Deborah Ellis is a Canadian author whose experiences working in Afghan refugee camps in the 1990s helped form the basis for her breakout novel, The Breadwinner (2001). That story first introduced the character Parvana, who returns in the 2012 novel My Name Is Parvana. I reviewed Ellis’ latest for the Asian Review of Books:
There is a decidedly cinematic aura to the first few pages of My Name Is Parvana. We meet our protagonist, a fifteen-year-old girl wrapped in a “dusty blue chador,” as she is being questioned repeatedly by U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan. While her captors switch from English to Dari to Pashtu to Uzbek to discover her identity, the stoic, resolute Parvana remains silent, seemingly deaf to their inquiries. At first, this tense and fast-paced interrogation could resemble the opening scene of a Hollywood movie in the vein of “Argo” or “Zero Dark Thirty.”
But thank goodness this isn’t another pro-U.S. military narrative set in a Middle Eastern country in which local people are presented as blank slates, terrorists, or “zombies,” as author Reza Aslan recently referred to the depiction of Iranians in the Oscar-winning “Argo.” Instead, Canadian author Deborah Ellis’ latest novel for young adults departs from the tiresome tradition of triumphant Western war movies with a more nuanced look at post-war life in Afghanistan. As Ellis explains in her author’s note, which details the recent history of the country:
…by the end of 2005 a new constitution had been approved and a new president and parliament had been elected.
But the fighting continued. The Taliban returned to fight against the Afghan government and the various foreign military forces that remained in the country. Other regional leaders known as war lords splintered into different groups and have continued to fight for power.
The book’s eschewing a simplified hero-villain trajectory is an achievement in itself.
Yet politics aside, My Name Is Parvana is first and foremost the story of a teenage girl. Parvana may have an entirely unique set of challenges to contend with—from frequent threats of suicide bombings to the less visible yet deeply systematic forms of oppression against women and children that affect her daily life—but she nevertheless resembles any other adolescent, at times squabbling with her sisters or indulging in short-lived rivalries with classmates. Indeed, Ellis does a good job in not making a martyr of Parvana or her protagonist’s noble cause: to educate and empower young girls just like her. For the most part, Ellis’s depiction of Parvana avoids overt sentimentality, a rare and gratifying aspect to encounter among many fictional characters of the developing world.
Although Parvana refuses to speak—much to the chagrin of an American major, who suspects that she may be a terrorist connected to the school bombing—a series of flashbacks reveals her past. Several months prior to her detainment, alongside her ex-journalist mother, Parvana was instrumental in the founding of Leila’s Academy of Hope. Helping to keep the school afloat amid scarce funds and the loud dissent of many villagers, Parvana’s demanding routine initially proves difficult. Yet sustained by dreams of becoming an architect and moving to France, she—for a time—finds purpose and power in her new role as an educator. The coincidental parallels to the story of real-life education activist Malala Yousafzai—the sixteen-year-old Pakistani student whose courage has gained her international fame—are evident.
As the sequel to the critically acclaimed Breadwinner Trilogy, which first introduced Parvana as a younger girl, My Name Is Parvana stands on its own as the captivating tale of a girl with much to overcome and much to fear—but also, much to hope for.