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other words for home

16 july 2021

Jasmine Warga's Other Words for Home is an incisive children's novel about moving to a new country, growing up, and trying to get oriented in a new culture while staying oriented in one's culture of origin – even as that culture of origin faces violence and disintegration, continents away.

Other Words for Home starts in Syria and moves to Ohio. Jude, the narrator, tells her story in a loosely-organized free verse, really prose that sometimes breaks its parallelisms into short lines for effect. Jude's family runs a prosperous shop on the Syrian coast, till the wars of the mid-2010s divide her family. Her father stays behind literally to mind the store; her brother goes off to fight against the regime; and Jude and her pregnant mother go to Cincinnati, where Jude's Arab-American uncle is a physician with an American wife and daughter.

Some of what ensues is standard new-kid-in-school material; some has the oddly generic texture of many immigrant stories where a recital of foods from home, with their tastes and smells, is a standard trope: different foods, but a reduction to the same experience in story after story. It's a real enough experience but also part of a fiction writer's stock of expressions.

Some of Other Words for Home, though, is very specific to its era, the people it evokes, and the unique dynamic of contact among them. Muslims aren't persecuted in Warga's Ohio, but they're not exactly welcome either. Jude and her mother have come to the United States seeking safety and freedom, but some Americans who encounter them are angry because they express freedom in their own way. "You're in America now. You're free," one staring woman seems to say to Jude's mother when she disapproves of her hijab (187) – not realizing that being able to decide to wear a hijab is a profoundly American ideal.

By the time Jude tries out for the school musical, she has reached menarche and starts to wear a hijab of her own. Another kid in the cast doubts that the directors will let Jude wear it onstage (really a way of doubting that she'll really get to play the part). Jude thinks:

She is asking me to choose
between two things
without realizing it is her
and people like her
that think you have to choose (243)
Being forced to choose is the opposite of freedom.

Other Words for Home is not all fraught. Against worry about home and anxiety over family tensions, Warga sets the joys of learning a new language when you are a high-verbal kid, and the delight of making friends, some who share your experiences and some eager to share their unshared experiences with you.

America, says Jude,

like every other place in the world,
is a place where some people sleep
and some people
other people
dream. (82)
Sometimes you want to say to Americans "wake up" but maybe a better exhortation would be "start dreaming."

Warga, Jasmine. Other Words for Home. New York: Balzer + Bray [HarperCollins], 2019.