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‘The Breadwinner’ May Not Have Been a Story for a White Woman to Tell

About a year ago, I was walking with my mother through a bookstore when we walked past a shelf with many copies of ‘The Breadwinner’ on display.

I remember my mother pointing out the book to me, and commenting on the name of the author: Deborah Ellis. My mother, who is a Pakistani immigrant, told me that she was not a fan of the book and introduced me to a new idea I had not thought about before. The idea of cultural and social lenses that we all possess.

The sociological theory is the idea that everyone has certain biased viewpoints to a given situation.

That there are many factors that influence a person’s view of the world, and how two people from different backgrounds will always view a situation differently. Many times, social lenses are used when talking about cultural or racial differences, and that someone from a different culture or race will never fully understand what it’s like for someone who does experience life in said race or culture.

We see this in our world every day. Many times minority groups are not taken seriously because of those in the majority. People have always had trouble understanding each other because we don’t know what it is like to be the other person. And that is the problem with The Breadwinner. 

Deborah Ellis, who is a white-Candian author, wrote The Breadwinner novel in the year 2000.

The book follows the story of 11-year-old Parvena who is forced to be the breadwinner for her family in a war-torn Taliban-era in Afghanistan. For Ellis’s research, she spent several months interviewing women and girls in refugee camps in Pakistan. The novel ended up being a huge success and ending up winning awards like the Peter Pan Prize and the Middle East Book Award. As much as I respect Ellis for advocating for things like the anti-war movement, and for spending the time she did talking to young refugees, I still feel like that is not enough. Deborah Ellis, like all of us, has her cultural lens as well and simply can not understand fully what it must be like for a young Afghani girl. She grew up in the safe first-world country that is Canada and has only traveled to the countries she writes about. Even though The Breadwinner is inspired by a real-life mother and daughter, the novel itself has a far more imaginative plot.

Image from the movie ‘The Breadwinner’

You would hope that when a movie adaptation came out, they would find people from the culture to help with the production, but alas, there was not a single Afghani or Pakistani person on the main production team, and it was even executively produced by Angelina Jolie. So now we have white celebrities telling us these types of stories?

I have found that in many cases, white people have had the need to tell stories in a point of view that is not their own. Movies like Slumdog Millionaire is a good example of this, where the direction, production, and screenplay were all done by white men, who could never understand what it is like for an Indian man in the Juhu slums of Mumbai.

What am trying to get at here is that I know how great of a thing empathy is.

I know it is important for us to try and understand each other, but maybe we were just simply never meant to tell each other’s stories. Each and every one of us has certain biases that will always prevent us from knowing what it is like to be someone else, and that is okay. Maybe we just need to make room for people to tell those stories to us, and support them full-heartily.

And if you now want to watch a movie that does not have the same cultural lenses that The Breadwinner has, I would recommend the beautifully animated film Persepolisbased on the graphic novel by Iranian woman Marjane Satrapi, it follows her story as a young girl during the Iranian Revolution. Satrapi helped write and direct the movie as well.

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Written By

Nilofer Rolston is a Pakistani Canadian and an aspiring novelist.

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