It has been an eventful couple of years for a certain group of writers.
A string of up-and-coming authors has been releasing unique and critically acclaimed books that delve into thought-provoking themes. For instance, The Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed portrays a fantasy world based on old Arab-Islamic tradition, replete with mythical creatures, heroes, and villains. Jennifer Zobair’s Painted Hands follows a group of young women as they attempt to reconcile their professional lives and ambitions with the expectations of their families.
These very different novels all have one thing in common: the writers are all young, self-identified American Muslims. Varying from first or second-generation children of immigrants to converts of various backgrounds, they all identify as Muslim but may have different ways of practicing and interpreting their faith.
The need for an American Muslim literature is becoming increasingly dire, especially in light of last week’s tragedies in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the killing of Mustafa Mattan in Canada, and a string of other Islamophobic attacks on mosques and Islamic Centers in Rhode Island, Texas, and Washington State. These literary works are an integral part of the antidote to the alienating, demonizing, and dangerous discourse that surrounds American Muslims.
Stories from and about American Muslims
The new wave of American Muslim authors are writing in increasingly varying genres like fantasy, science fiction, young adult fiction, and historical fiction, among others. Along with this trend, the past few years have seen the development of initiatives to support American Muslim youth in telling their stories and cultivating their creative voices.
Among the first of their kind in the United States, these initiatives are gaining wider attention as American Muslims in literature and pop culture continue to be portrayed as stereotypical extremists, or as impersonal characters engaged in a “clash of civilizations” with the West. This has been exemplified by Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s memoirs, which places the blame for gender-based violence and extremism exclusively on Islam, and Sam Harris’ characterization of Islam as the “motherload of bad ideas.” Most recently, the film American Sniper shows, yet again, another horrifically one-dimensional view of Muslims as inherently violent and bent on perpetuating violence. These critics’ interpretations are dangerous; they paint Islam as a monolithic faith that is practiced the same everywhere with no regard to the complex historical or political factors that foster extremism.
Evelyn Alsultany, a professor of Arab American and Muslim American studies at the University of Michigan, argues that “there has been increased interest in the stories of Arab and Muslim Americans” in the past decade. While several American novels and nonfiction books tell stories about Muslims, the majority are written by non-Muslims, drowning out the voices of Muslims who don’t identify with the mainstream narrative of who they are. Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s memoirs are one example., Such stories, as Alsultany states, “… tend to confirm stereotypes about Arab and Muslim culture, particularly about women escaping oppression.”
“There’s always been American Muslim creative talent, but often those voices have not been encouraged, promoted, nurtured or given a chance to shine,” said Wajahat Ali, a playwright and co-host on Al Jazeera America’s The Stream. “More Millenials are deciding to grab the conch and become protagonists of the American narrative using poetry, comedy, fiction, playwriting, movies and so forth.”
This growth is critical. As Ali says, “We’re at the faultlines of what it means to be American but also what constitutes ‘American culture,’ who decides, who are the gatekeepers and who are the architects and the audience.”
“Growing up I had no such books to read and see myself in stories,” said Aisha Saeed, an American Muslim young adult fiction writer and co-founder of #WeNeedDiverseBooks, an initiative that aims to facilitate opportunities, in part, for writers of color who wish to publish their writing. “I have been only recently getting the pleasure to read such wonderful stories” that give nuance to American Muslim experiences, Saeed stated.
The Muslim Protagonist
The Muslim Protagonist, a new organization founded in November 2012, hosts yearly conferences featuring both highly acclaimed and up-and-coming American Muslim writers to speak about their work. According to co-founders Mirzya Syed and Haris Durrani, the idea was born out of a long-time frustration with the lack of American Muslim stories in their school curricula.
While taking a class called “Novels on Immigration” as an undergraduate at Columbia University, Syed was puzzled and disheartened that the only American Muslim character in the books the class read was a terrorist. “It was a huge let-down to me in a class that talks about how powerful literature is for these various minority communities in America,” she said.
