Examples of Excellence is an occasional series on ChiYAwriters.com that delves into the work of artists who demonstrate excellence in their craft.
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. . .
I didn’t intend to write about this book. Honestly, I don’t feel qualified to write about this book.
But it won’t let me go.
“These young girls came here expecting hospitality and warmth, and here we are giving them morality lessons. . . I know that each one of us has to find her own path, and that it shouldn’t keep us from laughing, singing, and dancing together.”
– p. 101
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, their secular school, their Algerian relatives, 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 and clichés 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 paints 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.
Clearly, this story touched me. I want everyone to read it. Not because I think it’s perfect. But because I want to discuss it. I want to hear what you think of it. Yes, I feel it brings nuance and complexity to an all-too-often simplified subject. And I want that nuance to be shared. But I also want to know what this book misses.
I want to see what other threads we can add to this tapestry.
[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. There’s no need to feel that your way of life is in jeopardy just because someone else chooses to live a different life. There’s no need to believe that opening the door to many diverse narratives closes the door on your singular story. There’s no need to fear those who are different from you. Or to make them fear you.
The world was wide enough for Sohane and Djelila.
And, I promise, the world is wide enough for you and me.
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. As someone who is not French, Algerian, or Muslim myself, I cannot fully comment on the accuracy or sensitivity of the representation in this book. It appears well researched, but I welcome and encourage other responses, especially from those who are members of the depicted cultures.
This book was originally published in French. I read the English translation by Y. Maudet. If you’ve never read French prose before, you might be surprised by how spare it is, but I urge you not to mistake this book’s brevity for a lack of depth. On the contrary, its short passages delve so deeply into the subject matter and its simple descriptions are so raw that reading this book is like trying to hold a burning coal in your bare hands. Yes, it’s that intense and packed with heat.
I use the expression “the world is wide enough” with all due respect and acknowledgement to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lyrics in the song “The World Was Wide Enough” from the musical Hamilton. Miranda wrote that line based 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.
Please be advised that this book contains a scene of graphic violence against a young woman.