In the last chapter of my dissertation, I examine the rhetoric around girls’ education in the Global South through “texts” such as the UN’s Girl Up campaign materials, I Am Malala and Malala Yousafzai’s speeches, and the docu-drama Girl Rising. When I talked about the work, several people asked me if I had read the young readers edition of I Am Malala. Because I was kind of disappointed in the New York Times bestselling edition written with Christina Lamb, and because much of my dissertation focuses on how girls tell their own stories, I decided I should check it out. Surprisingly, I thought the young readers edition was the better of the two books. My (admittedly pretty skeptical) assumption was that the young readers edition would be a dumbed-down, cleaned up version of Malala’s story. Although I think that the Christina Lamb version does give more context to the story, which is important and useful, I think the biggest difference between the two books is that the latter sounds more like the Malala we hear in her speeches. The young readers edition focuses more on Malala’s story itself and uses more direct language as well. Not only was it more enjoyable to read, it seemed more like she had actually written it herself.
Narrative Voice and Scope
Honestly, I don’t think that the young readers edition is an easier read on the basis of language. I think that its marketing as for young people rests on the assumption that young people would be less interested in the history of the Swat valley and of Malala’s family (which is, perhaps, a problematic assumption). The part of the first I Am Malala that bothered me most was the emphasis put on her father’s growth and education. I think that some of the background about Pakistan and Pashtun culture was really helpful, and the young readers edition could have used more of it, but the narrative in the young readers edition, like the tone of voice, focuses more immediately on Malala’s experiences. For example, after the prologue, the Lamb edition opens with the celebration of Malala’s birth–unusual for her culture–before transitioning into five chapters of historical and cultural context. In the young readers edition, the first chapter “Free as a Bird” starts with an introduction to Malala as she is today, weaving in details about her family, her village, and her culture. It dives right into her story, giving some details about her family, but excluding the narrative of her father’s education that the Lamb book starts with. Although the details about Ziauddin Yousafzai and Pashtun culture are, no doubt, important for understanding where Malala comes from, the young readers edition is more focused on her memories of her life experiences.
The young readers edition also portrays her mother as a more active and included member of the family, putting more emphasis on the work she did in her community, feeding and housing people who needed assistance. In one part, this service is depicted as part of Pashtun hospitality, but it is also attributed to her mother’s character, presenting her as a brave and determined counterpart to Malala’s father.
Later, when telling the story of her shooting, the story relies more on her experiences as a narrative strategy to depict trauma. While the Lamb version goes into extensive detail about Malala’s medical treatment and the decisions that were made by doctors, politicians, and Malala’s parents before and following her transfer to Manchester, the young readers edition cuts from her shooting (“The last thing I remember is thinking about my exam the next day. After that everything went black.” (130)) to her waking up, disoriented, in Manchester days later (“I woke up on 16 October to a lot of people standing around looking at me. They all had four eyes, two noses, and two mouths. I blinked, but it did no good. I was seeing everything in double.” (133)). Whereas the Lamb edition arranges the events after the shooting into a detailed, linear narrative, the young readers edition tells the story as Malala learned the details. After she wakes up in Manchester, Malala details her confusion about what happened to her, where she was, and who would pay the bills. Eventually, she learns the details of her injuries and medical treatment in bits and pieces leading up to her reunion with her family almost two weeks later. At the level of language, it also presents her questions to the doctors in the limited English that she could manage while still recovering from the swelling of her brain. These details are also included in the previous version, but they are contextualized and reflected on, rather than simply being included as part of the narrative voice. For example, while the Lamb edition includes scans of the notebook she wrote in and lumps many of her questions together (275-83), the young readers edition includes them as part of the telling of the narrative. “Hwo did this to me? I wrote, my letters scrambled. What happened to me?” (143). I think the difference here is that one book shows the scrambling as evidence of trauma and the other uses it to convey the confusion she felt. Similarly, in the Lamb edition, Malala is given a white teddy and the confusion she has over its color is told in one paragraph. In the young readers edition, the teddy is presented as green at first and later as white, mirroring Malala’s experience of disorientation:
Lamb edition: “Everything was so mixed up in my mind. I thought the teddy bear Dr. Fiona had given me was green and had been swapped for a white one. ‘Where’s the green teddy?’ I kept asking, even though I was told over and over there was no green teddy. The green was probably the glow of the walls in the intensive care unit, but I’m still convinced there was a green teddy.” (278)
Young Readers Edition: “A lady walked in and told me her name was Dr. Fiona Reynolds. She spoke to me as if we were old friends. She handed me a green teddy bear–which I thought was an odd color for it–and a pink notebook” (136). Later, when she is moved to another room: “Then I saw that my green teddy bear was gone. A white one had taken its place. I felt a special affection for the green teddy bear, sine he was by my side that first day; he helped me. I took the notebook and wrote, Where’s the green teddy? No one gave me the answer I wanted. They said it was the same teddy that had been by my side the first day. The lights and the walls had given him a green glow, but the teddy was white, they said. He was always white” (139).
