Her Story: Ladies In Literature is a special, month-long series on Pop! Goes The Reader in which we celebrate the literary female role models whose stories have inspired and empowered us since time immemorial. From Harriet M. Welsch to Anne Shirley, Becky Bloomwood to Hermione Granger, Her Story: Ladies In Literature is a series created for women, by women as thirty-nine authors answer the question: “Who’s your heroine?” You can find a complete list of the participants and their scheduled guest post dates Here!
About Tanaz Bhathena
Tanaz Bhathena was born in Mumbai and raised in Riyadh, Jeddah and Toronto. She is the winner of the 2009 MARTY for Emerging Literary Arts, a semi-finalist for the 2013 Jeffrey Archer Short Story Challenge and the Readers’ Choice pick for the 2015 U of T Magazine Short Story Contest. Her short stories have appeared in various journals, including Blackbird, Witness and Room Magazine. Her debut YA novel, Qala Academy, will be published by Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers / Macmillan in the fall of 2017.
I was twenty-one years old when I first found a blister on my shoulder, a nasty, scabby thing that wouldn’t go away no matter how many topical ointments I used. It would take a whole other year, a whole lot of pain, and several visits to the local dermatologist before I would discover the name of the disease that turned my skin into a patchwork of scars, that at one point had my hair falling off my scalp in chunks.
Pemphigus vulgaris or PV is an autoimmune blistering rash which does not have a cure. On nights, when even the brush of the softest surfaces could make my skin burn, I remembered a book I read long ago about a girl who dealt with a different kind of pain.
I first discovered Jane Eyre as an excerpt in my ninth grade English class in Saudi Arabia. In the excerpt, Jane is being bullied by her cousin John Reed – and she says this happens on a frequent basis – including incidents of John beating her bloody. This wasn’t the sort of female character I grown up adulating. Jane was, in the words of many, physically weak – certainly not a Bionic Six Meg or even a Darrell Rivers from Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers.
Yet, somehow, Jane was the first character I related to – having been bullied myself as a child in school – and I found myself more and more intrigued when she began to fight back against John, calling him a wicked and cruel boy, even though she knew there would be consequences to doing so. Wanting to know what happened to Jane when the excerpt ended, I went on to find the book at my local Jarir Bookstore and then went on further to read about her at boarding school and later as a governess for the Rochester mansion.
Jane, grown up, was quiet, yet plain-spoken, growing out of her difficult childhood with her wits and even humour intact. The ending of the book surprised me. I would not have expected happiness for the girl in the excerpt I’d read in school all those years ago, but here we were, and she’d somehow found it.
I was never confident about my looks as a teen. My high school and university years are littered with photos of me in glasses and a bad haircut. With PV scars, however, I looked like a strange, spotted creature that may have very well come from a swamp and it took a bigger toll on my self-esteem.
I was angry and bitter the way Jane was during her earlier years at Lowood boarding school, but I had no Helen Burns to calm me down. So I channeled my frustrations into writing. In writing, I found my spirituality, I found hope. For many years, I’d given up the idea of being a writer, pursuing accounting instead as a professional goal. My illness, in a strange way, gave me the opportunity to pursue my dreams instead, and I took advantage of it, the way Jane took advantage of the education Lowood provided.
“Even for me life had its gleams of sunshine.” As my treatment plan finally kicked and I got accepted into a creative writing program at Humber College, I began to understand that things could change for the better.
I have been in semi-remission from PV now for two years. My scars have mostly faded and my illness, to most, is nearly invisible now. No one knows if a blister slips in from time to time, sometimes on the roof of my mouth, sometimes behind a tooth. Living with a rare disease, for me, often means a silent battle of wills with an enemy that lives in my own body.
Jane Eyre taught me that strength can sometimes simply mean accepting your weaknesses. That sometimes, your hardships are nothing more than stepping stones to something greater than you ever could have imagined.
Title Qala Academy
Author Tanaz Bhathena
Intended Target Audience Young Adult
Genre & Keywords Contemporary, Realistic Fiction
To Be Published Fall 2017 by Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers
Find It On Goodreads
Zarin Wadia is 16, a bright and vivacious student, an orphan, a troublemaker whose romantic entanglements are the subject of endless gossip amongst the girls in her class. When she is found dead after a car accident on the Al-Harameen Expressway in Jeddah, with a Parsi boy who is not a student at Qala Academy, the religious police arrive and everything everyone thought they knew about Zarin is called into question.
Using the family as a lens for society, Qala Academy explores the themes of love, prejudice and gender discrimination in India and Saudi Arabia – two countries that are struggling to hold onto their traditions even as they adapt to a rapidly changing world – countries where female virtue is still inextricably linked to family honour.