Author: Joan Abelove (1998)
Publisher: Puffin Books
Edition: Paperback 2000
Category: Fiction – Young adult
I saw this book at one of the big bookstores downtown and just couldn’t take my eyes off the cover. I was fascinated by the pattern of the tattoo and perhaps because it is kinda greenish. I assume this is Alicia’s picture, the main character of the book. The background location was her village of Poincushmana, located deep inside the Peruvian Jungle of Amazon. It was during early 1970s. Alicia’s tribe is called Isabo, the people of little monkeys. “Go and come back” is said as “catanhue” in Isabo language to reply when someone says good bye.
Alicia, in my opinion, is a sweet and sensitive person. She thinks and considers others’ feeling before she does something or says something so that it wouldn’t hurt people. Alicia felt herself to be less attractive because she is rather serious and skinny compared to Elena, her cousin (also her best friend), who is short, fat, with round cheeks and has a big hearty laugh. Definition of beauty for the Isabos reflects the culture and lifestyle. A beauty is for someone who is fat and round (because eating meat was quite luxurious in the village, perhaps only once a week after the men returned from hunting), has flattened forehead, has bind anklets and wears loads of beads and accessories.
Days at the Poincushmana changed one day after two white females (nawa) anthropologists arrived to live with the Isabos for one year, in exchange for medicine supplies. They were doing research for their thesis.
It turned out that these two nawa were weird (because they wore pants though they didn’t have penises), stingy (they had so many things and never shared, so the Isabos had to steal from them), lazy (never worked like any of Isabos women, only sitting and writing and asking so many questions) and impolite (they were so dirty and insulting the cleanliness of the village because they didn’t wet their hairs on morning showers while morning is the most important time to start your day).
The difference in thinking and sharing is part of one’s upbringing. To survive in their jungle, Alicia and the Isabos were used to share everything (especially food) with everyone. Alcohol is a famous thing in the jungle because its taste and effects to the drinkers could lighten a party, thus the presence of alcohol in the village for the Isabos means party time. In contrast, that wasn’t the case with Margarita and Joanna, because they came from America, they were more used to alcoholic drinks.
Alicia and the Isabos only knew their own world so they thought their culture was the correct one. Alicia believed that these nawa were very ignorant about many things, so she tried to help them to understand her culture. I have been to a similar situation so I could feel the confusions, angers and depressions of Margarita and Joanna being strangers in the middle of the Isabos. It’s like whatever you do is always wrong, even though you’ve tried so hard to please them. It’s never going to be enough!
Alicia’s decision to adopt one nawa baby emphasised more of her personality. She was only a teenager and still unmarried; young and naive, I suppose. Adopting a nawa baby is surely one big responsibility even for adults in her village. But from Alicia’s perspective, she was just saving a life and it had nothing to do with skin colours. She did try hard to care for the baby. Her motherhood ability was provided by nature (Sure every woman has the thing. Remember when we were young we used to play with dolls and barbies pretending they were our kids? :).
As the book is targeted for younger readers, the flow is simple and easy to follow. I could easily imagine how the village looks like with its neat lines of river, houses, path and kitchens, as described by the author. The wordings are a mixture of English and Isabo, which confused me in the beginning. Nevertheless, I could grasp some Isabo words later on to add onto my vocabulary database, how cool is that? hehe… ;)
Cultural clashes on the story reminded me of my first months in the foreign country where I now live. Trust me, we could always learn something good from other cultures by being open-minded (listen more and ask more, that really helps). With that, foreign country would not be so “foreign” in the end. Hahuetian raibirai, whatever that would be.