“How You Grow Wings” by Rimma Onoseta – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Sisters Cheta and Zam couldn’t be more different. Cheta, sharp-tongued and stubborn, never shies away from conflict—either at school or at home, where her mother fires abuse at her. Timid Zam escapes most of her mother’s anger, skating under the radar and avoiding her sister whenever possible. In a turn of good fortune, Zam is invited to live with her aunt’s family in the lap of luxury. Jealous, Cheta also leaves home, but finds a harder existence that will drive her to terrible decisions. When the sisters are reunited, Zam alone will recognize just how far Cheta has fallen—and Cheta’s fate will rest in Zam’s hands.

Goodreads


We dive right into this book with Zam walking home from school – and in short order we meet her whole family, learn about the family dynamics, and learn about some of their local customs. Zam and Cheta live with their parents in a small town in modern day Nigeria.

As mentioned in the description at top, Zam gets out of her anger-filled home by moving in with her rich aunt and uncle. She gets this proposal because of how well she’s doing at school, and Cheta immediately resents that she was never offered this deal.

Their uncle is super rich (in the oil business), and life at his house takes some time to adjust to. There are two other teenage girls in the house – Kaira, Zam’s cousin, and Ginika, a family friend who often stays with them while her parents are traveling abroad. Kaira is initially standoffish, but Ginika is sociable. They both harbor anger at their mothers, and the girls all eventually bond over this common problem.

Cheta comes to visit for one week. She has recently graduated from high school, and comes with the idea that she will ingratiate herself to their aunt and get a job with her. It doesn’t work. She was already so set on leaving home, though, that she does it anyway, without a real plan.

After an incident leaves Zam’s aunt and uncle feeling shaken, they decide to move – with all three girls – to London. Kaira is finally able to start breaking down the wall that had grown up between her and her mom, before the girls leave for boarding school. Another family member who is helping them there also sheds some light on Zam and Cheta’s family, and how the two girls actually got along better when they were younger. Zam feels compelled to reach out, but gets no answer.

On a trip home for Christmas, Zam sees her family again, after months of being away. Cheta also rolls back into town from Benin, where she’s been keeping her distance. Their mother treats Cheta like she is basically disowned already, but Zam still wants to try to help her sister. There is one startling revelation near the end of the book, and Zam has to make a drastic decision. Finally, both girls head back out into their separate worlds.

I don’t want to reveal too much about the ending, but I will say that I’ll be thinking about it for quite some time!

This compelling Young Adult novel comes out today, August 9th. I was able to read an advanced copy through Netgalley, and the publisher, Algonquin Young Readers.


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“The Island of Sea Women” by Lisa See – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Set on the Korean island of Jeju, “The Island of Sea Women” follows Mi-ja and Young-sook, two girls from very different backgrounds, as they begin working in the sea with their village’s all-female diving collective. Over many decades—through the Japanese colonialism of the 1930s and 1940s, World War II, the Korean War, and the era of cellphones and wet suits for the women divers—Mi-ja and Young-sook develop the closest of bonds. Nevertheless, their differences are impossible to ignore: Mi-ja is the daughter of a Japanese collaborator, forever marking her, and Young-sook was born into a long line of haenyeo and will inherit her mother’s position leading the divers. After hundreds of dives and years of friendship, forces outside their control will push their relationship to the breaking point.

Goodreads


I knew absolutely nothing about the island of Jeju – or diving, really – going into this book. But, it seemed like solid historical fiction material – a friendship that survives decades, and all the things that happen during those decades.

We meet Young-sook in 2008, when she is already quite old. The “present day” chapters are fewer and shorter than the various flashback ones, though, and that’s where the real story starts to develop.

Young-sook and Mi-ja meet when they are still children, and Mi-ja is new to the village of Hado. Young-sook’s mother is the chief of her diving collective, but they also have some crops to care for on dry land. Mi-ja originally helps with some of this work, in exchange for some food. As they grow older, they also learn to dive together, and even travel to other countries to make more money.

We learn early on that the women in this village are the true heads of their households – at least, where “making a living” is concerned – and the husbands usually stay home and take care of babies. The roles of men and women are debated often, especially while the women are gossiping before or after a day of diving.

Early on, there are two diving accidents that change Young-sook’s life, and the makeup of their collective. Another young diver, only a few years older than her, has an accident that she never fully recovers from. While the girl lives, she is unable to speak again. Not long after, Young-sook loses her mother. This makes her the family’s primary breadwinner.

In their early twenties, Young-sook and Mi-ja enter into arranged marriages, and start having babies. This is where their lives start to diverge, as Mi-ja moves away to live with her husband’s family in the city.

While there is already a lot of personal drama this far into the story, the worst is yet to come.

Things first start to change on Jeju during the World War II years. They were already under the control of the Japanese, who most of them despised, but after the war they now have to contend with Americans. The division of North and South Korea also affects them, as does internal fighting between the government and rebels who want an independent election.

The story takes some brutal turns that I was not prepared for. The adage that came to my mind is “the personal is political,” as these women’s daily lives are definitely affected by the things going on in Korea and in the world at large. One very climactic event was based on real events that happened in 1948-1949. The government then made it basically illegal for people to talk about what happened for decades afterward! Even when the events were publicly acknowledged, and no longer a secret, many older folks – like those in the fictional Young-sook’s age range – still had trouble talking about it, because they had kept their secrets for so long. This aspect of the story was both fascinating and disturbing.

Near the end of the story, I started putting together one “twist,” if you will. The final chapter confirmed my theory, but also still held two more heartbreaking revelations.

