Listen, Layla by Yassmin Abdel-Magied

The Blurb On The Back:

I am Layla Kareem Abdul-Hafiz Hussein, the greatest Sudanese Australian inventor the world has ever seen.  And if they don’t know my name yet, they soon will.  Inshallah!

School’s out for the summer!  And Layla’s going to spend it getting her inventions ready for the grand design competition.  But when her grandmother falls ill and her family must rush to Sudan to be with her, Layla feels like she’s being pulled in many different directions.

Family, friends, home, inventions – there’s a lot to navigate.  With big protests looming in Sudan, could Layla save the day with her revolutionary ideas?

Exploring the diaspora experience, Listen, Layla is an own voices novel for young readers bursting with passion, humour and truth.

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book

You can order LISTEN, LAYLA by Yassmin Abdul-Magied from Amazon USA, Amazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

It’s shortly after YOU MUST BE LAYLA and the last day of term.

Having helped her school team become national champions in the Grand Designs Tourismo, 14-year-old Layla Kareem Abdul-Hafiz Hussein is completely focused on working on their entry into the international Grand Designs Tourismo (IGDT), which will be held in Germany.  his is partly because Mr Gilvarry is going to pick one person from their team to go on the Special Invention Tour where the winner gets to go around the world meeting inventors in Paris, Addis Ababa and Beijing.  For Layla – whose sole ambition is to be an inventor – it would be a dream come true and she is obsessed with getting that spot, even though the team captain, Peter, (whose dad is the chairman of the school and who has racist views when it comes to Layla) is desperate to win it too.  

Going in to the summer holidays, Layla is feeling optimistic and has loads of ideas for the IGDT which is good because Peter is behaving like a tyrant, insisting that everyone attends team meetings 3 times a week to keep them on course or else he’ll throw them off the team.  But only a couple of days after the summer holidays begin, disaster strikes: Layla’s grandmother – Habooba – has collapsed with a suspected stroke and the whole family is rushing to get to Khartoum in Sudan to see her.  Layla, who is very close to her grandmother, is very worried but she’s also upset when her dad says that because the family doesn’t know how long they will be in Sudan, Layla will have to give up the IGDT until next year!

Layla knows that she can’t give up what might be the best opportunity of her life and is determined to somehow stay involved in the IGDT team.  Once in Khartoum, however, she finds herself feeling complicated emotions.  It’s been 5 years since her last visit but for the first time, she feels a lack of connection with her Sudanese heritage and is unable to navigate everyday life there, having to rely on her cousins 15-year old Yousra, and the 17-year-old twins Ma’ab and Mohammed.  

As protests against the Sudanese government grip Khartoum, Layla is keen to join her cousins who are participating in them as a way of helping her Sudanese family and re-connecting with her roots.  But the more Layla tries to help, the more alienated she becomes from her family and her roots and when the Sudanese government’s response to the protests turn violent, Layla learns that some problems are too deep to be resolved overnight by a clever invention … 

Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s sequel to YOU MUST BE LAYLA is a solid contemporary book for readers aged 12+ that gives insight into the diaspora experience and what’s happening in Sudan.  I enjoyed Layla’s enthusiasm and ambition for inventing while the scenes involving her family convey the difference in generational attitudes really well but I would have liked more dialogue between Layla and her parents on what she wants and why it’s important to her.

When I picked this book up I didn’t realise that it was a sequel so I didn’t know what had happened to Layla during her first year at Mary Maxmillion Grammar School but Abdul-Magied gives you enough information in this book to understand that she faces a lot of racism there, had to prove herself to join the IGDT team where she was instrumental in them winning the national competition and was threatened with expulsion after head butting the school chairman’s son, Peter, who’s captain of the IGDT team and also a racist.

The focus on this book is less on inventing (although it does still feature) and more on Layla’s personal journey of trying to figure out where she belongs as the family has to rush to Sudan following the collapse of Layla’s maternal grandmother.  Abdul-Magied does a good job of showing how Layla’s confidence in her identity and where she belongs is chipped away at from her first arrival in Khartoum (e.g. an immigration clerk criticising her Arabic and not understanding why the family is using their Australian rather than their Sudanese passports) and only gets worse as she tries to navigate a country she hasn’t been to in 5 years and is in a state of social turmoil as people protest against the government.  I especially appreciated the way that Abdul-Magied shows there is not going to be a happy ending to this in Sudan and that the struggle will continue.