Many, many narrative elements are shared between the two books, but consistently the young readers edition tells them in a more direct manner, as though Malala is telling them to you as a reader. My impression is that in the Lamb edition Malala’s experiences are woven into Lamb’s research in a way that distances the narrative voice from Malala whereas the young readers edition is more directly Malala’s story and therefore either reflects more narrative agency on her part or at least reads as though it does.
The epilogue includes this aside, that I love for its directness and because its presented as a rather massive parenthetical. It makes up half of a paragraph about her trip to the United States to promote the first I Am Malala and the people she met there, including President Obama and his family:
(I was respectful, I believe, but I told him I did not like his drone strikes on Pakistan, that when they kill one bad person, innocent people are killed too, and terrorism spreads more. I also told him that if America spent less money on weapons and war and more on education, the world would be a better place. If God has given you a voice, I decided, you must use it even if it is to disagree with the president of the United States.) (190)
Rock on, girl.
In Soft Weapons: Autobiography in Transit, Gilian Whitlock (following Gerard Genette) distinguishes between peritexts and epitexts. Peritexts include “everything between and on the covers, and reading the covers of life narratives is particularly important here.” The epitexts are the discourses, reviews, correspondence, and other factors surrounding the publication of the autobiography. In Malala’s case, I think that reading the covers of the books (shown above) is perhaps particularly helpful in thinking about the relationship between them. In I Am Malala (the young readers edition), Malala writes that she wants to be known not as “‘the girl who was shot by the Taliban’ but as ‘the girl who fought for education'” (191). The subtitle of the Christian Lamb version is “The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot By the Taliban.” The subtitle of the young readers edition is “How One Girl Stood Up for Education and Changed the World.” I could be wrong, but to me this change together with that quotation (which, for what it’s worth, is in both versions), signals that Malala herself may have had more control or more say in the production of the young readers edition.
Visually, the young readers edition shows an older (less photoshopped?) Malala. The back covers, however, are more interesting here. On the back of the Lamb version, there is a picture of Malala looking up at her father, which, I think reflects the emphasis on his work and their relationship in that text. The back cover of the young readers edition shows Malala, facing away from camera, and, unlike the other, includes text from the story. Significantly, the text pulled tells about her gratitude for surviving and her perspective on the changes her injuries made on her face. The quotation also distinguishes between what she feels and what people expected her to feel: “I realized that she’d been expecting me to cry. Maybe the old Malala would have cried. But when you’ve nearly lost your life, a funny face in the mirror is simply proof that you are still here on this earth.” I think the covers also reflect a greater focus on Malala’s voice in the young readers edition.
I also found the acknowledgements section intriguing. In the acknowledgements to the young readers edition, Malala writes “This memoir would certainly not exist without the book written with Christina Lamb. We have relied on her extensive reporting and research, and I will always be thankful to her for helping me tun my words into a complete story” (196-7). In contrast she thanks Patricia McCormick who “worked with me to tell my story in a new way” (196). While Lamb has her own acknowledgements in the version she worked on, McCormick does not. Reading between the lines here, my conjecture is that under the guise of doing a young readers edition, Malala was given the opportunity to tell her story more focused on how she experienced it. I think it’s a safe bet to think that she was more directly involved with the production of the young readers version.
I’m going to do some follow-up to see if I can confirm that hypothesis. While I think the books work perhaps best together–I don’t want to discount the research and reporting that Christina Lamb did in Swat to give Malala’s experiences more familial and cultural context– if I had to pick just one to read, I’d go with the young readers edition.