Wednesday 21 November 2018

#CBR10 Book 99: "Tante Ulrikkes vei" by Zeshan Shakar

Page count: 432 pages
Rating: 4 stars

#CBR10Bingo: Home, Something, Home (this book is set at Stovner in Oslo, three stops away from where I live on the metro. It also concerns exactly the sort of pupils that I teach.)

Two youths, both living in the same tower block in a suburb on the east side of Oslo, in Stovner (where the large majority of inhabitants are immigrants or the children of immigrants). They start out going to the same high school. Starting in the year 2000, the framing device consists of these two teenagers, later young men, being asked to take part in a social studies survey, to map out the formative conditions for children and teens in these eastern suburbs, where the social divide between the white inhabitants of Norwegian descent and the poorer residents (mostly from minority language backgrounds, either first or second generation immigrants from the Middle East, South Asia and/or African countries) keeps getting bigger and more pronounced.

Mohammed ("It is tradition to name the first born Mohammed, and the Prophet is revered by all Muslims, but really, if they are so concerned with me going out and getting a good job and everything, I'm not entirely sure why they would give me that name"), who goes by Mo, writes his answers to the survey as e-mails. He is articulate, intelligent, rather shy and does very well in school. His parents have extremely high expectations of him, and early on, at least, they seem well on course to being fulfilled. Mo does well enough at high school that he wins a special scholarship, established for academically gifted children of immigrants, enabling him to go to University. He even gets to shake the prime minister's hand during the scholarship ceremony.

Our second protagonist, Jamal, doesn't really like to write, so he records his answers on tapes that are sent to the researcher in pre-paid envelopes. His answers are informal, irreverent, full of vernacular slang - a sociolect. His father is out of the picture, after a history of domestic violence. There's just him, his increasingly depressed and ineffectual mother and his much younger little brother, whom Jamal has to step up and help raise. He has to take him to nursery every day and pick him up in the afternoons. He does most of the shopping, and even occasionally attends meetings at the nursery, and later his little brother's school, because his mother isn't really up to the job. While he complains in his reports, he doesn't do it too loudly and swears the researcher to secrecy - no one wants the state to come and take his brother away from the family. After years of struggling through primary and secondary school and getting nowhere, only to find things harder and even more frustrating in high school, one day he has enough and just quits. He gets a job washing cars at a local garage, and is initially, at least, happy to be earning money.

The book follows these two young men over a period of about six years. We see how they view the world, and how they feel about the attitudes towards immigrants prevalent in society. We learn about their hopes, their dreams, their fears and how they feel about their families. Mo studies statistics and economics at the University of Oslo and loves it (at least to begin with). Jamal works at the car wash, gets stoned with his friends, listens to rap music and wants to be a gangster. At the same time, however, he's doing his best to make sure his little brother is fed and that the staff at nursery and later, school, doesn't report that the boy has problems speaking and occasionally wets himself when he's nervous. Jamal gets frustrated at his mother's refusal to be a proper parent.

In addition to winning a prestigious literary award for debutant writers, Tante Ulrikkes vei (the address of the tower block that both the protagonists live in) has sold a phenomenal amount of copies in Norway. A crowd funding effort has ensured that every member of Parliament receives their own copy (which is good, because far too many politicians have no idea what the day to day life of some of the poorer kids in the "wrong part of town" is actually like). It has garnered rave reviews in pretty much everywhere, and once I started reading, I could easily see why. Not only is it a very engaging and well-written book, it's so incredibly important, because the politicians in Parliament are not the only ones who could use an insight in what growing up as the child of immigrants, especially in a both socially and economically disadvantaged families.

Mo's family are not exactly poor, but various circumstances mean they need to rely on support from the government to get by. Tuition fees at Norwegian colleges and universities are less than what it costs to buy a 30-day travel ticket on Oslo public transport, but the scholarship Mo receives allows him to focus entirely on his studies, without needing to work part-time on the side (something he initially suggests doing, but his father is vehemently against. Nothing should take the focus away from his studies, the rest of the family will get by with less, if it means making sure Mo has what he needs at Uni.

Jamal's family, on the other hand, sometimes barely have the money to pay rent and/or get groceries. While he's still in high school, he gets a small stipend to help him, but once he drops out, Jamal has to get a job to help supplement his mother's increasingly meagre benefits. Due to the stigma surrounding mental illness and the fear of child protective services, Jamal and his mother work very hard to hide just how dismal the family's home life actually is, and due to the very poor communication between school, social services and others who could get clued in and intervene (probably making the lives of both Jamal and his brother much better), nothing really changes. For a brief while, Jamal is promised help from a discretionary fund at the local mosque, but after some negative press articles, the mosque loses its additional funding, and it all comes to naught.

Both youths struggle with their families' and society's expectations of them. They are children of immigrants, growing up in Norway, bombarded with two very different and often disparate cultures. Representation is hugely important in fiction, and the two protagonists in this novel could not feel more real to me. In my ten years as a teacher in the Oslo educational system, teaching kids mainly from the east side of the city, I have met several examples of both of these boys. I have seen these kids graduate our secondary school several times.

Some are academically gifted and do well, fulfilling their families' hopes and expectations. Some are gifted and can't take the pressure, dropping out and struggling. Some are like Jamal, functionally illiterate, abrasive, taught to feel inferior and like losers from an early age, because they cannot keep up with the increasingly harder demands both of what they're to learn and how they're to behave in school. They are naturally fed up, and many (especially the boys) drop out of school. Yet others, who get sufficient support, either at school or from other places, manage to find the motivation and eventually mature enough to apply themselves, and end up doing well. I'm never happier than when I meet a former student of mine, often the ones who were very challenging and seen as "trouble", very much like Jamal in this book, and can catch up with them about how they are doing - which tends to be very well indeed.

As of yet, this book is not available in English, but I've read several articles telling me that it will be. There will be an area (or areas) like Stovner, and kids like Mo and Jamal in most cities in most countries around the world. While this book is set in Oslo, the themes it covers are universal.

Judging a book by its cover: The cover is a sort of a pinkish beige, almost the colour of a pale brick. It's very simplistic, with a cover drawing that looks pretty much like something a child would draw if asked what their house looked like. We see a tower block and a small swing set. The rest is blank, except for the title of the novel, which is printed on what looks to be a street sign. This is a novel that has sold on word of mouth, not exactly because of the flashy cover design.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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