Meeting Eliza Sommers a Decade Later

June 23, 2010

Dear P,

I purchased a used copy of Isabel Allende’s Daughter of Fortune for three dollars.  I have just now been flipping through the pages, and hearing my old school classmate Paulina say to me,

‘Is that the Bible you’re reading?’

She knew I was Muslim, but she was mocking the thickness of the book.

“This?’ I pointed to the novel,  pulling myself out of Chile 1850 unto Quito 2001 with  difficulty. ‘No…this is…’

I was sitting on my pupitre at the back of the classroom, and the time was between class periods. We were usually given five minutes between classes to go to our lockers and get the books we needed before the next teacher came into class. In reality it was was socializing time, and it ended when the student popping his head out the door alerted us all about the approaching teacher.

Ya viene la Mariana!‘ He’d yell. ‘ The Mariana is coming!’ and we would all rush to our seats.

While I also liked to socialize, sometimes I preferred to use that time to learn what had been happening to Captain John, or to lady Eliza Sommers while the math teacher had been explaining all those useless equations. So I’d take out my book, and immerse myself in that world, sparking the curiosity of classmates like Paulina who coudn’t understand my fascination for Bible-length books.

Ten years later, and several countries apart, flipping through the pages of an English version of Daughter of Fortune, I too am puzzled by the fact I could read a 500page fiction book in only a few days.  What was the book about? I skim read over passages and try to remember the story. Eliza Sommers wished to elope with her secret boyfriend? She became pregnant and lost her baby during a harsh sea journey to California? She hid from her family for four years? Yes, of course. I remember now… Wasn’t that when she met the Chinese man? Or was it…? and I read this story when I was fourteen years old? What did I think of Eliza Sommers then? Did I not mind the ways in which Eliza’s life ran counter to my Islamic values?How aware was I of my Islamic values to begin with? My current wonders do seem a bit anachronistic.

I try to recall the feelings the novel produced in me at that age, but all I can remember is Paulina’s mocking words, and the image of a fat book smuggled into lab or math class under my classwork folders.

‘Oh, so if it’s not the Bible, it’s the dictionary you are reading.’  Paulina said to me insistingly.


 

As with a casual encounter with a very old friend who hasn’t changed much over the years, Eliza Sommers takes me back to rarely revisited past, and it allows me to trace my own spiritual change in broad sketches from that moment till now. Today I know I am discomforted by the extent to which Eliza’s life’s choices are alien to my own.  Under regular circumstances, this would be none of my business. But Eliza and many others like her, were close fictional friends of mine during my teen years. It was stories like theirs that occupied my mind, inspired me, and transported me to worlds I liked better than my own.

During those years, I learned my Islamic values at my devout Muslim Ecuadorian home. But as soon as I stepped out of the house to the streets of Quito they fell on a void where nobody but me could understand them.  My school was flexible, and my friends not too judgmental, but the way my parents were trying to raise me was rocket science to them. Why were Janan’s parents so irrationally strict? Why didn’t she revolt? This was Ecuador at the end of the day, where we seldom allow presidents to finish their four-year-terms if they annoy us. We get rid of what we don’t like. Viva la revolución!

And Eliza Sommers’s life echoed these sentiments. She was a revolutionary.

Thinking about it now, it seems remarkable that I did not revolt against my religious upbringing. My pious roommate Karima would say that this is because of the beauty of Islam, which takes roots in peoples’ hearts against all odds.  Without dismissing Karima’s theory, I think that on practical terms, I learned to compartmentalize my religious dispositions, and relegate much of my religious identity to the private sphere (even though I was conspicuously Muslim having veiled at 12).

I realize now as I grow older that religious dispositions, once embodied, cannot simply be turned on and off.They cannot be left at home in the morning as one heads off to school or work. They become part of who we are, and once this happens, there is no way we can let go of a religious principle, or modify it, without in turn modifying our own self.

But at that young age, I had not yet cultivated these religious dispositions. I think I was not even aware they existed, as with so many other things (eg. true one-to-one friendly relationships with God). It was only by going to Egypt on my own, and then coming to the US that a world of spiritual possibilities opened in front of me. Once here, living the outcome of my journeys, it is easy to forget the process.

That is when books like Daughter of Fortune have the quality of bringing back to life a character from my teens, and my own teenage self. They place this younger me and her friends on a theatrical stage where I can observe them but never touch them. Where I can hear them, but not be heard, a fixed curtain of time drawing between us. So I observe, and the scene seizes me with  a motherly protective feeling towards my own younger self. Odd, I know, but if I could only whisper into her ear, “Are you sure you want to make Eliza Sommers your best friend? Well, please don’t think of eloping to California on a ship, okay?”

I pause. Perhaps I overestimate how vulnerable I was then. Don’t I already know the outcome of my story to this day? Don’t I know that I didn’t rebel against my religious upbringing? Am I not able to see satisfied my own religious growth in a long upward curve extending from that age till now (with its share of fluctuations along the way)?  On the other hand, would it not have been helpful to read about characters who faced challenges similar to my own? Without a single Muslim friend throughout my upbringing in Ecuador, wouldn’t a  fictional Muslim character made my experience as a Muslim a little easier and a little less lonely?

The  teacher had not yet come, and Paulina was still standing by my seat.

‘No,’ I said calmly to her, realizing she was in one of her annoying playful moods.  ‘You forget I only read the dictionary for leisure on Thursdays. Today is Wednesday, novel day. And Friday will be Qur’an.’

“ya viene la Mariana!” Alerted us suddenly Andrés. Paulina returned to her seat. I returned to Chile 1850.


J.

 

 

 

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4 Responses to “Meeting Eliza Sommers a Decade Later”

  1. amira said

    just discovered u have a blog today and I like it 🙂

  2. Ummezaynub said

    Salaams,
    very poignant- I was a voracious reader too as a child. My love affair started when I started losing myself in books to escape the endless summer in Khartoum sans TV, missing my friends as they vacationed abroad. As a mom now, I can relate to your protective feelings towards your younger self. How can we cultivate the wholeness of our being Muslim in our children? Knowing what we know now. My eldest daughter is nine, I was not raised with Islam being the central nerve of our family; my parents were observant but more culturally than Islamically and I did rebel. Making a 180 degree turn back to our deen, I wonder what role literature should play in her life. Should I hover over her reading choices when she is a teen or allow her to have the same freedom I enjoyed, to choose to read whatever her heart desires, hoping her upbringing will enable her to censure herself.

  3. janandd said

    Salaam Ummezaynub! Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment. Those are precisely the questions that informed this piece of writing, and the kind of conversation I hoped it could elicit.

    I don’t have children of my own yet, but I have younger sisters and my own childhood and teenage years to reflect upon. When I think of what I used to read during those formative years of my life, what concerns me is not so much the ‘un-Islamic’ books I read, as much as the fact that they were *all* I read. There were virtually no Muslim-friendly books I could add to my reading lists, no Muslim characters with experiences similar to my own, and little that could help reinforce the values I was being taught in my Muslim Ecuadorian home.

    I think this is the problem; in a society where a child is made to feel that that her upbringing is outside the norm (i.e, abnormal with all its negative connotations), and hence, that her experience is uninhabitable, literature will not be playing a very positive role if all it does is reinforce this message.

    We need to be able to offer our children and younger ones literature where the experiences of young Muslims are accurately reflected and aptly conveyed.

  4. Esteban said

    Sin duda sigue escribiendo espectacular… Un fuerte abrazo
    Tevi

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