Tuesday 27 July 2021

#CBR13 Book 25: "Hør Her'a!" (Listen here) by Gulraiz Sharif

Page count: 178 pages
Rating: 4 stars

CBR13 Bingo: Free (borrowed at the library)

Official book description:
It is summer vacation and fifteen-year-old Mahmoud is imagining long days on the bench outside his building with his friend, one-eyed Arif. This summer will be different, however, because the family is getting a visit from Uncle-ji from Pakistan and Mahmoud's job will be to show his uncle around. Uncle-ji is very surprised at what he sees in Norway, and what is going on with Ali, Mahmoud's little brother, who is not behaving the way boys should? Over the course of the summer vacation, Mahmoud will be tested both as a brother and son in a Pakistani family. 

Mahmoud lives in a large high rise in the east of Oslo (from his descriptions, I'm going to guess it's very near where I myself live), where the majority of the population are first, second and third-generation immigrants. He describes the strict, overworked fathers, the worried, loudly gossiping mothers, and his wishes to just take it easy over the summer until school starts again. No such luck. His father's elder brother is coming to visit them from Pakistan, leading his mother into a cleaning, cooking, and baking frenzy to prove that she is a worthy wife (something her in-laws don't seem to believe). Mahmoud's father is a taxi driver and since he doesn't have the time to show his brother the sights of Norway's capital, Mahmoud is given the job, very much against his wishes.

Mahmoud's uncle clearly comes from a very traditional Pakistani background, and initially seems very taken aback by the liberal views and attitudes of Norwegians, even those of foreign descent. As the weeks pass, he seems rather seduced by the country, though, and keeps asking Mahmoud what it would take for him to be able to move there (as Mahmoud says, with the current rather strict immigration policies towards brown people, it's not likely to happen). While Mahmoud resents his given task, to begin with, he comes to enjoy the various outings he can drag his uncle along to. He also discovers that Uncle-ji may not be as strict and conservative as he appeared at first.

Which is a good thing, because it's becoming more and more clear that Mahmoud's little brother Ali isn't like all of the other boys his age. He mostly wants to play dress-up with his mother's clothes and experiment with make-up, and could there be a different reason he loves his Disney Princess dolls than the fact that he sort of fancies the way they look? Mahmoud's father will not tolerate anything but traditional masculine behaviours from his two sons, so a worried Mahmoud, aided by his mother, tries to cover up Ali's actions as much as possible. But it's proving to be more challenging than Mahmoud was prepared for and his little brother is clearly miserable. What's a guy to do?

I really don't read a lot of Norwegian (which is absurd, as I teach it every year), and when I do, it's usually a book that is relevant to my teaching in some way. This book, which has become a bestselling publishing sensation had me laughing out loud so hard I nearly fell off the sofa within its first few pages, because Mahmoud, our narrator is a very funny guy and has a very honest view of what he feels about Norwegian society, the way he is treated as compared to those born in Norway with white skin and a Scandinavian-sounding name. He also keeps speaking directly to conservative politicians like our current prime minister, Erna Solberg, to offer his opinions about her politics (he's not a huge fan). 

I didn't actually know all that much about the novel before picking it up at the library. I thought it was just going to be a rather humorous tale about a minority background youth growing up in the east of Oslo, and by all means, it is that. I was not prepared for the fairy serious LGBTQIA-heavy subplot that emerges and is dealt with in such a sensitive and insightful (as it appears to me, certainly) way. There is a high chance that we will be using this book as part of our curriculum in 10th grade next year, and if so, I'm really looking forward to teaching it. 

Judging a book by its cover: Considering that this is a YA novel written by a minority background Norwegian immigrant, which seems to be targeting teenage boys as part of its core audience, I'm surprised at how unassuming and neutral the book cover they've chosen for this is. I suspect the rather plain mono-coloured background with a picture of a high rise is in part inspired by the most successful "immigrant narrative" in Norway in the last decade, Tante Ulrikkes vei. There are a lot of similarities, but as someone who teaches teenagers, the majority of whom happen to be of the boy variety at the moment, I'm pretty sure none of them would voluntarily pick this book up because of the cover. This seems like a missed opportunity by the publishers, really. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read 

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