A review by Nalini Haynes
Lilian is a Ugandan girl dreaming of teaching while adults tell her she won’t amount to anything. The best she can hope for is to marry and keep her husband happy. At home her aunt teaches her to satisfy her husband sexually. While at school her education includes humiliations by wealthier students and male teachers. Outside of school, her mother expects Lilian to serve her father and brother, going hungry while watching them eat, and working while they sleep. However, Lilian will be change.
I Am Change tells Lilian’s story, the story of several Ugandan girls combined into one fiction novel. Suzy Zail met the titular Lilian, Namukasa Usula Sarah and many others here in Australia and in a research trip to Uganda. Zail’s version is a fictional compilation that engages the reader with compelling characters via a realistic yet engaging plot. This is a story that matters. What matters even more is telling Ugandan women that they can rise up, and telling privileged women stories to inspire empathy, understanding and feminist sisterhood.
Change vs the albino
Lilian and her mother are walking home from the market when they see a white girl with a flat nose.
“I don’t want you talking to that girl.” [Lilian’s] mother grabbed her by the skirt.
“The mzungu?” Lilian asked.
“The mzungu?” Lilian’s mother frowned. “White people are good luck. That one brings bad fortune. Touch an albino and bad luck will follow you the rest of your days.” (P. 52).
This is an accurate depiction of how people with albinism are treated in some African countries. In other countries, like Nigeria, church-mandated exorcisms can kill if families do not abandon disabled children or sell them to human traffickers to avoid the exorbitant prices pastors charge for exorcisms. In Uganda, people with albinism are hunted for their body parts. This leads to the common African belief that people with albinism do not die, they just disappear.
Late in I Am Change, ‘albinos’ are briefly mentioned again as an oppressed people who also need liberation. Zail’s novel stands out as touching on current cultural attitudes towards people with albinism in Uganda, although she does not delve into the experience of people with albinism.
Research vs misappropriation
Suzy Zail dedicated herself to researching this book before she began writing it. The foreword, written by Namukasa Nusulu Sarah, talks about Zail’s research. Research and Namukasa acting as an editor (aka ‘sensitivity reader’) gives I Am Change authenticity and authority. Misappropriation is when an author uses the stories of vulnerable minority groups without respect, without research, and without a sensitivity reader. Zail’s stupendous efforts to collate real stories resulted in an iconic Australian novel. I hope it will be instrumental in challenging teens in Australian high school literature and social science classes.
I Am Change is a compelling story about a teenage girl growing up in Uganda who dreams of becoming a teacher. Lilian is the embodiment of real Ugandan women so Australians like me can learn from her story. I hope feminists embrace Lilian as an avatar of the oppressed and a prototype of emancipation. Feminism is too often divided into classes: white middle-class non-disabled women only seek personal emancipation. I hope I Am Change inspires teen and adult book club discussions that extend beyond the theoretical into supportive action. I Am Change is a must-read.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Imprint: Black Dog Books, Walker Australia-HEDS
Release Date: August 1, 2019
Format: Paperback, pp.340 plus extras
Category: fiction, Young Adult