Amal Meets Amal (Finally) #DiverseBookBloggers #ReadDiverse2017

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I don’t often come across a character in a book who shares my first name: Amal, which is Arabic in origin and generally means “hope.” Thanks to Amal Clooney,* more people in my part of the world are aware of it now, but when I was a kid, I didn’t come across any other “Amals” in reality or in fiction. The only exception is “Amahl” from the opera Amahl and the Night Visitors, and not only is that character’s name spelled differently from mine, but we’re also different genders. His existence encouraged many people to assume I’m male when they see my name on paper, a mistake that used to bother me when I was a kid.

Back then, I would have appreciated a book like Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah. This light, young adult novel features an Australian-Muslim-Palestinian teenager named Amal Mohamed Nasrullah Abdel-Hakim. Like me, she knows what it’s like to look different from everyone else at school, to practice a different religion, and to have a name that people frequently misspell or misstate. As she recounts hearing:

Hey Amal, did you notice the sub teacher called you ‘Anal’ at rollcall this morning?

I’m familiar with that embarrassing typo too. I often receive mail addressed to “Mr. Anal [B.].” Spell check is not my friend.

It was nice to read a book with a character who knows what this feels like. Amal Abdel-Hakim is smart, funny, and brave enough to assert her identity even when she knows it won’t be easy. In the novel, she decides to wear a hijab full-time, including at her snooty private school. Ms. Walsh, the principal, is opposed to Amal’s choice, saying,

Amal… hmmm… I don’t want to- I mean, I want to tread delicately on this… sensitive issue… hmm… Did you speak to anybody about wearing… about abandoning our school uniform?

Ms. Walsh assumes that Amal’s parents are forcing her to wear the headscarf–which is not true–and then tells Amal that she’s violating the school’s “history of tradition” by deviating from the strict uniform policy. It’s an Australian private school, which the novel suggests might be able to get away with prohibiting students from wearing clothing associated with their religion. You’ll have to read the novel to find out what happens.

In my country, the United States, private schools are often able to impose strict dress codes that prohibit religious clothing or symbols because students at private schools don’t have constitutional rights, including the First Amendment’s right to freely exercise religion. Public schools are another matter. As the U.S. Supreme Court said in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 393 U.S. 503 (1969), public school students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”** However, courts have upheld many restrictions on student expression, including restrictions that impinge on religious freedom, especially if the restriction is viewpoint- and content-neutral. See, e.g. Jacobs v. Clark County School District, 529 F.3d 419 (2008) (upholding a dress code that prohibited a printed message that reflected a student’s religious beliefs).

These days, whatever the constitution may or may not require, many schools avoid the issue by choosing to have dress codes that include religious exemptions. Here’s one example (PDF): “Head apparel (hats and hoods) are not permitted to be worn inside the school building, with the exception of those worn for medical or religious purposes,” thus permitting hijabs and similar religious clothing.

I wonder, though, as my country becomes increasingly Islamophobic, will these exemptions disappear? If so, will the courts condone it? We shall see.

 

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*Thanks, but no thanks. Virtually everyone I meet for the first time points out that (1) I share my name with George Clooney’s wife, and (2) we’re both lawyers. I’m tired of having this conversation over and over again.

**Public school teachers don’t “shed their constitutional rights [] at the schoolhouse gate” either. However, at least in my state, they do not have the right to wear religious clothing at school. In Pennsylvania, a state law prohibits public school teachers from “wearing… any dress, mark, emblem or insignia indicating the fact that such teacher is a member or adherent of any religious order, sect, or denomination.” 24 Pa. Cons. St. Ann. § 11-1112; see U.S. v. Bd. of Educ. for Sch. Dist. of Philadelphia, 911 F.2d 882 (3d Cir. 1990) (upholding the statute under an employment discrimination law because “barring religious attire is important to the maintenance of an atmosphere of religious neutrality in the classroom”).

***For another opinion on Does My Head Look Big in This?, see: Huntress of Diverse Books (“Abdel-Fattah took a topic that is discussed in such detail so often (nowadays and at that time) and was able to make me feel like I wasn’t being lectured.”)

Anusha of Prospect Corner: A Sri Lankan-American Anne of Green Gables

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Anusha of Prospect Corner is now available!

This middle grade novel is a modern, multicultural homage to one of my favorite novels from childhood, L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. I wrote it with my redheaded twins, Maram and Samira. Anusha’s family does not fully mirror our family’s ethnic or religious identities — it’s fiction, after all — but Anusha’s family and our family are both Sri Lankan-American (I’m half Sri Lankan).

