The literary world is currently witnessing a boom in Young Adult fiction, but the state of diversity in YA writing is dire. Fewer than three per cent of children’s and YA books featured non-white characters in 2013. Children’s laureate Marjorie Blackman faced a vitriolic racist backlash for pointing out the need for more children’s books about people of colour. Mainstream publishing’s unofficial line in many cases seems to be that books with non-white faces on the cover don’t sell to a white readership.
On the cover of You’re Not Proper, there are two attractive brown faces in profile. Shamshad wears an elegant blue hijab while the girl facing her, Kiran, has hair uncovered and wears a white vest top. The novel won the Frances Lincoln Diverse Voices Children’s Book Award in 2013 as an unpublished submission and was subsequently picked up by HopeRoad, an independent publisher of multicultural writing.
The author Tariq Mehmood is well known in Yorkshire for having been one of the ‘Bradford 12‘. This was a group of Asian men who worked for the United Black Youth League and were tried and eventually acquitted for using explosives in 1981 to defend against violent racists in the area. Mehmood is also a fervent promoter of the language Pothowari (a spoken language of West Punjab and the Pakistani side of Kashmir). His first novel’s title Hand on the Sun (1983) comes from the El Salvadorian graffiti ‘To hold a people down forever is like putting a hand on the sun’, indicating that it is a politically activist book from a working-class writer.
You’re Not Proper, Mehmood’s first YA novel, is partly a conversion story and partly aimed at girls who are on the receiving end of Islamophobia. Unsurprisingly, though, given the author’s history, it is political through and through. As another reviewer of the book points out, this is a welcome angle, since there aren’t ‘many books on the same subject’ of young Muslim girls in Britain.
14-year-old Kiran (her name means ‘light’) is a member of the Willow Tree Mob. This is a gang from Boarhead West, the white side of a divided, declining former mill town that may stand in for Mehmood’s home city of Bradford or could also be a Lancastrian town like Rochdale. Kiran is the daughter of a Pakistani-heritage Manchester United fanatic, Liaqat (‘Lucky’) Malik, and a depressed white mother. At the beginning of the novel, she prefers to be known by her English name ‘Karen’. As Karen, she spends her days texting, listening to Lady Gaga, hanging out with her friends Jake and Donna, and occasionally drinking alcohol and laughing at ‘scarfies, turbans and beards’.
Shade to Kiran’s light, Shamshad is one of the so-called ‘scarfies’ from East Boarhead. She is the hijab-wearing daughter of an austere Deobandi father who forbids pictures and photographs from being displayed in the family home. Despite this prohibition, Shamshad’s mother has discovered Skype and monopolizes the computer for long, gossipy conversations about land, goats and people with her loved ones in Pakistan.
Shamshad loathes Kiran for mocking her headscarf and is jealous of the biracial girl’s relationship with Jake. Her father encourages Shamshad in her enmity, because there is a mysterious family feud between the two families. When Kiran starts to feel drawn towards Islam, Shamshad becomes even more contemptuous. She believes that Kiran, with her fluid identity, picks up and puts down Islam at whim:
I was so vexed with Karen, or Kiran, as she wants to call herself for now, I could have smacked her right there. What did she think it was? A fashion item! You are Karen one day and Kiran the next? You sneer at us, call us scarfies one day, and become one the next? … You hang around with your big, ugly gang, you neck them, and they rip our hijabs off our heads, but now you come here all innocent, like?
As this passage suggests, one of the novel’s key strengths is its strong command of the northern, female voice. In his early career, Mehmood wrote very masculine books, but the passage of time and birth of his daughters seems to have given him entry into a feisty female world. He knows that being from a conservative Pakistani Muslim religious background is no bar to a girl’s interest in television, social media, and boys. One of the novel’s most joyous moments comes in a scene reminiscent of Bhaji on the Beach when Shamshad’s mother and some other buddis (old women) go for a surreptitious swim in the local pool.
On the flip side, sometimes this book doesn’t feel carefully crafted enough. The tone can steer towards to melodrama, and some of the confrontation scenes seem forced. A heavily signposted subplot involving Jake’s brother Dex, who joined up with the army and is now missing in Afghanistan, is never properly tied up. Without providing too many spoilers, the ending would also be worthy of the most hyperbolic Pakistani TV drama.
But in a way, that is beside the point. Mehmood gives us a sterotype-quashing, timely novel about religion, gender, and families. He is as astute about class difference and social injustice as he is about the growing Islamophobic racism hijabis face both in their everyday life and when the EDL come to demonstrate. Mehmood also writes very richly about South Asian food, the diverse congregations of mosques, and what instant messaging is doing to the English language. Despite all the conflict along the way, the novel ends on a note of reconciliation between light and shade. Taken as a whole, You’re Not Proper sounds a resonant, authentic note that cuts through the monotone voices coming out of YA writing.