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An Unproductive Woman by Khaalidah…
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An Unproductive Woman

by Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali

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Where I got the book: free copy from the author in exchange for an honest review.

Going to Smashwords, where I originally got the book, I see it's been unpublished: I hope this means that the author has pulled it for editing and re-issuing. Because it needs both. Can I hope that she's been signed by someone? Because this writer is definitely a diamond in the rough. Anyway, this review comes with the warning that it may not pertain to the version you, Dear Reader, eventually read, but to an earlier incarnation.

First, the whole issue of "good writing" vs "technically correct writing". There were many technical flaws in this novel, from structural snafus to unstable POV to incorrect word usage, but that's very common in a first-time writer who hasn't used an editor. If you hang around writing groups you'll see flawed writing that's just plain ol' bad writing and is pretty much unsalvageable, and flawed writing that's still good writing. An Unproductive Woman is in the latter category, which means that my rating knocks off a star for not using an editor (or subjecting the writing to a rigorous but encouraging writer group) but is high to indicate my overall enjoyment of the story and the author's overall abilities with the written word.

The story is gripping, if a little over-the-top and soap-operaish in places. It's set in Senegal: one of my peeves is that it took most of the book to work this out, and I would have liked more scene-setting at the outset and some more description of locales and environments. This is not only an African setting but a Muslim African setting, and Western readers may receive many small culture shocks and a less-than-flattering view of themselves. I loved that; one of the beauties of literature is this ability to challenge our ideas and worldview while emphasizing our common humanity.

I won't over-discuss the plot, as it may have changed a little when the new edition comes out. Adam and Asabe have been married for several years but remain childless. Even though Adam always promised Asabe that he would never take a second wife, he is now aging and desperate for a son to replace, in a sense, his unacknowledged son by a white American convert; he was unable to face the shame of bringing home a Western wife (told you there were culture shocks). His desperation leads him to seek out a 14-year-old girl as his bride, and he is eventually forced by circumstances to accept a third, more difficult wife. And lots and lots of things happen in the birth, death and marriage departments...but the story is ultimately one of redemption through love, the focus of which is the long-suffering Asabe, who turns out to be far from unproductive in many senses of the word. It's a family story, and the emotions will resonate with readers who are able to stuff their own cultural prejudices under a blanket and learn something about the world outside their own experience.

Talking about learning something, I would have loved a glossary of the Arabic terms used and their religious overtones. And I was curious about which language the characters were speaking; would it have been French or an ethnic language? I see from the author's bio that she's American-born, so perhaps that explains why the only non-English terms used were generic Muslim terms (a bit like the way the Catholic church used to use Latin), but this speaks again to the need to ground the story more firmly in its setting.

I would love to see this author write about the experience of growing up Muslim in America, by the way, without sugar-coating or over-evangelizing (if I can use that term in a Muslim context) the message. I did detect a teeny bit of the "our way is better" rhetoric common to writers with strong religious views; this always runs the danger of alienating people of different faiths (Christian authors take note!), and imho the best approach is simply to paint the picture without applying labels to it. Intelligent readers will have their ideas sufficiently challenged by a clear, unadorned description of a life they don't know. ( )
  JaneSteen | Jun 20, 2012 |
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