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Improvised Adolescence
Somali Bantu Teenage Refugees in America
Sandra Grady

Folklore Studies in a Multicultural World

A glimpse into the lives of African refugee teens, as they figure out how to be adults in America

Changing from child to young adult is difficult everywhere. But to experience childhood in continuous flight from conflict, then move into adolescence as a refugee in a radically different culture, is a more than usually complicated transition for teens and for their parents, communities, teachers, and social workers.

Improvised Adolescence explores how teenagers from southern Somalia, who spent much of their childhood in East African refugee camps, are adapting to resettlement in the American Midwest. The collapse of the Somali state in 1991, and subsequent chaos in the Horn of Africa, disrupted the lives of these young people educationally, culturally, and developmentally. Folklorist Sandra Grady has intermittently observed the lifeworld of these teens—their homes, their entertainment choices, their interaction with classmates and teachers at school, and their plans for the future—for more than seven years to understand the cultural tools they’ve used in their journey from this disrupted childhood. They negotiate two sets of cultural expectations: in the resettled Somali Bantu community, traditional rites of passage continue to mark the change from child to adult; in the surrounding U.S. culture, an unfamiliar in-between category—“adolescent”—delays adulthood. Offering analysis that is both engaging and theoretically grounded, Grady tracks the emergence in this immigrant community of an improvised adolescence.


Author. Photo credit, Name

Sandra Grady earned her PhD in folklore at the University of Pennsylvania and worked in Kenya in the early 1990s. She is an applied linguist in the U.S. Department of Justice.






“An engagingly written, thoughtful text on cultural immersion, the refugee experience, identity, and youth. Her book would make excellent reading for professionals in refugee resettlement agencies, and in courses on lifespan development, adolescence, the anthropology of childhood/youth, multicultural education, family, media, and gender studies, and related disciplines.”
African Studies Quarterly

“Throughout the United States, both large and small cities host resettled refugees, with all the attendant challenges pertaining to education, employment, and social interaction. Sandra Grady’s outstanding book should interest a readership well beyond scholars of ethnography.”
—Erika Brady, author of Healing Logics: Culture and Medicine in Modern Health Belief System

“This richly detailed exploration of the adaptation of tradition—and of the creation of new identities among Somali Bantu teenagers in America, in particular—will be of great interest not only to folklorists and anthropologists but also to professionals in refugee resettlement agencies and schools in the United States.”
—Felicia McMahon, author of Not Just Child’s Play: Emerging Tradition and the Lost Boys of Sudan



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Of Related Interest


African Women Writing Resistance
An Anthology of Contemporary Voices
Edited by Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez, Pauline Dongala, Omotayo Jolaosho, and Anne Serafin


May 2015
LC: 2014030780 E
174 pp.   6 x 9
12 b/w illus., 1 map

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Paper $29.95 t
ISBN 978-0-299-30324-2
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Folklore Studies in a Multicultural World