Title: I Am Change
Author: Suzy Zail
Publisher: Walker Books Australia
Genre: Young adult fiction
Lillian wants so much more out of life than what is expected of her. Growing up in rural Uganda, her life is destined to follow the same path as her sisters, mother, and so many women before her: marry, have children, and care for her husband for the rest of her life. But Lillian doesn’t want to marry; she wants to get an education and become a writer.
When an opportunity arises to move to Kampala to attend school, she jumps on the chance for a better life. However, the life that she yearns for comes at a cost. I Am Change is a heartbreaking story, illustrating the importance of female empowerment in countries less privileged than ours.
Author Suzy Zail has clearly done her research for this novel; speaking with young girls from Uganda and truly encapsulating their lives within this fictionalised account of life in their home country. I had to take my time reading this book, as I often found myself putting it down in order to fully absorb what I was reading. Knowing this was based on true stories had me shaking my head in disbelief and my heart broke for the young women in this story.
The cycle of poverty and miseducation, often at the hands of men, was a running theme within this book. The women in Lillian’s village are so deeply indoctrinated with the ideals surrounding cultural practices that justify their mistreatment, that a vicious cycle is formed between mother and child. Lillian’s mother is a Sabiny woman, and she passes down physically detrimental traditions that serve the men in the community, such as female circumcision. We see the impact of poverty on the family, as their cassava crops fail and Lillian is set to be married off in order for them to afford living expenses. While the story develops slowly, and the author spends time immersing the reader in the culture and its traditions, it is still high-stakes enough to propel the story along.
Don’t expect a happy ending in this book. Yes, it’s an amazing example of the power of feminism and speaking up for yourself, but the tragedies and abuse that Lillian (and other characters) must endure in order to simply be treated with the respect they deserve is bleak to read about. Go into this story knowing that it is going to be hard-hitting and spirit-breaking, but ultimately Lillian displays incredible strength and courage against the difficult odds she is faced with.
Not every story is going to have a happy ending, and that is why this is such an important young adult book. It was reminiscent of Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, in the sense that it illustrates how even the slightest differences in circumstances can result in drastically altered paths in life. We see Lillian’s trajectory towards a full education compared to her schoolmate Dimple, as well as Lillian’s older sister Nakato. Young adult books such as this one need to be on the bookshelves of schools, of libraries and in the hands of young girls. Suzy Zail has given a voice to women that may not have had the opportunity to speak up, and that is a triumphant achievement. The next step would be to have these women of colour write their own stories, but I Am Change is a step in the right direction.
In Australia, we do not have to endure sexual harassment in order to have access to menstrual products, or in order to feed ourselves. We must acknowledge these facts and these stories in order to know what we need to do better, what we need to do in order for other girls to have the same level of freedom and opportunity as we do.
I Am Change was recently longlisted for the Indie Booksellers Awards 2020, in the Young Adult category.