Inspiration Station: Amélie Sarn on Love, Hate, & Longing

Inspiration Station is an occasional series on ChiYAwriters.com highlighting the people, places, and works of art that inspire us as writers.

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I Love I Hate I Miss My Sister
By Amélie Sarn

Sohane loves no one more than her beautiful, carefree younger sister, Djelila. And she hates no one as much. They used to share everything. But now, Djelila is spending more time with her friends, partying, and hanging out with boys, while Sohane is becoming more religious.

When Sohane starts wearing a head scarf, her school threatens to expel her. Meanwhile, Djelila is harassed by neighborhood bullies for not being Muslim enough. Sohane can’t help thinking that Djelila deserves what she gets. But she never could have imagined just how far things would go. . .

This story won’t let me go.

At a time when everyone seems to feel that their beliefs—that their very way of life—is under attack, the sisters in this story show that different ways of life can coexist in harmony. Or they can collide in terrible tragedy.

It’s our choice.

Sohane: “You know how I hate seeing girls exposing themselves on billboards and in magazines. I don’t want to be like them. That’s not what it means to be a woman. I need to be respected.”

Djelila: “I want to be respected too . . . Without having to disappear or hide my face.”

– p. 57

Djelila and Sohane are two sisters of Algerian descent growing up in France. They live with their parents in a largely Muslim community, where not everyone agrees what it means to be Muslim—or what it means to be French.

Together, Sohane and Djelila beautifully demonstrate the multiplicity of narratives that inform feminism. And their differences highlight the importance of a feminism that does not demand uniformity. A feminism that respects equally the choice to wear a head scarf and to dye your hair. The choice to conceal and to reveal.

Because it’s the choice that matters.

Djelila: “I don’t want to live in fear. I don’t want my choices to be dictated by fear. I don’t want to be what others have decided I should be. I want to be myself.”

– p. 131

Sohane: “I just want to be me. I don’t want to be ashamed of being Muslim and of practicing my religion. I’d like people to accept that. I don’t intend to harm anyone.”

– p. 86

Djelila and Sohane want the same things. They want to live freely and without fear. And without anyone else feeling fearful of them.

But their communities—their Muslim neighborhood and their secular school, their Algerian relatives and their French teachers—force them to choose one side or the other. Force them to fit into narrow boxes. Force them, really, to have no choice at all.

And the results are devastating.

Most journalists talk about what they do not know, about matters they don’t take the trouble to understand. They adopt the clichés that suit them—take one aspect of an issue until it becomes a caricature. . . I can’t say that this isn’t reality. But it’s only one reality among many.

– p. 55

This heartbreaking book shows us why diverse stories matter, in journalism and in fiction. Why we need many narratives. Why we need to weave a tapestry, not consign ourselves to a single thread. A thread that so often trips us up.

Amélie Sarn takes care to avoid stereotypes in telling this story. Despite the conflicts in Sohane and Djelila’s wider communities, Sarn paints their family’s apartment as a warm sanctuary. She shows their mother and father as supportive, loving parents who fight for the right of one daughter to play basketball and the other to wear a head scarf.

[W]e dreamt of a life that we would build, a life in which no one would step on our feet, in which we would walk with our heads raised. The world had better watch out!

– p. 62

In a political climate fueled by fear, this book is a reminder that the world is wide enough for all of us.

Notes:

This book was originally published in French. I read the English translation by Y. Maudet.

The author, Amélie Sarn, is French, but as far as I could determine, she is not Muslim or of Algerian descent. She mentions in the acknowledgments that she sought guidance from those in the Muslim community. I welcome and encourage other responses, especially from those who are members of the depicted cultures. To start the discussion, here are two other perspectives on this book:
Review by Sarah Hannah Gómez
Review by Ruzaika Rifaideen

“The World Was Wide Enough” is a song from the musical Hamilton. Lin-Manuel Miranda based the song on a quote from Aaron Burr, who in turn lifted the phrasing from Laurence Stern’s novel Tristram Shandy. For more on the history behind this line, see the Genius annotation of Miranda’s song.

Warning: this book contains graphic violence.

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