The coming of age novel is a traditional and logical starting point for any aspiring novelist. In this time of many books and fewer readers, the challenge is to create a unique voice which can be heard above the din. In Randa Jarrar’s debut, A Map of Home, we find a voice which rises above the din to give us a modern and insightful look at how more young people come of age. Jarrar’s own international upbringing lends support to her creation of Nidali, born in Boston to a Palestinian father and Egyptian/Greek mother, raised in Kuwait, chased by the Iraqi invasion into Egypt and eventually landing in Texas all on her way to turning 16. While hardly the resume of most teenagers, Nidali’s unusual journey reflects the growing international background of the United States. Children are no longer simply immigrants from one country, but instead a biological and geographical mix of many places.
Nidali is an honest narrator, and the reader feels at times drawn and at times embarrassed by the decisions and actions of this young girl. Her father (her Baba) hits her on a regular basis, but Nidali sees this as normal for her culture and Jarrar withholds judgment. This is Jarrar’s strongest trait as a writer — her ability to trust her story and her narrator without creating explanations. A coming of age story in which we learn too many “lessons” will cease to be a coming of age story, instead resembling a how-to book for parents and their adolescents. Here we see things as Nidali sees them, and her view is wider than that of her family, in part, because she is the sum of different parts. She is forced to examine herself in the context of different nationalities and cultures in order to understand herself and her family.
Much of her young life is spent in Kuwait where she excels at school, explores her sexuality, and deals with the drama of family life. Baba is a frustrated poet who works as an architect, and mother is a frustrated concert pianist who finally obtains a piano and spends her days playing Chopin and ignoring her “wifely” duties. A thinly sketched younger brother hovers in the background, but Jarrar never really fleshes him out, so he tends to simply serve as a foil to others. When Iraq invades Kuwait, they eventually flee to their summer home in Egypt. Along the way one car burns up; Nidali’s first period arrives; and Baba bribes guards with whiskey or selections from his collection of silk ties.
After the war is over, Baba is told he cannot return to Kuwait since he is Palestinian, and he eventually lands a job in Texas. When the family joins him, they end up in a trailer home; Nidali finds her way through school; and her mother puts up with being asked if she speaks Spanish. Jarrar does an excellent job of pointing out how difficult this transition can be. Even Nidali, who is usually two steps ahead of her family in figuring out the cultural landscape, has to be dressed by some newfound friends. We also find the familiar immigrant struggles of which language is to be spoken, the clash of old and new cultures, and the quicker acclamation of the culture by the youngest in the family. The story culminates in Nidali’s need to decide between staying with her family or moving into yet another landscape for college.
The title, A Map of Home, fits well for an understanding of the book. Nidali realizes that her map, like that of Palestine, is constantly shifting and is at times of her own creation and at other times created by outside forces. But for such a constant traveler, her map of home is something she carries within and redraws as she moves forward in life.
Jarrar pulls this off with a fast moving narrative style which does not shrink from the realities of growing up in what at times are life threatening circumstances. This book came out of Jarrar’s work in her Master of Fine Arts program, and at times it betrays the overwriting of a writer who may yet be seeking to trust her own voice. It is one which should be trusted since Jarrar has the potential to add a fresh voice to the literary landscape.