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On Sophia Al-Maria’s The Girl Who Fell to Earth


Remember the early 1990s, the years that “punk broke” in Washington State. It’s late spring there, and the lilac bushes are beginning to bloom. Although the first Gulf War has ended with a “victory” for the American-led coalition forces, the USA, and most of the West, is facing yet another financial downturn. To make ends meet, Gale, a young mother from Puyallup, Washington, is forced to take on several jobs. Sadly, Gale’s elderly mother has just been moved to a home, and Gale must sell her childhood farm to cover these additional costs. One of Gale’s two young daughters, Sophia, now reaching adolescence, has just returned from visiting Grandma. It was a strange visit; although Grandma is senile, she mentioned that her lilacs must be flowering about now. Touched by this moment of clarity, Sophia decides to sneak back on the farm, now in a developer’s hands, to pick a few bushes to bring back. But to Sophia’s surprise, the house in which she herself spent some of her youth and the entire farm have been bulldozed and paved over. Now it’s Sophia’s turn for clarity: no matter were she travels, the slow grey march of concrete urbanism is always just around the corner. No, this is not some nostalgia story. This is just one of the many tumbles our protagonist Sophia Al-Maria takes in her alluring new memoir The Girl Who Fell to Earth.

Sophia, or in some instances in the book, Safya, is not your average “girl.” In fact, she is the product of an unlikely union. Her father, Matar, is a Bedouin from the Gulf who, after a healthy dose of TV, yearned for far-off travel. Piqued by the mysteries of space after staring up at the desert stars, Matar decides to go to Seattle, the home of the “Space Needle.” Instead, he lands in nearby Tacoma, which is no substitute utopia. Soon lost in a rainy metropolis, and dressed in a secondhand suit that is “pink” and “spongy” like the feel of a “goat’s tongue,” Matar finds himself accidently eating a box of laundry detergent he mistook for a box of Corn Flakes. Gale, a Washington farm girl, spies this “very, very lonesome” “spooked horse” and is quickly endeared; the two share a drink, head out on a road trip, and the rest is history. Differences between the two are quickly reconciled; Gale learns Arabic and the teachings of Islam, while Matar learns to swim. But Matar again feels the pangs of wanderlust, and returns to the Gulf to work on an oil rig. Although at first Sophia stays in Washington, she later ping-pongs between the Pacific Northwest and the Gulf, affording the memoir the stuff of a “cultural whiplash” journey, leaving Sophia feeling like a “deep-sea diver, adjusting constantly to the pressures of the two very different environments.”

These pressures are what the reader expects, but they are also a bit surprising. On her first visit to her paternal homeland, Sophia is thrust into a byzantine labyrinth of tribal relations and social codes as she tries to draw a star map of her new-found “cousins,” numbering in the dozens. Even more jarring is the realization that Matar has taken on not only a second life, but also a second wife in addition to Gale. At various points in the memoir, Gale’s nuclear family tries to coexist with these extended relatives—at first by moving with Matar’s second family into a high-rise in the Gulf that is well beyond Matar’s means—but they ultimately fail. Sophia is whisked back to Washington, only to be later sent back to the Gulf to learn some discipline in what Gale regards as a conservative society. Ironically, Sophia finds that many of the films, games, and music banned by her mother are not restricted in her “other” residence.

Fans of both film and music might hear an echo in the book’s title of Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 sci-fi film The Man Who Fell to Earth—starring Sophia’s first crush, and the source of her first profound thrill for creation, David Bowie. Through reading various passages, we learn that reconstitution is what attracted Sophia to Bowie, who, through his stage persona Ziggy Stardust, suggested the way toward “creating an alter ego or curating one’s own personal mythology.” And it is with this idea that the memoir makes its first of several moves toward another genre, that of the bildungsroman.

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