Life on Jeju, especially back in the 1930s, was such a different world to me, that it did take me a few chapters to really get into this one. But I loved the strong female characters from early on, and was intrigued by their way of life. That way of life changed drastically over the decades, but the personal and political dramas within their lives became the bigger story.

If you’re a fan of historical fiction, or want to learn more about cultures much different from American/modern culture, this one might be a good pick. But be forewarned that there are some brutal scenes.


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“Warda” by Warda Mohamed Abdullahi – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Set in the rugged shrublands of rural Ethiopia, the contentious neighborhoods of South Africa, and the icy streets of Michigan, Warda is the story of a fierce young woman on a tireless quest to become the first member of her family to go to college.

-Goodreads


This book is so good! It’s not a long read, anyway, but the amazing tales within it makes it go fast.

Near the beginning, before we really get to know the main character, we learn about her family. Warda doesn’t even remember her mother, who died when she was just a baby. Because of financial woes and ethnic prejudices, her father was living away from Warda and her mom. But when baby Warda got sick, her mom was determined to take her back to where she was born to get medical help. While crossing the Red Sea, the boat they were in capsized. Her uncle was also aboard, and found Warda floating on a blanket. He also found her mom, but she was already deceased. Her father didn’t even know they were traveling.

And that’s only the beginning.

Her dad takes Warda to his father’s farm, where she is raised with many aunts, uncles, and cousins of all ages. She thinks of her grandpa as her father, and does not understand that he is not. She faces several dangers – often in the form of wild animals trying to attack their herd of sheep – but gets no formal schooling. When she is ten years old, her dad wants her to move to South Africa so she can start receiving an education. The trip there takes her a little over a year.

Of course, even after arriving there, Warda has a big challenge to her education: she speaks none of the languages that classes are held in in most of the schools around her.

After only a few years, her family has to move again. This time, they’re taking a big leap to come to the United States. When they land in Michigan, there is already snow on the ground – something Warda has zero experience with.

She also has another new language to learn. She wants to learn to drive. She needs to learn to navigate not only her American high school… but college applications, scholarship essays, SAT and ACT prep, and being away from others who share her culture and religion.

Thankfully, Warda is assigned a mentor who helps her immensely. With her mentor’s gift of keeping Warda organized, and her own passion for wanting to get to college, they come up with a plan to get Warda through high school in only a few years. To make up for lost time, she often has to take extra classes online and in the summer. She has to really push hard to get to her dream… which is to ultimately become a doctor.

If I had to describe this book in one word, I’d pick: triumphant. You’ll be hooked from the early scenes of Warda’s life, and you’ll want to cheer her on through so many more adventures and obstacles.

This book was independently published over a year ago, but the team at Books Forward is promoting it now to coincide with World Refugee Day. World Refugee Day is celebrated on June 20th, and you can learn more about it here.


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“America Calling” by Rajika Bhandari – Review

By: Angie Haddock


International students and immigrants have been the secret ingredient in America’s recipe for global success. America Calling shares one immigrant’s story, a tale that reflects millions more, and shows us why preventing the world’s best and brightest from seeking the American Dream will put this country’s future in jeopardy.

-Goodreads


This book was “right up my alley,” as the saying goes, and I almost missed out on reading it! I was approved for the advanced reader copy, but never saw that email – spam folder, maybe? – and didn’t find out until a few days before it came out! This is why I’m posting my review a week late – the book actually came out on September 14th.

The author came to the US as a grad student in the early 90s, and studied at a state school in North Carolina. Initially, she came because that is where her boyfriend was studying.

Later in life, though, she starts working for the Institute of International Education, which compiles data and research on exchange students in the US and elsewhere. So the first two-thirds of the book is her own story and experiences as a student first, then as an immigrant seeking a work visa. The last third of the book is other stories she’s compiled through her current job, as well as stats and figures from the world of international education.


Some statistics that struck me:

International students add $45 billion to the economy yearly. (Most pay their own way, or are awarded scholarships from their own countries to study abroad. Then, they still have to buy furniture and groceries here, like the rest of us.)

Only one out of ten US students studies abroad. (Meaning that an international student on their campus here may be their only exposure to other cultures.)

One out of four founders of start-ups valued at $1 billion first came to the US as an international student.

Then there are the softer stats, like how so many students who study here and return to their home countries become advocates for US universities, or the US at large. They offer a large and vast network of unofficial diplomats in all areas of the globe. Bhandari mentions the Fulbright scholarship program as a shining example of this. The program offers both scholarships for international students to study in the US, and ones for US students to study elsewhere. Over its history, it has sponsored 400,000 students. 39 of those have gone on to become heads of state in their home countries, 60 have won Nobel prizes, and 88 have won Pulitzer prizes.

Her own experiences are no less interesting, of course, although not as easy to break down into small bites. A few things she touches on, though, include reckoning with how Asians are considered the “model minority” here. Realizing that the freedoms she enjoyed as a woman in America made her unfit to return to her home country. Having to push hard to get through her masters and doctorate programs in 6 years, because being here on a visa meant she had strict time limits and couldn’t take any breaks.

I did study abroad when I was in college, albeit for only one semester. When I returned to my home campus, though, I joined a group whose members acted as unofficial ambassadors to the international students there. There were debates about food, music, and soccer – as would be expected – but there were also instances of giving rides to the grocery store or the mall. It was fun to have these conversations, and be able to pitch in on things like getting Christmas presents for their families back home. These experiences are why I said at the top that this book was “right up my alley,” of course. I had some exposure to international students when I was college-aged, and I appreciate knowing a little more about the issues surrounding studying internationally.

Thanks to Books Forward for introducing me to this one!

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