Out Now

Voice of Rebellion - Roberta Staley
Disclaimer: ARC via a Librarything giveaway.

There is a debate among those who read biography (most likely more than one debate, but let’s just focus on this one). It has to do with the use of dialogue in biography, more specifically with the use of conversations that had to occur long ago and weren’t transcribed or recorded. Some people don’t mind them, perhaps even like them, but some don’t. I don’t. They work on basic level because of the nature of story telling and how we response to stories. But the academic in me is constantly wondering -was that really the conversation and how do you know that’s exactly what was said.

Staley makes use of such literary device, too much for my taste. So, if you feel differently, you should take that into account.

Staley’s book is biography of Mozhdah Jamalzadah, a singer who, when she was a young girl, immigrated with her family to Canada from Afghanistan. She went on to bring an Oprah Winfrey type of talk show to Afghanistan as well as to perform Afghan pop music.

Jamalzadah’s family was forced to leave Afghanistan during the 1980s because of her father’s position and political views. The biography’s first section details the family’s escape to Pakistan. While Mozhdah herself obviously did not have much to do with the planning and escape, the account showcases her parents’ strength of will and determination which they apparently passed down to their daughter. (In fact, it almost seems like Staley wants to tell the parents’ story, which itself sounds like it makes an interesting book).

The next part of the book details the family’s experiences in Canada and focuses shifts mostly to Mozhdah. And, strangely, it’s where the book loses a spark, a note, or a step. It isn’t that Staley’s writing shifts. She writes well, but there is a feeling of never quite getting to know Mozhdah Jamalzadah. In part, this has to do with details. For instance, she mentions Jamalzadah’s interest and heavy reading at one point, but doesn’t mention any of the books. There is a general sense of things but not much specifics outside the use of dialogue. To be fair, it must be difficult to write about a young and still living subject, even one who is cooperating. This might explain why the other children of the family seem to disappear (perhaps they did not want to feature in the book), but these generalities and missing facets are felt.

This is alleviated somewhat when Jamalzadah and her mother journey to Afghanistan to film the show. The challenges that Mozhdah faces range from the dangers of a country in a state of war to threats on her person because of her unwillingness to be a traditional, quiet woman as opposed to the feminist she is carry the weight, though even here there are gaps that feel strange. The focus is mostly on the career without too much depth, and there is little personal detail. It’s almost like there is a better book screaming to be let out.