Yasemin Mahsud-McGinty is a fifteen-year-old Pakistani American living in Elmhurst, Chicago, with her parents Iftikhar Mahsud and Jennifer McGinty, and younger brother Sikander. It is three years since she lost an arm in a car accident when the family was vacationing in the Southern Indian hill station of Udagamandalam.
Yasemin’s maturing body leads to serious self-doubts. When she looks into a mirror, she sees a girl who stands at 5’4” with waist-length straight long black hair. Her deep-set chocolate brown eyes stare back at her rather impudently. Yes, she likes her eyes. Her nose? “Aquiline” is what her paternal granddad calls it; “Roman” is her Abu-jaan’s pronouncement. For younger brother Sikander, it’s a ‘beak.’ She herself thinks of it as ‘hooked,’ which isn’t perhaps that complimentary either. What else? Oh yes, her mouth. Rather full, the upper lip straight. Abu-jaan’s friend once commented on her high cheekbones, saying that they lent an intriguing accent to her face. Intriguing? Her long fingers were once her pride, but now she can’t even paint them properly. Self-pity seems to be the rule of the day.
She resorts to wearing a hijab and loose, long-sleeved shirts to cover up Medusa, the name she has given to her prosthetic arm, predicting that her damaged body (she adopts the term ‘unfinish’d’ from Shakespeare’s The Life and Death of Richard the III) would turn boys into stone, especially her neighbor Jeremy Cohen. She plunges ever more deeply into navel-gazing, until a new student (Nirmala Rao-Sumatzkuku) forces her to reassess her own life.
Nirmala Rao-Sumatzkuku is a fifteen-year-old Native American/South-Asian, the only child of Mahesh Rao and Chu’si Sumatzkuku, and born with Cerebral Palsy. Her stock of tales is infinite: fairy-tales, poems, limericks, even jokes. And one day, on her eleventh birthday, she shows her parents something on her computer: a libretto for a comic opera with the title “My soul for a donut.” When she looks into a mirror, she is proud of the purple and green highlights that are exactly where she wants them in her short black hair. The shortness of her hair shocks her Hopi grandmother in Tucson - Hopi belief in long hair is tied to the earth and nature. And cutting one’s hair is an outward symbol of sadness at a death in the family. Her less traditional paternal grandmother in Hyderabad, India, approves, which makes her Nirmala’s favorite confidant! Dressing is the most difficult chore of the day. Because she has difficulty raising her arms, the top has snap closures on either shoulder that completely opens up to allow her to slide her arms into the garment without having to lift her arms. She loves the slogan on the front of each of her tops:
“CEREBRAL PALSY SLOWS ME DOWN,
BUT IT AIN’T STOPPIN’ ME!!!”
Her mother has to help her into wrap waist jeans. Her legs are practically non-functional, a sorry excuse for something that was supposed to prop you up. But she has to wear shoes, and Nike’s Flyease sneakers are super comfortable. She whispers every day: Thank you, LeBron James! as she bends down to slip her feet into them. And now comes the part that she loves: makeup. She doesn’t need any help at all with it. A bit of mascara to enhance the amber of her eyes. Her eyes are the best part of her – wide-set, with a slight squint that she deliberately, mischievously exaggerates when people stare at her. The arched row of tiny silver and gold studs in each ear that she never takes off shines from her pointy ears. “Makes me look a little like Dobby!”
Like Yasemin, she despairs of ever attracting a boy. The looks of forced pity, sometimes even disgust, that she catches every time she is outside – in the grocery store, in a movie theater, in the park – she is so tired of them. But when she is home, away from all that rejection, her parents’ unconditional love sometimes stifles her. She has to convince them to let her attend a brick-and-mortar school. Meeting other teens would be a challenge, but a change. And her voice synthesizer might impress them too, might even get the attention – albeit platonic – of Ivan Äkerman, a member of the school’s Model UN class.