Here are my twins introducing the novel:

In the video, Samira refers to “Anusha’s Origin,” which is a note at the beginning of the novel about how this project developed. Here it is:

The idea for this novel developed after my twins, Maram and Samira, expressed surprise when the cast of Kevin Sullivan’s television adaptation of Anne of Green Gables did not match the diverse characters they had pictured while reading L. M. Montgomery’s novel. At the time, they were too young to know much about demographics or the history of immigration, and so they assumed Anne’s 19th Century Avonlea looked like our diverse, 21st Century neighborhood. They loved Anne’s story, but they wanted a new version that matched their intercultural reality.

Thanks to Anne of Green Gables, which is now in the public domain, I had an idea of how I wanted our modern update to go. Every week, I wrote an original chapter or two, which I shared with my eight-year-old twins. They critiqued the chapters and brainstormed what should happen next. Then, I re-wrote the chapters based on their feedback. The result is Anusha of Prospect Corner, starring our Anusha, her bosom friend Dee, and her nemesis Gavin. We hope you enjoy it.

To learn more about Anusha of Prospect Corner, find it on:

We are excited to share Anusha with you!

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Hope In The Dark: The Joy of Chasing Butterflies #SJBookClub

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It feels wrong to be happy.

As Rebecca Solnit writes in Hope in the Dark, a thought-provoking book she wrote in 2003-04 to counter the despair so many of us felt during the tumultuous years of the Bush Administration:

[A] part of the Puritan legacy [of the left] is the belief that no one should have joy or abundance until everyone does, a belief that’s austere at one end, in the deprivation it endorses, and fantastical in the other, since it awaits a universal utopia.

But, as she explains, “Joy sneaks in anyway, abundance cascades forth uninvited,” and it sustains us.

Solnit gives us the example of Roger Casement, a human rights activist and Irish nationalist, who took breaks from his investigation of human rights abuses in South America a century ago “to admire handsome local men and to chase brilliantly colored local butterflies.”

Coincidentally, I’m looking forward to chasing brilliantly colored butterflies in a few months (I plead the Fifth on admiring handsome men from afar in the meantime 😉 ). Greeting butterflies in my garden is a dream I’ve had since the bleak days after the 2016 election, when my daughters asked me what they could do in response to Donald Trump’s unconscionable win.

At first, I didn’t know what two third graders and a kindergartener could do. Whatever “political” activity it was had to be tangible, relatively easy to understand, and meaningful to them. It became clearer when they shared their fears about the environment (a fear I didn’t substantiate by saying anything about Trump’s anti-science pick for the Environmental Protection Agency).

So, we’ve decided to plant a butterfly garden. We joined the Monarch Squad at the World Wildlife Fund, we learned about the declining monarch population, we planted milkweed seeds in November (we’ll do another round of milkweed planting in the spring), and we’ve started to research butterfly-friendly plants.

Most of our work in the garden will happen during my daughters’ spring break in a few months, but for now, it’s fun to plan our project and to dream about beautiful butterflies. This project gives us a sense of joy we sorely need during these dark times.

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*I’m reading Hope in the Dark for the Social Justice Book Club (hosted by Kerry @ Entomology of a Bookworm and Janani @ The Shrinkette). I’m 50% finished with it. Solnit wrote the book in 2003-04; however, it has a more recent foreword (2015) and afterward (2014).

**I’m sorry to have found out through Google that Roger Casement met a sad end.

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Not a Monarch, but a beautiful butterfly I found in someone else’s garden. Is it an eastern black swallowtail?

 

What Do Our Kids Read During Independent (But Not Really) Reading Time?

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When students choose “independent reading” books, what do they pick? According to Renaissance Learning’s 2016 report, high school students chose To Kill a Mockingbird, (9th graders), Night (10th graders), The Crucible (11th graders), and Macbeth (12th graders).

It’s hard to believe The Crucible, a 1953 play by Arthur Miller, would surpass comic books or modern fiction, but these results aren’t an indication of what children choose to read entirely of their own accord. The report is based on data from 9.9 million participants from grades K-12 in the company’s Accelerated Reading 360 program (presumably including my children, who go to a school that participates in this program). It isn’t truly independent reading: teachers set individualized goals with each student, the students choose from books selected by the program to meet those goals, and, ultimately, the students take quizzes on the books.

Interestingly, Renaissance Learning found that students are generally reading below grade level, and high school seniors are reading below the expected reading level of incoming college freshman: “By the time students finish high school, they are reading books in the 5-6 range, which is close to the level of typical fiction best sellers of about 5.6; however, their selections are one to two grades below the demands of books assigned as summer reading to incoming freshman (6.5) and typical nonfiction best sellers (7.2).”

