Finding Home in a Word by Tanya Aydelott
In the house where my mother grew up, shelves are filled with books that open to the right, adorned with words that spill across the page in beautiful, fluid script. Urdu is a language of gorgeous curves, its delicate letters flowing from the right to the left. In speech, Urdu sounds like a quick-moving river: you can hear the current, the wind across the water’s surface, the small eddies where the riverbed sinks. It is a language built for poetry.
But I grew up speaking and learning English at an American school in Egypt. I grew up in the absence of my mother’s culture, in a country with a rich and textured history of its own, attending a school that tried to embrace our local community while still holding itself as a bulwark of American traditions. Where was I to learn how to be me in these spaces that were so foreign and isolating?
When I couldn’t find myself in the books in my school library, I began writing myself into the books that were available. I recast Alanna of Tortall to have brown curls. I flopped the descriptions of Anne Shirley and Diana Barry in Anne of Green Gables so that I might better see myself in the protagonist role. Ronia the Robber’s Daughter was a favorite because Ronia was already a punchy brunette. Lessa of Pern? I can’t remember how she is actually described by Anne McCaffrey, because in my young mind she looked like me: knobby-kneed, thick-eyebrowed, brown, brown, brown.
I remember reading In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson and thinking, “yes, yes, I know this”—though, of course, I didn’t. I knew a different kind of apart-ness, a different story of being set aside and being lonely in that loneliness. But Bette Bao Lord taught me that my quest to find people like me in books wasn’t something I suffered alone; she invited me into a conversation I hadn’t realized I needed.
At the same time that I’ve looked for familiar faces in books, I’ve been listening in on conversations I cannot join. I hear them when my mother calls one of her sisters or a niece, or one of them calls her; I listen to the flow and song of her side of their chats and try to find the simple words I recognize. The contexts in which I hear it most have turned Urdu into a language filled with ‘goodbye’ and ‘I miss you.’
Just months ago, I finally recognized my mother’s words in a book written for young adults. It’s a transliteration, a shifting from the lilt of Urdu script to the flatness of English consonants, but it was on a page, in a book, in my hands. It also wasn’t technically Urdu, but this particular word for ‘goodbye’ exists both in my mother’s language and in Farsi.
Khodahafes. May God protect you.
I have waited a lifetime to read my mother’s words in a book, to hear her voice in the dialogue between characters. Darius the Great is Not Okay is not about a Pakistani family. Its protagonist is a teenager whose Iranian mother never taught him Farsi; he is held back from family gatherings, a stranger in a community that should be warm and familiar. Darius is trying to find his place in a world that doesn’t hold a place for him, and learning that sometimes the very communities that seem to have kept you out have only been guilty of disguising their welcome.
There is more, of course, and author Adib Khorram offers a complex and nuanced look at multiracial families—transcontinental, transcultural families—and what this can mean for the children who navigate cultures, languages, and loyalties daily in their own homes. I saw so much of my young self in Darius as he struggles between twin feelings: regret that he doesn’t know Farsi, and joy that he and his father can bond over Star Trek. Does knowing one make up for not knowing the other? Why not?
When I reached the moment in the story that Darius follows his friend Sohrab’s example and calls out a farewell to his grandfather— “Khodahafes, Babou” —I had to put down the book. I closed it over my lap as though I were closing one of my grandmother’s volumes of Urdu poetry, the back cover facing up so I would open it again to the right.
It is a treasure—a special kind of stirring, wrenching pleasure—to see words on a page that you only remember spoken to acknowledge an absence.
Seeing this weighty word in a published, hardback, popular book was something I hadn’t realized I needed. I am so happy to be able to gift this book to my nieces and nephews. I want their literary and imagined worlds to be filled with characters who look like them—but also, perhaps more importantly, who speak the words they use at home. I want them to discover pages filled with characters who invite them in with familiar idioms and phrases, even though the words they use may sound like ‘goodbye.’
To see yourself on a page is magic. Hearing your mother tongue spoken by characters you recognize, an unexpected homecoming.
Tanya Aydelott is Pakistani-American and spent much of her childhood in Cairo, Egypt, because it was the simplest geographic compromise her parents could find. She is currently pursuing an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.