Six years ago, the Taliban came to Pakistan’s Swat Valley, where Malala Yousafzai lived with her parents and her two younger brothers. Where, crucially, she went to school every day, a fiercely competitive girl who fought for top classroom honours with her chief rival and wrote chemistry equations on her hands in henna, “instead of flowers and butterflies.”
She was 10 years old and was reading the Twilight vampire romances alongside her best friend Moniba. “It seemed to us that the Taliban arrived in the night just like the vampires,” she writes in her autobiography, I Am Malala. But the Taliban didn’t operate in the dark, and within a few years they had terrorized Yousafzai’s valley, blowing up girls’ schools and murdering women and men they deemed impious or pro-Western. On the radio, they would praise girls who had made the right decision: “Miss So-and-so has stopped going to school and will go to heaven.”
“They destroyed everything old,” she writes, “and brought nothing new.” Famously, the Taliban tried and failed to silence Yousafzai, who had become Pakistan’s most celebrated supporter of girl’s education. Almost exactly a year ago, a Talib approached the school bus where 15-year-old Malala sat with her classmates, hot and tired after a day of writing exams. “Who is Malala?” he asked, and shot her in the head.
I Am Malala is the answer to that question. It is the memoir of a 16-year-old girl who is both a normal child – fighting with her brother, endlessly styling her hair, worrying that she’ll never be tall enough – and, at the same time, possibly the most inspiring teenager in the world. The memoir, co-written with British journalist Christina Lamb, traces the journey of a girl born to a people, the Pashtun, who do not celebrate the birth of girls. “For most Pashtuns, “ she writes, “it’s a gloomy day when a daughter is born.”
Not in Yousafzai’s household. Her father, Ziauddin, is a reformer and advocate of girls’ education who told anyone who would listen, “Malala will be free as a bird.” Her mother, Tor Pekai, can neither read nor write and lived most of her life in purdah, or seclusion.
Ziauddin pushed Malala to speak her mind about the emancipation of girls and arranged for the platform that brought her to the world’s attention: In early 2009, under the pseudonym Gul Makai, she began writing a diary about life under the Taliban for the BBC Urdu web site. Her first entry appeared with the headline, “I Am Afraid.” Her father owned the school that she attended and had urged her to defy the Taliban; when she was shot, he blamed himself.
An amazing story does not necessarily result in an amazing memoir. Autobiography requires shaping the untidy clay of a life into a recognizable form. It demands the kind of introspection you don’t necessarily acquire after 16 years on the planet.
For the most part, I Am Malala succeeds in its lucid explanation of a history unfamiliar to most people in the West, and as a testament to bravery and perseverance. It should find an audience among young adults, especially the ones who thrill to dystopian fictional landscapes: Here is a brutal world, a real one, with a real hero within it.
In these pages, Malala the person is sometimes obscured by Malala the idea, but that may be the double-edged consequence of her own successful campaign. The book comes to life when we see the multifaceted girl who obsesses about skin-lightening creams and can’t get out of bed in the morning. I wanted to hear more about the young woman who loves Ugly Betty and writes, “Wearing a burqa is like walking inside a big fabric shuttlecock with only a grille to see through.”
The question about memoir is not so much “what is it?” as “why is it?” To what purpose is a life lived on the page? Every memoirist is driven by motivation, lofty or base, therapeutic or altruistic. There’s autobiography as weapon of revenge (see Claire Bloom’s arrow aimed at Philip Roth, Leaving a Doll’s House) or mea culpa (Rousseau’s Confessions) or fabulous, fabulist bauble (John Glassco’s Memoirs of Montparnasse).
T.E. Lawrence, deeply ambivalent about his own celebrity, wrote in the introduction to The Seven Pillars of Wisdom that his book “is a narrative of daily life, mean happenings, little people. Here are no lessons for the world, no disclosures to shock peoples. It is filled with trivial things, partly that no one mistake for history the bones from which some day a man may make history…” But as Scott Anderson writes in his new biography Lawrence in Arabia, the conflict was deeper and perhaps more unsettling for Britain’s desert star: “While publicly denigrating his work as a trifle, Lawrence confided to a friend the secret hope that his memoir might join the canon of the very best of English literature.”
But every subject who sets out to write an autobiography must hope, even if secretly, that it will find its place in the canon and achieve a life of its own, whether as a kick in the pants for a generation, like The Autobiography of Malcolm X, or as a measured but powerful call to arms, like Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom.
Yousafzai’s book is firmly in the latter camp, an unabashed plea for a better and more inclusive world. “Peace in every home, every street, every village, every country – this is my dream. Education for every boy and every girl in the world.”
Yousafzai is only 16, and yet she acts with the authority of someone much older, as if she doesn’t have the luxury of waiting to grow up. It was uncanny to see her speak at the UN this summer on her 16th birthday, less than a year after she’d been shot, sounding like she knew only podiums, and never fear. She wore a scarf that once belonged to her hero, Benazir Bhutto, and said, “One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world.”
The backlash against Yousafzai in her own country has been well-documented. The very success that propelled her onto the Daily Show and into Angelina Jolie’s sphere of influence makes her a Western-tainted object of suspicion. But it seems clear that those who dislike change also dislike her because she’s a rebel with a cause, a born politician with charisma and a platform.
At one point in her book, she describes visiting the seaside in Karachi with her Aunt Najma. Her aunt burst into tears, having wanted to lay eyes on the sea for her whole life. She’d lived in Karachi on the Arabian Sea for 30 years, but her husband would never take her to visit it, and it was inconceivable she’d go alone.
Yousafzai, however, plans to cross the sea. She ponders the prison that society has built for women like her aunt: “Nowhere is it written in the Quran that a woman should be dependent on a man. The word has not come down from the heavens to tell us that every woman should listen to a man.”
Yousafzai says that she wants to be a politician when she’s older. She has a message, and a megaphone. No wonder they’re afraid.
Elizabeth Renzetti is a Globe and Mail columnist and feature writer.