It’s concerning that American students aren’t meeting expectations, but it’s hardly surprisingly in a country in which more than a quarter of adults haven’t read a single book in the past year. Hopefully, in the future, more high school seniors will graduate with enough of a love of reading to read more than adults do today–whatever the level.

*I learned about this report from Education Week, November 30, 2016.

Love, Money, & Marriage: Would Jane Austen Be Astounded?

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Should a person’s motive for getting married matter when they get divorced?

Earlier this year, the North Dakota Supreme Court considered this question, among others, in Degnan v. Degnan. In this case, the marriage lasted for five years, the parties were both over 50-years-old when they said “I do,” and, according to witness testimony, financial considerations were among the wife’s motivations for getting married. The trial court used this motivation against the wife in the divorce, saying:

The Court finds that [the wife] entered the marriage for purposes of financial gain and security… Given [the wife’s] intentions in seeking the marriage, she should not suddenly find herself with a better lifestyle than she was associated with at the time of the marriage.

As a result, the trial court awarded only a small amount of spousal support to the wife and limited the percentage of the couple’s property that the wife would receive.

The North Dakota Supreme Court agreed with the trial court’s decision. Two justices, both women, concurred with the result, but wrote separate opinions to state that the lower court should not have considered the wife’s motive for marriage.

One of these concurrences — written by a justice who studied literature — is particularly interesting because it references Jane Austen. The justice writes:

Taken alone, [the language quoted above] suggests the district court is punishing [the wife] for considering future financial security as part of the decision to marry. Jane Austen would be astounded. Perhaps at twenty-five one enters marriage considering only love; one would be foolish to do so at fifty. Because the court also identified other factors to support its decision on property division, spousal support, and attorney fees, I concur in the result. (emphasis added).

Considering the fact that Jane Austen lived more than two centuries ago, there are probably many aspects of modern society that would surprise her. Would the negative inference associated with marrying for money be among them? I’m not so sure.

In Jane Austen’s time–and long before it–marriage was a method of obtaining and conserving wealth within families. Having a financially stable spouse was particularly important for women, who typically did not work outside of the home. Unsurprisingly, then, in Austen’s novels, a person’s financial stability was an important motivation for marriage. Why else would Charlotte accept the insufferable Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice?

However, as much as Jane Austen would’ve accepted that people marry for money, she probably wouldn’t have been particularly “astounded” by criticisms of that behavior along the lines of what the trial court said in the Degnan case. After all, in Persuasion (on which Amelia Elkins Elkins is based), Mr. William Elliot’s determination to gain wealth and independence through marriage is among his biggest flaws:

“Mr. Elliot married then completely for money? The circumstances, probably, which first opened your eyes to his character.”

Mrs. Smith hesitated a little here. “Oh! Those things are too common. When one lives in the world, a man or woman’s marrying for money is too common to strike one as it ought.”

Other Austen villains are guilty of similar behavior. For example, Pride and Prejudice’s Mr. Wickham sought Mr. Darcy’s sister for her fortune, and Northanger Abbey’s Isabella finds a way out of her engagement to John Morland when she learns he is not as wealthy as she had assumed. To young and naive Catherine Morland, “To marry for money I think the wickedest thing in existence.”

Today, as in Jane Austen’s time, individuals of all genders and backgrounds weigh practical considerations when deciding whether to marry. For women, despite having far more financial independence today than they had in Austen’s era, financial considerations may be important because they still don’t make as much money as men do for similar work. For some, then, marriage offers the financial stability that gender discrimination denies women in other areas of their lives. Hopefully, money isn’t the sole reason a person decides to marry, but no one should be astounded nor appalled because it’s a reason some say “I do.”

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*If you’re interested in reading Degnan v. Degnan, the opinion is available on the North Dakota Supreme Court’s website.

**For more bookish court opinions of the past year, see Who Speaks for the Opossums?

Bookish Court Opinions: Who Speaks for the Opossums?

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As my daughter learned last summer when she mistook a PDF of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin as literature on her Kindle,* court opinions are often dull to read no matter how important or interesting the underlying facts of the case may be.

Every now and then, though, I come across a line in an opinion that makes me smile. Some of those moments come courtesy of literary references that judges sprinkle into their treatises on the law for the sake of humor, to illustrate a point, or to show off their intelligence (depending on how pompous or obscure the reference is).

This week, I’m going to highlight a couple of literary references in court opinions over the past year.

