Smell of Success: a Review of Skunk Girl

Skunk Girl is Sheba Karim’s first novel. It is told from the point of view of 16-year-old Nina Khan, self-described as “a Pakistani Muslim girl” and from a small white town in upstate New York. Although published in 2009, the story is set in approximately 1993.

Skunk Girl's cover. Image via Macmillan Publishing.

Skunk Girl's cover. Image via Macmillan Publishing.

In a fast-paced, entertaining read, Nina narrates her life and drama as the only Pakistani and Muslim girl in her high school. She deals with worries about school and boys, as well body hair and strict parents.

Karim keeps a light-hearted tone throughout the novel, balancing Nina’s self-deprecation with her humorous critique of others around her.

When a male friend asks Nina what her father would do if he ran outside and started kissing her in front of him, one of her best friends says, “Nina’s dad would kill her if you did that.”

“He wouldn’t kill me,” she responds.

In the narration, Nina explains:

“I must defend my father. He may be conservative, but he’s no murderer like those nutty Islamic fanatics they show on TV movies who marry unsuspecting white women, then kidnap their daughters and take them to some unnamed Middle Eastern country. He wouldn’t kill me, just yell and maybe cry and only ever let me out of the house for school.” (57-8)

Karim takes on stereotypes in a less heavy-handed manner than, say, Randa Abdel-Fattah of Does My Head Look Big in This? and Ten Things I Hate About Me. She uses humor to poke fun at, and thus challenge, popular portrayals of Muslim men.

At the same time, Karim doesn’t go the other route, of painting Nina’s parents as permissive and progressive to challenge the image of Muslim parents as strict and conservative. Nina’s parents are in many ways much more conservative than Amal’s parents in DMHLBT. When Nina goes to the movies with her female friends and their boyfriends, she can’t let her father see that there are boys in the group, lest he “kill” her as discussed above. Neither Nina nor her sister has ever been to a school dance, and her parents get “worked up about the lack of morality in Western culture” (138). When they see one of Nina’s best friends having dinner with a boy, they grow concerned that Nina will want to have a boyfriend too, and they try to limit the amount of time Nina spends with her best friends, so that she doesn’t become influenced to do “things that are wrong for you,” in the words of her mother.

Nina finds it hard to be the only girl in her school with such restrictions. She feels left out when classmate Serena holds a big party and she doesn’t even get an invitation, because, as Serena tells her, “you’re not allowed to go to parties and I don’t want to waste any [invitations].”

But even while Nina bemoans her plight as the only high schooler at home on a Friday night, she never takes herself too seriously, which is refreshing.

Spending her Friday nights at home watching crime shows with her parents, she decides, “Maybe there are only two types of people who spend their Friday nights in high school at home—Pakistani Muslim girls and future serial killers. Though I suppose Indian and maybe even some Asian parents might be as strict with their kids.” She remembers hearing that there’s an Indian girl in the middle school: “Maybe I should become friends with her. I bet we’d be allowed to spend our Friday nights together, memorizing vocabulary words or something.” (28)

In some ways, Nina’s parents are archetypes of strict, conservative parents. When Nina asks her father what would be so wrong with having friends who are boys, he replies, “If you lose sight of what is wrong and right, and start behaving like Americans, you’ll end up on the streets, on drugs, and a prostitute.” Nina comments on her father’s warning: “It is so preposterous that you can’t even argue with it” (36).

Despite their strictness, Nina’s parents fail to become stereotypes. Karim’s description of Nina’s father, who tells jokes, even though they’re not always funny, loves and sings along with qawwali music, and tries to have heart-to-hearts with his daughter make him into a multidimensional, believable character. Nina’s mother, too, breaks out of the stereotype she could otherwise become. When Nina wails to her mother about the plight of being a “hairy Pakistani Muslim girl,” her mother says, “It’s not such a big deal,” and hands her a box of bleach, telling her stories of mixing her own ammonia/hydrogen peroxide concoction when she was in college in Pakistan.

It makes sense that Karim would write Nina’s parents as believable, multidimensional characters, since her whole cast of characters is complex and engaging. Some characters, who start out as archetypes, such as Nina’s sister, Sonia, the “nerd girl,” and classmate Serena, popular mean girl, develop through the novel as Nina gets to know them better.

While Nina’s parents are strict about certain rules, they are less conservative about other issues. Nina explains that her mother is the only one who prays regularly, and that the family only ever prays together to keep up appearances whenever her mother’s sister, the very Pakistani, very Muslim Nasreen Khan, comes to visit.

