"THOMAS SAID, “I thought of something you could do to impress me.”
“What?” I asked. It was Hamburger Day and I was tearing open a plastic packet of mustard.
“Have sex with me.”
“Okay,” I said.
“Really?” he said. For the first time in a long while, he sounded kind of friendly.
“Great,” he said. “When?”
“Whenever you want.”
“Well,” he said, “I guess we need to figure out a place first.”
“We can’t do it at my house,” I said. I couldn’t risk Mr. Vuoso and Zack telling on me again.
Thomas nodded. “We can do it at my house.”
“What about your parents?” I asked.
“They’ll be at work.”
“What if they come home?”
“They won’t. They never come home early.”
“I’ll have to walk home,” I said.
“You can take a taxi,” Thomas said. “I’ll pay for it.”
I thought about this, then said, “All right.”
“Can we do it today?” he asked.
“Do you have a condom?”
“Then we’ll have to wait until tomorrow. I have one at home I can bring.”
“Where’d you get it?”
“From Mr. Vuoso’s duffel bag.”
“I don’t want to use that racist’s condom.”
“You have to,” I said. “It’s the only one we have.”
Story continues here...
Interview with the author, Alicia Erian:
SB: I know you didn't write this as a Young Adult novel— and yet when I first read it, I thought, "This is a great story for anyone who is actually Jasira's age, 15." But YA novels aren't supposed show any pleasure in sex, are they? They are ultimate contradiction-- adolescent lives without sexual self-interest.
AE: The same week you told me you'd picked Towelhead for Best American Erotica, I was informed by The New York Public Library that the book had been named as one of their "Best YA Novels of the Year."
In all honesty, it's not a book I'd buy for a 14-year-old. But I would probably buy it for a 15 year old. I don't even know if there's a difference. However, I feel strongly that books are not like movies or TV. If a kid finds a book and wants to read it, that's her right. How many books did you and I read when we were younger that we "weren't supposed to?" The book that is given is very different from the book you take for yourself.
I was touched by Jasira's innocence about racism. She's constantly victimized by it, and yet her own concerns are that she might be at fault. She worries that her high school boyfriend Thomas will never forgive her for her parents' bigotry. She falls for the "You are racist unless you go to bed with me" line. What were you thinking about when you composed these scenes?
In high school i wanted to date a black kid named Andre, and my parents said I couldn't. My mother called my father, and he called and explained that this would ruin my reputation. He's Egyptian! My mom is white!
Several years later, my mom had a longterm black boyfriend. She admitted then that she was ashamed of having prevented me from seeing Andre in high school. My best friend at the time, Maureen, was horrified that I would listen to my parents, like the "Denise" character in Towelhead. She was the first person who got me thinking that I had my own mind, that I could disobey a parent. I'd never thought of that before.
Jasira is less of a weenie than I was. When I told Maureen about my parents' rules, I cried. That was part of what irritated her, I think. She was, like, "What's the matter with you? Your parents are retards. Don't be such a baby." As dopey as Jasira can be at times, I think of her as a wacky little warrior.
You did a good job of making me hate Jasira's mom and dad— I wanted to strangle them several times. Aside from their quirks, prejudices, and hangups, they were both supremely narcissistic. Am I reading too much into it?
Hell, no. I was raised by two Card-Carrying Narcissists. These people, they just destroy their kids. I had to write Towelhead to try to pay off my therapy bills!
Narcissists breed kids who are desperate for love and attention and make lots of stupid choices about how to get those things. One of my early inspirations for writing T-head was a comment my brother made about my father. He said, "I try to explain to my friends about Dad, and they all say, 'Oh, c'mon, he doesn't sound so bad.'" I felt terrible when my brother said this, that he didn't have the words to talk about our
Jasira makes a friend in a kindly, if ambivalent, feminist neighbor next door, who shares a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves. What about early feminism made a big impression on your sexuality?
It was just that: the books. My mother's copies of Our Bodies, Ourselves, The Joy of Sex , her Anais Nin collection. I spent a lot of time reading this stuff while she was at work. I didn't know it at the time, but it was Susan Brownmiller's book about rape, Against Our Will, that made the strongest, freakiest impression. I read it as porn, which I feel, to this day, that it is. Since porn isn't a dirty word to me, I don't mean this as an insult, but fact.