Here is the first one, in which a court asks: who speaks for the opossums?

In People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Inc. v. Myers, a case decided by the Court of Appeals of North Carolina on April 5, 2016, the opinion begins with a reference to The Lorax by Dr. Seuss:

The Lorax speaks for the trees, but the question presented by this case is whether anyone may speak for the opossums, particularly those Virginia opossums (“opossum(s)”) found in Clay County, North Carolina, during late December through early January each year, who may end up in captivity as the main attraction at the annual New Year’s Eve Possum Drop event.

Despite its name, the Virginia opossum is the state marsupial of North Carolina, and apparently, the New Year’s Eve Possum Drop is an annual tradition in Clay County.

The event involves lowering a possum in a box in front of a large crowd of people on New Year’s Eve. As the Court explains, it’s a “rural replication of the dropping of the crystal-festooned ball in New York City’s famous Times Square New Year’s Eve celebration.” According to news reports, the shaken possum is released afterwards.

Believing this activity is inhumane to the captive possums, the plaintiffs sued the commission responsible for providing the captivity licenses to the person in charge of the event. Surprisingly, the North Carolina General Assembly subsequently passed a law specific to the facts of this case, entitled, “An Act to Exempt Clay County from State Wildlife Laws With Respect to Opossums Between The Dates of December 26 and January 2.” The current version of the law applies to the entire state. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 113-291.13 (2016).

As a result, opossums are no longer protected by state humane laws and regulations during the time Clay County captures them to star in their New Year’s Eve event. No captivity license is required.

So, who speaks for the Virginia opossums in North Carolina? Sadly, the  Court concluded, “General Assembly has passed a law which says, in effect, that no one may speak for Virginia opossums during the relevant time period. For this reason, we must dismiss this appeal as moot.”

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*I share a Kindle account with my twins. I send opinions to my Kindle to read on my commute to and from work. After the Fisher opinion, my kids have learned to avoid these PDFs.

“The Basis of My Sexual Education” #GabiReadalong

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Gabi Hernandez of Isabel Quintero’s Gabi, A Girl In Pieces is an unusual main character to meet in an American young adult novel. She looks nothing like the sickeningly thin protagonists we typically find on the covers of many books in this genre. She’s also of Mexican ancestry, a background some question when they look at her:

They always think I’m White, and it bugs the shit out of me. Not because I hate White people, but because I have to go into a history lesson every time someone questions my Mexicanness.

But overall, she’s a typical teenager who writes poetry, struggles with certain subjects in school, applies to college, hangs out with her friends, and wants a romantic relationship. When we meet her, she’s a high school senior who’s never been kissed. She’s interested in a handful of boys, one of whom is worthy of receiving her beef jerky from Mexico. When this guy comes over, “Everything was ready… the beef jerky, the sodas, my heart, hopes and expectations.”

Those hopes and expectations do not include an unplanned pregnancy. Gabi’s fear of pregnancy is borderline obsessive and stems from the story of how she got her name. As we learn in the opening paragraph of the book:

My  mother named me Gabriela after my grandmother who–coincidentally–didn’t want to meet me when I was born because my mother was not married and was therefore living in sin. My mom has told me the story many, many, MANY times of how, when she confessed to my grandmother that she was pregnant with me, her mother beat her. BEAT HER! She was twenty five. That story forms the basis of my sexual education.

It’s no wonder Gabi is afraid of getting pregnant. Her fear reminded me of an article I read recently about Franz Kafka, whose aversion to sex may have been based on an intense fear of the potential consequences of sexual activity, particularly the contraction of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Gabi, however, lives in a time and place with much better treatments for STIs–even for infections like HIV that were unknown in Kafka’s time–and so her silence about STIs is understandable. I saw only one mention of STIs in the novel (three STIs at once: AIDS, herpes, and chlamydia).

For Gabi, the worst outcome of sexual activity is an unplanned pregnancy that could limit her future. She wants to go to college. She wants to move out of her “one-horse town.” Hoping to achieve these goals, she recalls her mother’s advice: “‘Ojos abiertos, piernas cerradas.’ Eyes open, legs closed,” but wonders why her mother’s advice to her 15-year-old brother is merely, “Make sure you take a condom with you.” It’s one of many unfortunate double-standards girls face on a daily basis. This novel is an interesting way of exploring these important issues.

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*Thank you to Naz of Read Diverse Books for encouraging me to read this book & organizing the #GabiReadalong. There will be a Twitter Chat about this book on Thursday, December 15th at 8 PM EST (the author will be answering our questions!). Please join in.