I am Change, by Suzy Zail

I received a copy of I Am Change from the publisher, and here is my honest review.

It has been a while since I posted a review on here. I am happy to come back to talk about such a great novel. I actually shared my thoughts on Instagram already, but I will try to expand a bit here.

“She knew it was only a thing made of paper, glue and ink but it held more power than a bewitching powder. Things happened in books, in the spaces between words and the gaps between paragraphs.”

From the publisher : “In Lilian’s village, a girl is not meant to be smarter than her brother. A girl is not meant to go to school or enjoy her body or decide who to marry. Especially if she is poor. Inspired by and written in consultation with young Ugandan women, I Am Change is the tragic but empowering story of how a young girl finds her voice and the strength to fight for change”

“Lilian couldn’t imagine how keeping house for a man could ever come close to following a line of words into a new world.”

This is a powerful novel about a girl bold enough to dream big when all around her is meant to shrink her world. Lilian’s story is the odyssey of all the girls who take the first step out of the prison of sexist traditions, to break the cycle of poverty and dependence. Who dare to dream of an education, and autonomy. It takes bravery, but also some help. Teachers who encourage their ambition, supporting relatives, funds to help fulfil their dreams. The novel is a testament to the strength of all the Lilians around the world, a chant of hope and a call to action.

“Lilian had wanted to know her aunt’s secrets so badly, bud now she was on her doorstep, she wasn’t so sure. Knowing was dangerous. It would make her one of them : a woman. And becoming a woman meant stopping school.”

In “I Am Change” Suzy Zail thoughtfully tackles difficult subjects like Female Genital Mutilation, rape, arranged marriage, without sugar coating them. But the novel, although hard to read in part, is not just a litany of suffering. The pains and obstacles do not pile up as in a catalogue of horrors. They are the results of complex life paths taken by well fleshed characters.

“‘She loves you.’ Her father stroke her cheeks. ‘She held back her tears to make room for yours'”

I found the writing exquisite too. This is a YA novel that does not compromise on literary quality. The language is not oversimplified, it has texture and depth, thus enriching the reading experience. There are powerful, poignant passages all throughout.

“Be good, Tiny Mosquito, and study hard. I can’t write often; the stamps cost me dinner. I don’t tell you this to hurt you. I tell you only to stoke the fire that burns inside you. My dreams have been snuffed out but there is still hope for you. Study hard and build a better life for yourself.”

The novel is written with nuance, empathy not pity, respect not condescendance. I particularly appreciated how Lilian’s mother was never vilified nor looked down on. The author shows how her questionable decisions may be inspired by genuine fear and ignorance despite her obvious love for her daughter. The communication mishaps between Lilian and her may be the result of their particular circumstances, but they also feel universal. It is a conflict between two generations, the tension that arises when a girl begins to question her mother’s way if life and starts to pull apart, eager to set on a path of her own.

“She’s afraid. Not of snakes or hard work, bur almost everything else : mzungu, albinos, her ancestors’ spirits, Sunrises’ grave and her daughter’s reputation. She was scared of books and Lilian’s rags drying on the line.”

Although it is not an “own voice” novel, I am Change is informed by the author’s interactions with Ugandan girls and young women who told her about their lives and struggles and welcomed her into their intimacy, in the hope that their stories would be told around the world. And told they were, loud, clear and quite brilliantly.

You can have a career and a husband, she’d said, if you choose right. If they chose. The girls had tasted the word, rolling it around on their tongues and Lilian felt hope unspool inside her.”

In short: A bleak eye opener that is not devoid of hope, “I Am Change” is an important and well written novel. Brilliant in its origin and message but also in its careful, nuanced execution. I definitely recommend.

At the end of the book — which is endorsed by Amnesty International, the author provides links to help, notably through her charity Help Girls Learn, Uganda. You can also visit her website to learn more.

I am Change, 352 pp
02/07/2020 by Walker Books UK

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