The Breadwinner and the Power of Literature

I was in 4th grade when the September 11 terrorist attacks occurred. I was nine years old.

I remember my friend told me about it at recess after getting back from a dentist appointment. It didn’t mean much to me then, but its significance began to dawn on me when I watched clips played over and over on the news and saw my mother cry at the American national anthem.

As a nine-year-old, I understood the situation in simple terms: bad people had done a bad thing. I understood that many people had died or been hurt, that if my family had been in NYC they could’ve been among those numbers.

Without knowing it, that concern and fear painted Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Middle East negatively in my young heart. The war on terror, the war in Afghanistan, those were fights against the evil people who had done such a bad thing. At nine years old, I wasn’t politically minded, so I wasn’t actively supporting military action or any kind of vengeance, but I was, without knowing it, letting fear and confusion colour my perception of a population that, in reality, I knew nothing about.

This is what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “the danger of a single story“. This is the kind of ignorance that fuels racism.

But at nine, I didn’t know that. I wouldn’t have considered my thoughts racist. I use that term now because I have been fortunate enough to have cast away some of my ignorance, fortunate enough to have a few books placed in my hands that exposed me to other stories – stories that differed from my incomplete understanding of the news I heard on TV briefly before and after school.

Cover of The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis

House of Anasi

One of these books, the first that made me realize my judgement of countries and the people in them was based on ignorance, was The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis. The novel takes place in Taliban-era Afghanistan and focuses on 11-year-old Parvana, who becomes the breadwinner for her family when her father is arrested by the Taliban for receiving an education outside of the country.

I’ll admit that it has been years since I read this book and it’s sequels, Parvana’s Journey and Mud City (in fact, I had let them slip from my mind and subsequently missed the release of a fourth book called My Name is Parvana in 2012), but I have a vivid memory of what it did for me.

The Breadwinner showed me a young girl not unlike myself. Parvana had a loving family (even if she didn’t always get along with her siblings). Like me, she was a reader and had an appreciation for books. Parvana was defiant in ways I wished to be, overcoming the barriers put upon her because of her gender. She was smart, brave, and willing to do whatever she could to help her family. She was not a terrorist. She was not a religious extremist. She was far from evil. Though Parvana’s experiences were far different from my own sheltered Canadian existence, we had things in common, and that changed everything for a nine-year-old used to thinking of Afghanistan as other.

At the time, I kept a reading journal. Like a good little bookworm I diligently recorded what I read, the date I started reading, and the day I finished, along with my thoughts on the books I was reading and quotations that meant something to me. When I finished The Breadwinner, I remember filling out the journal page and writing that before I read Ellis’ novel I had thought of the people of Afghanistan as enemies – I remember using that term specifically – but that now, I knew better. In that journal, I acknowledged my ignorance and gratefully recorded how the book changed my perspective.

In addition to showing me the similarities between myself and a child from Afghanistan, The Breadwinner also taught me that the vague notion of threat from overseas that I felt because of 9/11 and because of what I heard on the news and through my (likely equally uninformed) peers was nothing compared to the real danger that average civilians like Parvana faced under the Taliban. It gave me perspective, gave me context, and made me realize that by viewing that area of the world as an enemy, I ignored the history and experiences of people in Parvana’s situation – just as many are now ignoring the experiences of refugees by focusing solely on the possibility of terrorists.

Today, I fully recognize the impact Deborah Ellis’ novel had on me. The Breadwinner helped shape the person I am today by making me address and correct a bias I wasn’t even aware of having. I remain far from perfect, but Parvana’s story set me on a path that encourages me to view the world in a more compassionate manner. Most impressively, it did this by sparking my interest, captivating me, and engaging my imagination.

This is the power of good story telling. This is why we need diverse books.

Especially in the wake of terrorism, we need stories that reflect different cultures and experiences so that fear, anger, and confusion do not harden the hearts of today’s youth. We need stories that show us our similarities and explain our differences in a way that promotes understanding. We need stories that prevent nine-year-olds from growing up with biases that stop them from treating others with compassion.

Peace, love, and understanding need a foothold, and if Parvana taught me anything, it’s that the right books can give us that.

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