To be, for the first time, taken into my own world was eye-opening. There were actually other girls out there who balanced friendships at their synagogues (mosques) with friendships at school? Girls who worried about how much of their Jewish (Muslim) selves they should introduce to their “regular” friends?
I wasn’t the only one who felt like me?
These freeing questions led me to the world of contemporary fiction. And, thirty years ago, what I found there in reference to books with Muslim characters was truly bleak, running from the tired stereotype of poor, oppressed girl saved by timely non-Muslim intervention, to didactic manuals on being a good Muslim teen, with the moral of the story italicized across the bottom in case you still didn’t get it.
Fast-forward to our enlightened times, which, I like to believe, began in 1999 with the voice of Zainab from Dahling If You Luv Me Would You Please Please Smile by Canadian Rukhsana Khan (originally published by Stoddart, now e-published).
Dahling was followed by the popular and catchy-titled, Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fatah. It tells the story of an Australian girl who decides to wear hijab full-time while attending prep school.
These two Canadian and Australian pioneers of YA focused on Muslim characters were joined by British author Na'ima B. Robert and her novel From Somalia With Love. The main character, Safia Dirie, is a strong Muslim teen who is forced to explore her identity when it includes welcoming her father, initially reported missing for years in war-torn Somalia, back into her life in England.
But is pondering the question of being Muslim the only thing for a Muslim character to do? Of course not.
Enter the Post-Enlightenment era, where writers are thinking up Muslim-girl detectives (Jennifer Latham’s debut, Scarlett Undercover, Little, Brown and Company, 2015) and Muslim-girl tech-geniuses (Lauren Myracle’s Luv Ya Bunches, middle grade but still) and Muslim-girl fugitives (Ask Me No Questions by Marina Budhos) and Muslim-girls fasting (Bestest. Ramadan. Ever by Medeia Sharif) and Muslim-girls in revolutions (Rebels by Accident by Patricia Dunn) and, just this year, a Muslim-girl Marvel hero, Kamala Khan aka Ms. Marvel, written by G. Willow Wilson.
(Interesting note: ALL the above authors are American.)
With these awesome additions, it looks like female Muslim characters have just raised their boots to kick the door open in the publishing industry. Which leaves us to wonder about boys and books again...well, Muslim boy characters and books.
The YA offerings here, while meagre, point to Big-Issue novels being the featured product in this category. Two books, Guantanamo Boy by Anna Perera and Bifocal by a duo of award-winning Canadian authors, Deborah Ellis and Eric Walters, focus on the effects of post 9/11 policy on the lives of young Muslim males. Gripping and real, both narratives explore voices not often showcased.
The aforementioned G. Willow Wilson, an author of whom Neil Gaiman said, “you should read what she writes”, also explores important issues of the day in her novel featuring a young hacktivist. Alif the Unseen is a genre-bending swashbuckler with probably the most vivid descriptions of the innards of cyber-space you could ever read.
If you’re worried about getting it “right” and/or are hyper aware that, like with any other evidence of shaky writing, readers can sniff out the inauthentic, then run it by someone in the know. Unless of course you write from the-know. John Green, who included the character of Hassan in An Abundance of Katherines, says on his website that he “had a number of Muslim friends in high school and college” and “chose to make Hassan a Muslim because I felt like I wasn’t seeing enough Muslim characters in novels.”
Spot on, Mr. Green, but hopefully that’s changing. *Cue Muslim girl boots [and boy-boots too] crashing the door open.*
I leave you with happy Muslims.
Here you can read Jennifer Latham’s thoughts on writing a Muslim character.
Read an excellent four-part Q&A with Simon & Schuster Executive Editor Zareen Jaffery on diversity in publishing, with a spotlight on Muslims in part one.
Here's a vlog from author Sabaa Tahir about writing diverse characters. Very useful and it has Depeche Mode wisdom in it.
The hashtag #NotYourStockMuslim, created by Kaye M., will help you figure out and possibly SMASH those tropes.
Speaking of @gildedspine, she'll be hosting a roundtable discussion on Muslim YA soon at Diversifya. Drop in and check out the shiny new developments in this happening zone, including a sparkling new YA with Muslim characters, Written In the Stars by Aisha Saeed, to be released in 2015.
Sajidah has been writing since the tender age of four, when she learned to make her first mark on paper. She’s filled many pages since, including sheaves to complete a degree in Creative Writing. A teacher by profession, she’s currently finishing a YA contemporary novel that contains a Muslim girl with a forehead-fixation, a guy with too many muffin jokes and an isolated frenemy cupcake frosting moustache encounter. Sajidah blogs (sporadically) about writing here, life here and tweets @sajidahwrites.
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