Portrait of the Artist as a Young Activist: Rebels by Accident, Intuition or Circumstance

Mr. Bib's reintroduction to quality Young Adult fiction comes mostly courtesy of the Little Bibster, aged 10, who patiently explains the often complicated relationships, plot twists, characters and worlds of the Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Lemony Snicket series, and especially Rick Riordan's seemingly endless wise-ass teenage epic reincarnations of epic and myth. Often a challenge in talking about these larger-than-life fantasy stories is contextualizing their frequently very powerful political, social, moral messages. To that end, my smart kid and I came up with a political bumper sticker celebrating my favorite moment in the long, complex kid-wizard tale: Dobby has no master!”


It's an adhesive paean to the anarchist-liberationist anti-slavery theme in JK Rowling, of course, a key dramatic moment of gain and loss, redemption and sincere adolescent confrontation of mortality. Let me know, by the way, if you'd like a sticker. They are, of course, free!  Get it?

The discovery of interpretation, then, is the responsibility of moms and dads, teachers, book bloggers, adult readers, smart peers, bumper stickerers, who need to participate, guide, explain, what's at stake. Sadly, the millions of fans of, say, Ayn Rand, don't seem to have either grown up themselves or read another book or been challenged by anybody to consider what her silly novels actually mean. Or at least to suggest a wider, more representative reading list. This Sunday morning, here's an interruption of my usual charmingly passive-aggressive stewing about literacy, politics and reading to offer up a book which tries, and succeeds, at both elevation and education, a novel which both appeals to an audience and perhaps creates it. It's also a celebration story about when good things happen to a good and deserving person, in this case a sweet tale about the author as a once-young 

 activist, a parent, an artist and teacher now.  Her name is Patricia Dunn, and she is an old friend of mine, and you might already have read about her new Young Adult novel, Rebels By Accident at the Huffington Post, which raved about it. Dunn once lived and worked in Southern California, doing all kinds of good grassroots organizing work, then went off to Sarah Lawrence to get her MFA and find success as an editor and short story writer. I didn't even know she was a writer till then, and now here she is, just a few years later, with a lovely book from Alikai Press and, to my mind an instructive tale of two kinds of personal witness: her own and, of course, that of a fictional 16-year old Egyptian-American girl named Mariam who is sent by her culturally conservative Muslim parents to live with her grandmother in Cairo after being a typically naughty teenager. Add her swell delinquent girlfriend, the harassment she gets from knucklehead high school kids and, yes, their arrival together just in time for the pro-democracy anti-Mubarak protests in Tahrir Square and you've got a political coming of age story with a family secret, introduction (for some of us) to Islamic culture and some teen romance too. All of this without being a cartoon, or condescending, not to mention topical and urgent as instruction in history, imperialism, civics. 

 For those interested in them, I offer favorable comparisons to Barbara Kingsolver's first three books, anything by LA writer Ron Koertge, the Weetzie Bat books by Francesca Lia Block. Which is to say that an awful lot happens, there is humor (mostly adolescent deadpan and sarcastic, natch) and some thoughtful nods to literary conceits by way of identity switching and the underdog or socially awkward anti-hero and sensitivity to both real and imagined vulnerability of being a teenager in a society which seems to both punish and encourage that difficult time.
And, because both teenage-hood and the Egyptian uprisings demand it these days, there is Facebook, and there is Twitter. So that as absolutely sick as I am of the whole subject, not to mention all those millions of dumb little screens, this novel depicts one of the singular and 

singularly beneficent uses of social media, which in real life of course was used by real-life activists to organize and resist and make community. (I think it was on NPR this week I heard an expert on US social media say that of all the new tweets and emails and Facebook, less than 20% was used for anything even remotely like political or social justice organizing.)
So, yes, pop and pathos and politics in Rebels, with self-deprecating humor and an unshy effort to educate and to bring young people (and their parents) into what used to be called, benignly, current events but feels to this parent like a serendipitous fusing of opportunity and growing up, all through the perspective of our winning heroine, who here finds herself separated from her ailing grandmother (“Sittu” in Arabic), friend Deanna and phone, on the edge of the revolution:
No money, no cell phone, no numbers to call, and I can't even remember the name of the hospital Sittu is in. I'm probably the worst-prepared protester Cairo has ever seen. Am I a protester? Did I really just call myself a protester? I came here today to find Deanna, but now all I want to do is join Deanna. I want to join all of these people.

Deanna was so right; this is history happening right here and now. And it's Sittu's h istory and Baba's history. And it's my history. I don't have to watch it happening on television, because I'm here and I'm Egyptian.
I love that. Deceptively simple language, tropes, but look closely, parents and teachers, at what Dunn is up to here in the lightning-quick self-interrogation, psychic and emotional sprint done by this bright young woman. 

Dunn's inspiration for writing the novel turns out to be, no surprise, her young Egyptian-American son, her own conversion to Islam, and a lifelong commitment to activism. She says in my upcoming interview with her on Bibliocracy Radio that she pretty much had to write this story of reconciling cultures for her child, then responded with a rewrite even as events,
 as they say, unfolded. And are still unfolding, as Mariam's life continues to do on her return, where she is a more mature young Muslim woman with a clearer and more confident sense of herself. 
It's nice when good things happen for good people, and I should not have been surprised that it would be an activist writer with previous adult work in Global City Review, Salon.com, The Christian Science Monitor and The Nation who'd write a YA novel about the revolutionary moment. I am, of course, thrilled that my pal is the one who wrote this necessary, fulfilling story. In retrospect, I should have seen it coming. But glad I didn't, so I could be so pleasantly astonished at the way things seem to have worked out.
Rebels by Accident, Patricia Dunn, Alikai Press, 266 pps, $14.95
Andrew Tonkovich hosts the Wednesday night literary arts program Bibliocracy Radio on KPFK 907. FM in Southern California.

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