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Towelhead

A Novel

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It is August 1990. Saddam Hussein has just invaded Kuwait, and Jasira's mother has bought her daughter a one-way ticket to Texas to live with her strict Lebanese father. Living in a neat model home in Charming Gates, just outside of Houston, Jasira struggles with her father's rigid lifestyle and the racism of her classmates, who call her "towelhead." For the first time, the painful truth hits her: she's an Arab. Her aching loneliness and growing frustration with her parents' conflicting rules drive her to rebel in very dangerous ways. Most disturbingly, she becomes sexually obsessed with the bigoted army reservist next door, who alternately cares for, excites, and exploits her.

Towelhead A Novel: Alicia Erian Discussion Guide
1. Why does Jasira's mother send her to live with her father? Does her mother feel threatened by Jasira's budding sexuality? Do you think this is common between mothers and daughters? Why does her mother stay with her boyfriend after she finds out about his inappropriate behavior with Jasira?
2. Discuss the ways Jasira's life with her father changes from living with her mother. Is Jasira's father's corporeal punishment appropriate for a 13-year-old? Is corporeal punishment appropriate for children of any age? How much of Jasira's father's punishment style is due to cultural differences? At what point does her father's physical punishment cross over into abuse?
4. As Towelhead unfolds, the Gulf War begins. The characters hold a wide range of opinions about the war. Compare Jasira's father, Mr. Vuoso, and Melina's views about U.S. involvement in the Gulf War. Are the children's opinions (Jasira, Thomas, Zack, and Denise) about the war revealed? How did the people around you react to U.S. involvement in the Gulf War? Was it different from their opinions about the more recent U.S. involvement in war in the Mideast? If yes, how?
5. How does Jasira handle the racism she experiences at school, from her neighbor Zack, and her father and mother when she dates an African-American? Should she have handled it any differently? Compare how she and her boyfriend Thomas react to racism. Why or why not are you surprised by Jasira's father's racism toward Thomas, given that he has experienced racism too? What are the best ways to handle overt (i.e., name-calling) and covert (i.e., nasty looks or aversive behavior) racism? Do you think racism against Arab-Americans will continue to increase?
6. Jasira allows her mother's boyfriend Barry and her neighbor Mr. Vuoso to touch her sexually. She does not seem to think that these grown men's sexual advances are inappropriate. Why do you think this is? What do we know about Jasira's emotional health before and after she moves to Texas?
7. Jasira and Thomas are both 13 years old. Do you think their level of sexual knowledge and activity is "normal" in the United States? How should parents or authority figures handle the subject of teenage sex?
8. Even in the best of circumstances, every parent makes mistakes with their children. Are Jasira's parents "good" parents? Why or why not?
9. Mr. Vuoso gives Jasira a Playboy magazine when he discovers her looking at it. What does this gift reveal about him? Mr. Vuoso has a large collection of Playboy magazines. Do you think his taste for pornography made him prone to rationalizing his behavior with Jasira? Or did he understand what he was doing? Was Mr. Vuoso a child molester, a rapist, or neither? Was his punishment appropriate for what he did?
10. Jasira becomes aroused while looking at the naked women in Playboy. Does this indicate that she may be a lesbian or bisexual? Why or why not?
11. How does Jasira's father's discovery of the Playboy in her room change Jasira's life? What would her life have been like had he not discovered the Playboy?
12. What role does Melina play in Jasira's life? Jasira doesn't feel happy about Melina's pregnancy, and in fact, resents the forthcoming new baby. Why does she feel this way? How does she feel about the baby at the end of the book?
13. Toward the end of Towelhead, Jasira's father and Melina become friends, albeit wary ones. What causes them to bond? Will their friendship last?
14. Though Towelhead primarily focuses on the personal lives of its characters, it also reveals the political climate of 1991. Discuss some of the specific behaviors (i.e., the proliferation of American flags) and feelings about the Mideast that have changed in the United States since then.
Enhance Your Book Club: Tips to Make Towelhead Come to Life
1. Food plays a major role in defining culture in Towelhead. Go to a Middle Eastern restaurant or serve Middle Eastern foods such as hummus, baba ghanouj, or baklava to bring more "flavor" to your book club meeting.
2. Make a compilation CD or tape of the top pop songs from 1991 to help set the mood musically for your gathering. Make extra copies so each attendee can take one home with them. The entire group could also dress as teenagers from 1991, i.e., wear acid-washed jeans or create the "big hair" looks of that era.
3. Jasira, her father Rifat, Melina, and Mr. Vuoso are all distinctive characters. Assign a character to each member of the book group to bring an item of clothing or object that captures the "essence" of who that character is. For example, for Mr. Vuoso, someone could bring a flag; for Melina, someone could wear a maternity blouse.
4. With relations between the Arab and Western worlds still precarious, a proliferation of racial or religious persecution examples are still occurring with regularity. Have each member bring in articles of recent instances and suggest ways or steps that could be taken in which the conflicts could be solved. You could also provide information on how to handle instances of intolerance and prejudice by buying a book on this topic or searching the Internet for guidelines.
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Alicia Erian is the author of a short story collection, The Brutal Language of Love. Her work has appeared in Playboy, Zoetrope, Nerve, The Iowa Review, and other publications. This is her first novel.

"Alicia Erian is one of the finest young writers to come along in a decade -- fierce, smart, funny, and wise. And Towelhead is an extraordinary debut novel. It's sexy, disturbing, joyful and deep, and maybe just a little too real for comfort."
-- Bill Roorbach, author of Big Bend and The Smallest Color

"Alicia Erian's gripping debut novel fearlessly enters love's gray areas and darkest corners. The character's voice casts a slow and subtle spell. Before you know it, you're convinced the bad guys are good guys and the heroes are villains. I couldn't put it down."
-- Cathy Day, author of The Circus in Winter

"Alicia Erian's unflinching depiction of a teen's survival is accurate and artful, and it offers a glimpse of true triumph. This marvelous book further confirms Erian as a writer to admire."
-- Darin Strauss, author of Chang and Eng and The Real McCoy

"In Towelhead Alicia Erian accomplishes an extraordinarily difficult thing: She illuminates a timeless, ageless theme, our inevitable human struggle for selfhood and meaningful connection to others. This is a brilliant first novel."
-- Robert Olen Butler

More books from this author: Alicia Erian