REVIEW: Unicorn by Amrou Al-Kadhi; The Divers’ Game by Jesse Ball

The illuminating memoir of a Muslim drag queen, Amrou Al-Kadhi's 'Unicorn' is a love story of sorts, while Jesse Ball showcases a 'giant Atwoodian imagination' in 'The Divers' Bell'

Thanks to the likes of the hugely successful reality show RuPaul’s Drag Race, the fabulous FX drama Pose and some eye-opening insider documentaries (search for Beautiful by Night and Beneath the Makeup), western audiences are becoming familiar with the nuances of the trans drag queen scene.

A world once so foreign – previously treated as an unknowably exotic, tragic or comic marginal society – is now, more than ever, open for visitors. The battle for general acceptance has not been won – we’re as far from a consensus welcome as we are from picnicking on Mars. But the increasing embrace of LGBTQ stories, as diverse and complicated as those of the nuclear family, is getting us closer.

With their characterful and colourful memoir ‘Unicorn’, Iraqi writer Amrou Al-Kadhi – raised in a strict Muslim family in Dubai and Bahrain – adds a revelatory voice to the mix; the voice of a noisy Muslim ‘they’ who was once a confused cowed ‘he’.

Their book opens with a recollection of an Edinburgh Fringe gig, where a front-row cluster of hijab-wearing Muslim women frown and murmur throughout their blasphemous high-camp performance, which includes a call to prayer/Lady Gaga mash-up and a sketch comparing men praying in mosques to ‘gay chemsex orgies’.

The women request a meeting after the show which, clad in a sequin leotard and with a ‘melting face of sapphire glitter’, Al-Kadhi dutifully attends, riddled with anxiety. There, a floor-gazing Saudi ‘super Muslim’ mother tells them “You were amazing and… you should be really proud.”

The significance of this moment, which leaves Amrou sobbing convulsively, becomes increasingly clear as the story of their childhood unfolds. As a young boy they have a dependent, Proustian relationship with their mother, emotionally dependent on her “maternal clutch”. She is “the light and love of my life”. A small act of accidental transgression, borne of innocence (“Mama, should I get us a condom?”) sees this previously doting mother turn on Amrou with such ferocity her son is left in despairing, baffled shock.

This book reads like Pedro Almodóvar by way of Lee Hall

The realisation that this sacred bond is breakable is a pivotal point in a three steps forward, two steps back life marked by dualities; fear and audacity, loneliness and friendship, guilt and pride.

With a lively and sensitive spirit – at times this book reads like Pedro Almodóvar by way of Lee Hall – the eminently likeable Al-Kadhi takes us through their years at Eton (‘ghastly’), Cambridge, where their discovery of drag and boyfriends brings both suffering and liberation, to the creation of Glamrou, their outrageous, taboo-busting onstage persona.

The taunts of racists and homophobes follow wherever they go, and you’d be a harsh critic not to forgive the occasional use of ‘positivity’ platitudes on the basis of their uniquely challenging struggle to stay sane and hopeful.

Eventually the undulating wave becomes a circle, the overarching love story having sprung from the fragile heart of the devoted infant Amrou. Yes, most touchingly, in the end it is ‘all about my mother’.

American author Jesse Ball, whose terrific Census won last year’s Gordon Burn Prize, also publishes his new novel The Divers’ Game this month. A dystopian tale of a society divided into privileged locals and branded, marginalised immigrants, it’s not hard to see where the Trump- hardened, morally driven Ball is coming from.

Thanks to his giant Atwoodian imagination, elegant writing, and fiery, contagious sense of injustice however, this literary call to arms stays on the right side of missionary zeal.

He cries out for ‘radical empathy’. I can’t think of a better description of what’s required.

Unicorn by Amrou Al-Kadhi (HarperCollins, £16.99)
The Divers’ Game by Jesse Ball (Granta, £14.99)

This article was originally published in The Big Issue magazine. Get your copy now from your local vendor or Big Issue Shop.