Karim depicts Muslims more conservative than Nina’s parents. Nina tells the story of the Qur’an teacher she had when she was young, Brother Hassan. When he sees her mother’s favorite painting hanging on the wall, of two Mexican women holding bright flowers, he instructs Nina to tell her mother to take it down: “It is haram to depict human figures,” he tells her. Instead, it is her teacher who Nina never sees again. She learns to read Qur’an instead from her mother, “under the watchful eyes of the Mexican women.” (81-2)

With stories like this, Karim establishes a diversity of belief amongst Muslims. Nina’s mother, presented as the most religious member of her family, has a different understanding of Islam than Nina’s Qur’an teacher and is willing to stand up for it. That Nina’s mother does not discard the painting per Brother Hassan’s advice is not presented as a failure on her part to live by the rules of Islam but as a way Nina’s mother rejects a more conservative interpretation of Islam and affirms her own values.

Nina, who admits to be less religious than her mother, does not live up to the archetype of a conservative Muslim girl either. Enamored by her crush, Asher Richelli, she doesn’t hold the same resistance to him that very consciously religious Amal of DMHLBT had for her crush. When Nina and her sister Sonia are left alone for a few days, when their parents fly to Pakistan early, Nina takes the opportunity to attend her first high school party, has her first beer — and proceeds to get drunk. Later, she asks her sister what makes a good Muslim.

Sonia replies,

“Whose definition are you applying to that? In every religion people pick and choose what they want to follow. Look at Ma and Dad’s own friends—a few of the aunties cover their hair, and a few of the aunties drink, some fast during during Ramadan, some don’t. You can’t spend your life worrying about what other people will think. If you live decently and help others, is Allah going to condemn you simply because you had a beer? I don’t think so, but others might. In the end, you have to do what you believe is right.”

Sonia’s advice of self-determination seems to the message of the book. She tells her sister, “When it comes to religion and orthodoxy and culture and self-actualization, there is no magic box [with] easy answers” (208). And indeed, Nina’s dilemma of what to do about her crush, Asher, is not presented as a test from God of resisting temptation but as a religious, cultural, and family issue with which she must struggle and not necessarily find any easy option. While Nina’s parents are quick to deplore what they see as immorality around them (and Nina’s potential fall to a drug-addicted prostitute), Nina does not judge. When best friend Bridget announces her decision to have sex with her boyfriend, Nina thinks about how surreal the idea is, and asks Bridget sincerely, “How are you feeling about it?”

But religious and familial drama is not the only issue facing Nina. Small New York town Deer Hook lacks in racial diversity, which worsens Nina’s feeling of isolation. Nina recalls an incident from her childhood. In the car, she asks her sister, “When you take over the world, can you make me white?” Her mother, driving, slams on the brakes and asks, “Why would you want that?”

Nina narrates:

“Because it sucks being one of the only brown kids in school, I thought. But I didn’t say this because even then I knew my mother wouldn’t understand.” (9)

Nina describes the self-segregation by race during lunch: the few black and Latino students sit on one side of the lawn, while Nina, an Asian freshman, and couple other minorities sit on the “white side.” Even though she sits with the white students and her best friends are white, Nina can’t completely fit in, and sometimes wishes to be white.

Nina feels some affinity to Bridget’s boyfriend, Anthony, who is black and from the island of Grenada — one of the few non-white students at Deer Hook besides Nina. “Do you ever wish you were white?” she asks him, explaining that she would take the chance to live her life again as a “cute blonde” in a heartbeat. He suggests perhaps being white wouldn’t make her happier, considering everything she’d have to sacrifice for it: her family, her food, her pride. There are no incidents of overt racism that Nina and Anthony face, but Karim shows the difficulty of being one of the few non-white students in the school, especially when all their friends are white.

Nina challenges her parents’ racism when they find out Bridget is not just dating —horror! — but dating “a black boy,” as well as the preference for light skin within their Pakistani circles. These are probably the most overt discussions of racism in the book.

One of Nina’s biggest concerns is not just being a “Pakistani Muslim girl” but being a “hairy Pakistani Muslim girl.” She explains that one day, “I fell asleep a human, and woke up a gorilla” (21). It is worse when she realizes that she has a stripe of dark hair down her neck to the center of her back. Describing her dilemma as being a “skunk girl,” from which the novel derives its title, Nina feels like a freak.

She stands out in other ways. In hot weather, Nina sweats in jeans while others wear shorts. She wears jeans because that’s what Pakistani Muslim girls do, she says. But I wonder why she can’t wear a long skirt or looser, lighter pants at least.

Skunk Girl paints a picture of a believable Muslim teenager–not necessarily one CAIR would send out to represent Muslim youth, but a girl with struggles and desires beyond fulfilling her mother’s image of the perfect Pakistani Muslim girl. It was refreshing that neither the title nor cover art revolved around Nina’s Muslim-ness. Books with a Muslim protagonist have been known to feature hijab-less characters in hijab to emphasize their faith. Not so for Skunk Girl — The book jacket shows a white stripe of fur against black, reflecting the book’s title.