I wished that there had been more dialogue between Layla and her older brother Ozzie about how she is feeling though because there are hints at how Ozzie is frustrated with his life in Australia (e.g. in the beginning of the book he’s been forced to take a job collecting shopping carts due to difficulties in finding another job and clearly neither he nor his mother is happy about it because he has other skills) and yet is more enthusiastic about trying to bring about change in Sudan.  Abdul-Magied instead opts to maintain a distance between the two with Ozzie frequently being disparaging or dismissive towards Layla, which I think is a shame because it could have drawn out the theme and given an added perspective.

Abdul-Magied does well in conveying Layla’s confusion about what’s happening in Sudan and why it’s important because she has spent most of her life in a country where protest is allowed and generally peaceful and goes on to draw a good contrast with her parents’ more pessimistic view because they have seen what lengths the government will go to in order to crack down on protest.  I was in two minds about whether I believed the scenes where Layla thinks she can improve things by inventing a robot to help protesters, but she is only 14 years old and it does tie back in with her belief that invention and engineering can make things better.  Again though, I wished that there had been more conversations between Layla and her cousin Ma’ab who also has engineering skills and who is pivotal in the final chapters of the book because again, it may have given an additional opportunity to highlight what being part of the diaspora means both for those who leave and those who remain.

I am conscious that my comments so far seem to be dunking on how Abdul-Magied depicts diaspora.  That is not my intention at all.  I’m trying to come at this review as a reader who has questions based on what’s in the book, which I think is something target readers may also do.  With this in mind there are a couple of points in the book where it read to me that Abdul-Magied swerved the conflict between diaspora generations where Layla’s father bans her from participating in the IGDT and later goes so far as to tell the team that she has quit.  

On the one hand, it is completely believable that Layla would go behind her dad’s back so that she could continue to participate (although I wasn’t quite convinced at how scatterbrained and disorganised she is at trying to do that).  On the other hand, though, while there is a scene where Layla asks her dad why he was so angry about what she did that does a good job of showing his point of view, it’s missing her telling her dad why she did it.  Instead, she’s essentially lectured to and told she’s being selfish without having an opportunity to explain why it was so important to her and what it means for her future.  I’m not saying that this isn’t true to the diaspora experience because I completely accept and understand that teenagers with Sudanese heritage may not feel that they can do so, but as a reader it’s difficult to see a character who has made a perhaps foolish decision for completely understandable and relatable reasons being told that they’re selfish and then internalise that as an acceptable criticism that they need to work on.  This is especially the case given that Layla’s mother clearly isn’t on the same page as Layla’s dad on this (seen through her desire for Ozzie to hold out for a better job) and could have added some perspective.  

Similarly, I wished that there had been more exploration of how Layla’s cousin Yousra reconciles the fact that she basically has 2 boyfriends, even though she shouldn’t be seeing anyone.  On the one hand, she lectures Layla about her behaviour and naivety and on the other, she is clearly keeping secrets and going against what her parents would want.  Again, I’m not saying that this doesn’t happen but it’s a double standard that I wanted to understand more.

I had some other issues with the book, which may well be to do with areas covered in YOU MUST BE LAYLA, e.g. there’s a sub-plot about how Layla’s best friend Dina is having a disagreement with her parents because she wants to be a lawyer and they want her to be a doctor that comes up at the start and then gets conveniently resolved at the end.  Similarly, I didn’t quite understand the dynamics within the IGDT team or why the others members seem to do nothing about Peter’s unbelievably racist behaviour and antagonism towards Layla. 

All in all, though, I thought that this was a solid book that tells a story that target readers will not be very familiar with and I did like Layla’s enthusiasm and personality.  I would definitely go back and read YOU MUST BE LAYLA on the strength of this and if Abdel-Magied writes a third book to finish Layla’s story, then I would definitely check that out too. 

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