. Raw and real moments such as this will ring true for many young male readers who have experienced the sensitive moments of growing up and enduring puberty. Sexual awakening can be difficult and confusing, and this comes across beautifully in the “Bed Humper.”
Another story that portrays vulnerability and an often misunderstood activity, especially among youth, is “Lipstick.” I am greedy for the colours that hid, the glossy surprises caged within lipstick shells. They call to me. One by one, I remove their lids, twist the blushing sticks to the top, smear my face like oil on canvas. His mother and aunt do not fully understand, and the crushing moment of judgment will tug at the reader’s heartstrings.
One last story that I would like to mention specifically is “God is Half Man Half Woman.” Shraya’s revelation of gender fluidity is found in the image of Ardhanaraeeshwara, a deity composed of Lord Shiva’s left side and his female consort Parvati’s right side. All the lines that divide what men and women should be and should do begin to blur in the light of this explicit fusion of two gods and two sexes. The moment of insight is both enlightening for the reader, and it is also a beautiful time of character development within the collection.
While I fully acknowledge the successful nature of these short stories in this particular collection, I also admit that many young readers will want more characterization and content from such a collection. I also think that the number of themes covered in so few words feels somewhat as though Shraya is trying to cover too much ground. That being said, however, I do think this collection will appeal to many teen readers who feel different or uncomfortable living in certain families and/or communities.
Rob Bittner is a graduate of the MA in Children’s Literature program at The University of British Columbia in Vancouver, BC. He is currently a PhD student in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University.
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