Even discussions about the “terrorist” character were disappointing for Syed. “Someone brought it up and asked, ‘what was up with Abad being a terrorist?’ The professor was like, ‘Oh yeah, what was up with that?’ Then everyone laughed, but then they moved on. There was no discussion of it.” When Syed tried to suggest to her professor that the stories of American Muslims be included, she found herself not knowing what books or writers to recommend. “There was such a lack of Muslim writers throughout my entire education that I did not even know what to tell him,” said Syed.
It was out of these experiences and beliefs that Syed and Durrani, both then students at Columbia University, started planning for the first symposium of The Muslim Protagonist. The aim of the initiative, according to Durrani, is “… to work against contemporary emphases on white (male) writers existing today, and to similarly challenge problematic Muslim narratives–sometimes by Muslims themselves–that are propped up by the dominant white (male) narrative of the contemporary literary world.”
The writers who participated in the first symposium spoke highly of Syed and Durrani’s efforts. Anita Amirezvani, an Iranian American symposium participant, called The Muslim Protagonist a seminal effort in the history of American Muslim literature.
The group’s symposium last year featured high-profile American Muslim writers such as Reza Aslan, a public intellectual and scholar of religions, Saladin Ahmed, the first American Muslim fantasy novelist, and G. Willow Wilson, the writer behind the current Ms. Marvel comic series featuring Kamala Khan, a young American Muslim woman of Pakistani descent.
Wilson was the first American Muslim woman selected to create a new character for Ms. Marvel, a comic series on female superheroes. Sharing her thoughts on Willow’s Muslim superhero, Aisha Saeed said, “It certainly does appear that the visibility of American Muslim literature is on the rise and I am incredibly grateful and heartened for it.” The current series has made it and the New York Times’ bestseller list, among others.
The Muslim Protagonist’s upcoming symposium is scheduled for this coming Saturday February 27.
The Muslim Writers Collective
The , an organization that holds monthly open mic events for American Muslim youth writers and artists, is also a relatively young group. It was officially created last January by siblings Hamdan Azhar and Ayisha Irfan to address similar concerns as the Muslim Protagonist.
Since launching, the Collective has held open mic events in New York on a monthly basis, with overwhelming attendance at each session. This was something that surprised Irfan. From a political organizing background, she observed that, “I was comfortable with the idea that we were going to get 10-15 people to come out and we’ll build slowly and we’ll go from there. [Instead] [w]e’ve had hundreds of people … to each of these open mics and really the response comes so quickly, it takes off so fast.”
As the organization enters its second year, the Muslim Writers Collective recently announced its formal expansion into several cities across the US and Canada, with plans to expand even further. Their has dozens of videos of performances from previous events. These videos depict young Muslims performing original songs, poems, and reciting their own stories in New York, Detroit, and San Francisco.
Some participants focused on themes of political struggle or balancing family tradition with modernity. Others touched upon romantic love, family love, and everyday struggles to which many youth can relate. Each of the performances, poignant in their own way, depicts an American Muslim community that is more nuanced than the narratives often projected onto it.
Irfan said that the original intent of founding the Muslim Writers Collective was to create a mentorship program for American Muslim youth to develop their writing. “That’s definitely something we’re looking to build out,” Irfan stated. In addition to its open mics, the Collective aims to create “A national mentorship program for young writers … where they can get feedback and some space to publish their pieces.”
“It’s great that we’re setting the stage that people feel comfortable sharing their stories but … I think long term we absolutely need spaces that encourage, cultivate, and refine that art,” Irfan continued.
Becoming a Part of the American Literary and Cultural Canon
These growing initiatives are, so far, proving fruitful. Wajahat Ali noted that, “The ‘younger’ generation is asking, ‘Why not me? Why not my story? What’s wrong with a Pakistani Muslim superhero?”
That is what these initiatives and the growing list of writers who identify as American Muslims are poised to do as they share their own stories, and add their voices to the canon of contemporary American literature.
“The subheading of our first symposium was: write your own story. That’s exactly what we want, to be in charge of our own narrative. And that’s really our mission,” Syed said. “The only way to change the current narrative is to add our voices to it.”