A catalyst for sparking conversations on complex social issues like diversity, bullying, and the effects of prejudice, Alan Gratz’s novel Code of Honor raises social consciousness and invites collaborative conversation about tough topics. Much like Maria Padian’s novel Out of Nowhere (2013), Gratz uses a sports story to explore the contemporary topic of cultural collisions. Both books embody the definition of Cultural Identity Literature (CIL).
I coined the term CIL to enlarge the traditional term multicultural literature. As a category of literature, CIL also addresses issues of power and oppression and provides an opportunity to view these issues from a different perspective, thereby inspiring empathy-building. The force of such literature is in its ability to engage the reader and to break through barriers.
Just as Padian does with her Somali characters, Gratz stretches the reader’s vision through his protagonist Kamran Smith, a high school senior whose life at the novel’s beginning seems charmed. A star running back, Kamran is homecoming king and dates beautiful homecoming queen, Julia Gary. He has dreams of going to West Point to follow in his brother Darius’s footsteps as an Army Ranger. All of Kamran’s dreams are destroyed when Darius is accused of being a radical Islamic terrorist and Arizona congresswoman rescinds Kamran’s letter of nomination.
In the wake of Darius’ acts of apparent terrorism, Kamran becomes a target for the hatred and bullying of others who call him “towel head” or “camel jockey.” But he’s Persian American, not Arab, and Persians are often Shi’a Muslims, not Sunni Muslims like al-Qaeda. Still, Kamran can feel the suspicion in the eyes of his classmates and feel the way people watch him simply because he has “the same nose and skin and hair as some monster who’d once hijacked a plane” (23). Because he’s olive skinned and because people care little for the facts, Kamran experiences the derision and hatred of the ignorant.
Despite video evidence that shows Darius attacking the US embassy in Turkey, Kamran refuses to believe that his brother is a traitor to his country. After all, the two boys grew up reenacting mash-ups of old Persian legends in which Rostam and Siyavash vanquished contemporary villains. They lived by a Code of Honor, seven rules that focused on strength, bravery, loyalty, perseverance, truth, helping the helpless, and killing monsters. Living a kind of faith, the two boys would rather die than break their Code.
As evidence against his brother mounts with additional videos released to the American public, Kamran remains adamant that Darius has been brainwashed or that he is a prisoner being used as a pawn. Although Kamran shares his theories with his parents, they are too sad and numbed by shock to listen. When Kamran is captured and detained by the Department of Homeland Security, he repeatedly discloses his theories to government officials, but they have twisted the Code to fit their version of Darius, a radical fighting against American tyranny and punishing the infidels for their crimes against Islam. Their theories plant a seed of doubt in Kamran’s mind, and Kamran wonders if the brother he thought he knew is capable of such betrayal.
The glimmer of hope reignites when Mickey Hagan, an analyst with the CIA who was born in Northern Ireland, befriends Kamran. A kindred spirit of sorts, Mickey tells Kamran about his own brother, Conor Hagan, who joined the Irish Republican Army and what that experience did to alter his life. Whether Mickey believes Kamran or simply wants to help him accept the truth about his own brother, together the two translate the multiple clues that Kamran finds in the videos, clues that form a kind of code that only Kamran would understand. Consumed by his mission to prove that Darius is not a traitor and to live out his Code, Kamran eventually decides he needs to escape his captors, to find and rescue his brother.
Using his football training and his coach’s words, “No doubts. No second guesses. No distractions” (27), Kamran sets out to vindicate his brother and to set right again, his world gone rotten. He wants to return to simpler times, when he wasn’t thought of as a terrorist. He wants to be “Smith, number 13, running back” (32), part of a team, cheered for, encouraged, and judged only on his efforts and accomplishments. Although he won’t give up on his brother, Kamran isn’t sure what he will do with the truth once he discovers it and whether he is capable of killing all monsters, as the Code dictates.
Readers will likely find Gratz’s action-packed story both compelling and enlightening. The analogy drawn between the prejudice Kamran encounters and that Mickey experiences with the Protestant and Catholic conflict in Ireland provides a learning tool and opens discussion about what prejudice feels like and how we might mitigate human cruelty and the tendency to hate, reject, or ignore what we don’t know or even try to understand. The wall Mickey describes—to divide the Catholics and the Protestants—is reminiscent of the Berlin Wall and reminded me of A Night Divided by Jennifer Nielsen, another good example of CIL.
With this novel, Gratz encourages ally behavior, cultural border crossing, seeing from multiple perspectives, challenging dominant modes of knowing, and producing knowledge from facts. As CIL, his book works to dispel some of the myths and misperception about diverse cultures. Reflective of our ever-growing diverse society, young adult literature includes a growing body of work—like Gratz’s—that represents different ethnic and cultural groups. Providing access to these texts potentially increases understanding of self and others because CIL can stretch our vision of ourselves and our world.
- Posted by Donna