Karim’s first novel is a fast and enjoyable read. I read it in one sitting. At 231 pages, in a comfortable font size and spacing, the book goes quickly. Karim maintains the pace with short chapters, an engaging plot, and an entertaining and likable narrator.

Nina’s story is compelling, touching on issues many young people face, whether or not they are Pakistani Muslim girls. But even when she takes on serious issues, Karim keeps the novel optimistic and funny. The message, in the end, is one of self-acceptance. Skunk Girl does not strive to be great literature. It makes a breezy, but thoughtful, summer read. I look forward to seeing what else Karim will bring to young adult fiction.

  • http://www.mattersofrace.blogspot.com wendi muse

    are there any other muslimah writers you recommend who write “coming of age” stories or “third culture” novels for the older set? i’m looking for something like The Buddha of Suburbia (hanif kureshi) but from a female perspective. any ideas?

  • RCHOUDH

    This book reminds me of how my middle school years were spent with parents similar to the main character’s ones! And it’s nice to hear that it has multidimensional characters instead of being chock full of stereotypes. I think it helps writers immensely when they draw upon their personal experiences to influence what they write.

  • http://muslimlookout.org Sobia

    This book sounds very interesting. I’m totally going to try to get a hold of it! I was also the only Pakistani, Muslim girl in my high school with strict yet cool parents. I had/have hair issues as well and that box of bleach was my best friend. Though not as much in high school as later on.

    And this

    “There are no incidents of overt racism that Nina and Anthony face, but Karim shows the difficulty of being one of the few non-white students in the school, especially when all their friends are white.”

    I can totally relate to. I also never faced overt racism but there were indeed challenges.

    “Skunk Girl paints a picture of a believable Muslim teenager–not necessarily one CAIR would send out to represent Muslim youth…”

    hahahahaha….Loved that.

  • Zahra

    What a great, and thorough, review! I’m totally going to look for this.

    I also think it’s great to see books exploring the effects of non-overt racism, or its more subtle effects; too often conversations about prejudice revolve around extremes (e.g., talking about the Holocaust instead of, oh, common anti-Semitic remarks or not getting non-Christian holidays off) and miss no-less-important but smaller effects.

    @ wendi muse

    You might check out Randa Jarrar’s A Map of Home (an adult novel). It’s a very funny first novel about a teenager, the daughter of a Palestinian father and a Greek-Egyptian mother, who comes of age in Kuwait, then Egypt, and then Texas. I thought it was well-written, an impressively debut, writer to watch, that sort of thing, though I remember being bothered by the depiction of a black Kuwaiti schoolmate (the details are fuzzy now).

    I would add that it’s a sexually frank book, though I thought the author could have better fleshed out those parts of the story (in Texas the heroine, Nidali, has a crush on a female schoolmate and worries that this makes her a lesbian, and is also raped by a male classmate; neither plotline is really resolved). But the real heart of the story is her complicated relationship with parents, especially her father, who loves her deeply, but is often physically abusive. The book paints a very complex but affectionate portrait of him. Despite all this it’s a surprisingly upbeat book.

    The book was published by a small press in the US last year and has consequently gotten far less promotion than some other Arab-American fictional debuts. I’m pretty well tuned into publishing (my former career), and I wouldn’t have heard of it if the Center for New Words, a MA feminist group, hadn’t sponsored and advertised her reading.

    Despite my caveats I would recommend it if the sexuality doesn’t offend you. Jarrar has some really funny and biting things to say about identity, being Palestinian, dealing with misconceptions of the Middle East, etc., and it’s one of very few books that actually made me laugh aloud last year. (Nidali’s angry letter to Saddam Hussein after he invade Kuwait and disrupts her social life is a great comic set piece.) That said, while the characters are Muslim, the book is much focused on pan-Arab and Arab-American identity.

  • http://hijabchique.blogspot.com celeritas

    Sounds like a great book and oh so refereshing to not have a ‘veil’ cover image or title.

    Thanks for the detailed and interesting review.

  • Person

    Sounds like a good book. I think it also sounds very relateable. I am an Af.Am. non-muslim but the weekend nights spent at home watching crime shows with family is the story of my H.S. career (America’s Most Wanted, my mom and lil sis love it but don’t like Law & Order strangely enough). Not to mention did not date and am shocked to find how common drinking in H.S. really is ( I thought it was a Hollywood fabrication til getting in college and listening to tells of 18/19yo who were not new to drinking).
    Hopefully books like this one will start making there way on to summer reading lists, books assigned for summer reading are often very memorable and I think books with Muslim main characters that are 3-D and relateable are much needed. I think in this book everyone could find an aspect to relate too (especially the parents who think one date or a C is a one-way ticket to drug addiction/jail).


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