On Tuesday 9 October 2012, the Taliban shot 16-year-old Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai at close range as she returned home by bus. Her injuries were life threatening, her recovery miraculous. Since that fateful day in October, Malala’s world has been turned upside down. Now the youngest ever nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, the teenager’s international fame and support for her campaign have come at a cost: unable to return to Pakistan for security reasons, Malala has had to say goodbye to her much loved home in the Swat Valley and relocate with her family to England. Combining a youthful narrative with eloquent messages to her attackers, and written alongside leading foreign correspondent Christina Lamb, I Am Malala is a poignant tale of the real girl behind the headlines.
Malala Yousafzai’s memoir certainly deserves praise for its handling of the personal and the political. Co-author Christina Lamb’s expertise on Pakistan is evident throughout, but journalistic fact by no means dominates the book. Instead, as Malala sweeps through her country’s history in the opening chapters, political detail is imbued with emotion and anecdote, and each major event in Pakistani history, from Pashtun heritage to the assassinations of Benazir Bhutto and Osama bin Laden, is contextualised by tales of Malala’s own town, family and friends. Malala’s memories and thoughts are consequently set against a vivid backdrop of tall mountains, bustling bazaars and a proudly traditional and above all hospitable people. In turn, this makes the experience of reading I Am Malala as painful as it is pleasurable when Taliban leaders like Fazlullah come to visit terror and injustice upon her nation.
Despite the historical and political merits of the novel, I Am Malala is chiefly autobiographical. Malala is without doubt wise beyond her years, academically dazzling and morally inspiring – indeed her address to the UN, which received a standing ovation, is testament to this. The author confirms her campaigner status throughout, recalling the sight of malnourished and uneducated Pashtun children foraging in scrapyards as the inspiration in her fight for universal access to education. However, in I Am Malala it is Miss Yousafzai’s playful teenage narration that really charms. The world seemingly can’t get enough of her, but Malala remains grounded and writes off her numerous awards and accolades with modesty, deference even, telling readers of her penchant for Selena Gomez, her teenage insecurities and her continual struggle with her two younger brothers, never mind the Taliban. Statements such as, ‘Sometimes I think it’s easier to be a Twilight vampire than a girl in Swat’, though, are bittersweet; a constant reminder of the atrocity that the Taliban committed against an innocent sixteen-year-old.
Interestingly, I Am Malala is as much about Malala’s heroic father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, as it is the girl herself. A well-respected headmaster who came from humble beginnings, Mr Yousafzai has played a fundamental role as an educational activist in Pakistan, with his defiant leadership of a girls’ school resulting in several death threats from the Taliban, often forcing him to flee from home. Malala portrays her father as a loveable but by no means perfect figure – a man who married for love and yet, like his daughter, retains a great respect for Islamic teachings. Indeed, debate is divided over this man: some question whether his liberal parenting was responsible for Malala’s attack, whilst others suggest that it is Ziauddin, and not his daughter, who should have been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. In I Am Malala however, Ziauddin’s love for his family is unquestionable. Although in the early stages of Malala’s recovery, her absent smile served as a constant reminder for Ziauddin of the repercussions of his campaigning, both father and daughter hold firm in their belief that they should continue to fight against the Taliban. One thing’s for sure: without Ziauddin and his determination for greater equality in Pakistan, there would be no Malala as we know her today.
So, fellow students, as January falls and we head back to St Andrews full of resolutions for the new year, consider taking a copy of I Am Malala with you on your return journey. By turns readable, humorous, tragic and inspiring, Malala Yousafzai’s autobiography won’t disappoint.