As a kid, I found the book scary and titillating. I knew what rape was, and I also grew afraid of it happening to me after reading this book. If it did ever happen to me, god forbid, my thoughts on this subject could change entirely. But as a kid, that book made me horny. I wasn't a particularly guilty kid, and am not a particular guilty adult— shame is my poison— so I was able to puzzle over how weird it was that this "bad stuff" turned me on. This concept figures heavily into my writing: the way things are vs. the way they should be.
I reject the idea that women are locked out of the huge sexual appetite club because that's for men. I love "male-gaze" pornography. I get irritated when other women try to tell me I'm not supposed to. What turns you turns you on. Feminism, to me, means in part that women are never asked to try to find something "a little more appropriate" to be turned on by.
When you consider your teenage self, what part of your sexuality remained essential, as you grew older, and what changed?
I'm pretty much the same cavewoman I've always been. However, after I got divorced, I was very careful to find someone who was as horny as I was. I was shocked by the number of men I met who weren't particularly interested in sex. Finally, though, I stumbled across the horniest man on the planet. He has a lot of testosterone, and is appropriately impressed by the fact that I do too. It's sexy to me that he's 47 and in such good working order.
Can you say anything about the film version in the works? What a great role for a young woman.
I can tell you that the movie is fucking awesome and it's going to blow people away. It'll come out this year, though I don't know when.
Alan Ball, the director, is a brilliant man, and Peter Macdissi, who plays Daddy, is unstoppable. You can't take your eyes off him.
Jasira is played by a newcomer named Summer Bishil and she's gorgeous, sexy, charming, funny, and so lovable.
Toni Collette plays the feminist neighbor, Melina, and Maria Bello plays Jasira's mom Gail. Thomas is played by a very cute young man named Eugene Jones, and Mr. Vuoso is played by Aaron Eckhart, who is unbelievably sexy and amazing.
Summer had just turned 18 when filming started last fall, and her mom was there every day on the set, supporting her. I think she's going to get a lot of attention after the film debuts. She deserves it.
Could you describe what a "proper" Arab-American girl growing up in the US is supposed to act like?
I'm so disconnected from Arab culture. I never wanted any part of it as a kid. It was all lumped in with my father, who I didn't like. My general impression has always been that sexuality is really a no-no. Talking about it, reflecting it in dress, attitude, whatever. Just: No.
The hard thing for someone who is an Arab, and living in the US, is that behavior inside your home isn't necessarily going to mesh with what's going on in the world around you. it's hard to flip those switches on and off, just because you happen to cross the threshold of your front door.
I consider myself a fierce feminist. My mother is too. She started an abortion fund in the late sixties for women who couldn't afford one. It only had $400 in it, but whatever. She does a lot of volunteer work for the League of Women Voters. Narcissism aside, she has great ideas about how things should be for women. Especially that women should have and enjoy sex and be at ease with their bodies.
How does your own family view your critique?
I don't speak to my father, but my brother does. He reports my father as having referred to me as "his daughter who makes her living off of how much she hates me." Apparently he doesn't tell people he has a daughter.
I'm so tough-hearted about him at this point in my life. It's probably a defense, but I find it funny, his commentary. He never thought I should be a writer. Never had faith in my abilities. It's funny now, tickling that fact in my head every now and then.
My mother is chagrined, but does her best. She has moments of great lucidity where she gasps at what a shitty parent she was, and says she hopes I can earn as much money off her as possible. Other times, though, she's defensive and kind of mean.
You obviously weren't writing an erotic book, per se, but you must have had some thoughts about how you wanted to handle the sex scenes... Tell me!
Oh, I'm almost always writing an erotic book. Here's something interesting: now that, for the first time in my life, I have a sex life that is up to my standards, I have almost no interest in writing about sex. For a long time it was what I wrote about, because I was so sorely lacking in it. I was managing my frustration.
Most sex scenes are best handled in a concrete and straightforward way. I like to think my sexual prose is the equivalent of a porno film, where there's not too much lovey-dovey stuff, in favor of lots of action. I like people to show their desire through their greediness. I like them to show their excitement through less-than-stellar choices made for the sole purpose of instant gratification. If I succeed in getting someone aroused with my work, it's because I've succeeded in removing all judgment from the scenario. I've reduced each character to the animal that he or she truly is. The End!