Shiraz, Yasmin (2008). Retaliation. Rolling Hills Press. 264 pages.
Author of two motivational books for teen girls of color (Blueprint for My Girls, Blueprint for My Girls in Love, and The Blueprint Guide to Motivation and Success), Yasmin Shiraz has also written two fictional and street-lit inspired novels for adults. Retaliation is her first novel for young adults. Apparently inspired by the teens she encounters when visiting schools and youth facilities, Retaliation is one of those books–like the oeurve of Alan Sitomer and Rikers High by Paul Volponi–that has ideology firmly on display.
The novel begins with the attack of seventeen-year-old Tashera Odom; while walking home from school, she is jumped by three teen girls who disguise their identities with sunglasses and hoodies. While she recovers in the hospital, her mother, ex-gang-banger brother, and her boyfriend seek justice for what at first seems like a random act of violence but which is later revealed to be a revenge beating perpetrated by Tashera’s boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend. Notably shaken by the experience, Tashera begins writing letters to Yasmin Shiraz (that’s right: the author has inserted herself in the novel as a character) and asking for guidance. While Tashera’s concern about the violence in her community seems real, that the fictional character reached out to the real Shiraz seemed to serve more of a self-aggrandizing purpose than real narrative function (kind of like when Volponi inserted himself–very thinly disguised–as a character in Rikers High). Meanwhile, with three people on the hunt for Tashera’s attackers, shit starts to get twisted: Tashera’s mom gets in a physical fight with the mother of one of the attackers, Tashera’s brother calls in gang favors to arrange for the kidnapping and torture of another attacker, and Tashera’s boyfriend attempts (and fails) at blackmailing the kidnapped attacker.
It is clear that Shiraz intends to use the novel as a platform to discourage urban violence and to motivate young readers; however, she does this at the expense of her characters, many of whom are the subjects of discussion by the HNICs who hover on the novel’s peripheries. Additionally, Shiraz never really explores the motivation of Tashera’s attackers. While the narrative notes that Tashera’s boyfriend had essentially used one of the attackers for sex and had “allowed” and even encouraged his friends to have sex with her, too, the blame for this offense is placed pretty squarely on the shoulders of the ex-girlfriend, and not on the boyfriend himself. Admittedly, the novel includes a series of “discussion questions” in its back matter, one of which raises the issue briefly; however, this novel about retaliation is more focused on the wrongness of Tashera’s attack rather than its arguable justification or even explanation.
I’m not sure if I’m disappointed in this novel because it offended my feminist sensibilities, because it included the cheap trick of author-insertion, or it just wasn’t “street” enough for me. Sometimes I wonder if urban or street fiction for teens is an impossibility: as the adult versions revel in the bad behavior of its characters and trust (adult) readers to interpret this in terms of their own morality, the teen versions seem invested in pushing a moral lesson that might already be embedded in the text but that seems skewed and forced when cranked to the surface.