These Are Our Voices, This Is Our Heart: Muslims Speak Out On Representation In YA
American Terrorist. Two words, one book title, coming to you in 2017 from a notable, respected publisher and an established, decidedly not Muslim author. YA publishing was understandably horrified and a long discussion was the result.
If we cannot explore our own identities, explore the value we see in each other andlook through each others eyes to see the world in all its complexity, then we live with blinders on. And as we age, we cut more and more people off from our definition of humanity. When someone isn't human to you, it's very easy to commit atrocities, either directly or by turning a blind eye to them.
(Bayram, a young Muslim blogger, wrote an entire thread about the book and his reactions to it. Please read it in its entirety.)
Once, American Sniper played in a bus I was on, and I felt so uncomfortable in the knowledge people actually bought the movie and thought it would be Good Bus Ride entertainment.
In the wake of the community's discussion about this title, and concerns about the repercussions of these repeated stereotypes and encouragement of hate toward an already decried and defamed marginalized group, the Muslim Squad decided to boost the voices that aren't often heard, and should be: the young Muslims of YA themselves.
I've actually been working on a side project featuring a Muslim narrator and I kept struggling with my approach to various subjects with that caveat in mind. And then I realized that I'm Muslim, and I struggle with a lot of the things I was afraid of incorporating for fear of judgement.
I want to see young Muslim MCs who struggle with the standard stepping stones in an adolescent's life, such as academics, friendships, and first loves. I'd also love carefully crafted insight into the complexities of life as a Muslim-American, from not being able to consume certain meat products to finding a place to pray in public. I want boys with beautiful Quranic pronunciation to be student body president and girls who wear hijab to be captain of the cross-country team. In essence, I want us portrayed like the vast majority of us are—just like everyone else.
Warda's entire thread on the title in question, as well as representation needed in YA at large, is worth the read.
I want to see... ...the stories of brilliant Muslim activists like Laila Ajjawi who use graffiti to be heard above the rest. ...the stories of Niqabi Hip-Hop dancers like Amirah Sackett who are revolutionizing the way people view Islam. ...the stories of Hijabi ballerinas like Stephanie Kurlow who are shattering stereotypes one pointe at a time. ...the stories of Muslim women like Yassmin Abdel-Magied who are crushing speed limits and gender roles. ...the stories of non-hijabi and hijabi dragon tamers who are burning down the walls of patriarchy. ...the stories of Muslim readers, writers and bloggers who are taking control of their narratives one word at a time
(The Muslim Squad recently held a wishlist event on Twitter, in which we invited Muslim voices to share ideas they had and wanted to see Muslim voices write. What they focused on, and what issues they wanted to see explored, are also particularly telling.)
Muslims are being written out of the American narrative—we don't belong, shouldgo "back to where we came from." We are being denied our right as Americans to call our country home. Until we write ourselves back into the American narrative, until the stories we tell ourselves expand to include us, we will continue to have tofight for the simple right to call our home 'home.'
Give us our real selves. Give us the space we need to raise our voices. Respect our hearts, our clarity and who we really are.
We need diverse portrayals of Muslims, as diverse as we are, and as integrated with our communities as we are, with all of the varied struggles we face. This is as important for Muslims as it is for everyone else, because if we can't write our own narratives, create our own complex understandings of our places in the world, then we're just as likely to fall victim to the simplified narratives that are being blasted from media channels as anyone else.
I think the solution lies in realizing that we're not cardboard cutouts. We share many of the same hopes, fears, and dreams that non-Muslims do, just with an Islamic perspective and under the fear of constant reproach from the world at large. So in general, I'm interested in seeing worlds through a Muslim character's eyes. I'm interested in seeing school and family life and stress over grades and friends and significant others and faith, but from a perspective fully cognizant of, and forced to contend with, the issues facing the Muslim community today.
I'd like to see books where yes, the characters are Muslim but they are also FLAWED. They are not perfect Muslims, nor are they perfect Muslims at the end of the book. I want Muslim characters i can relate to. Yes, by all means, use these books to teach lessons and morals. But please give us characters that eventually learn lessons the hard way, through mistakes and not the best decisions because that is what Muslim youth go through.
Twitter user Aneeqah (@hianeeqah) kept her wish short and sweet:
Honestly, all I really want to see is a book that handles Islam and Muslim characters with respect.
I want an authentic story, and not much more.
I genuinely want more characters where the description of 'Muslim' is not their main defining characteristic. Like, they're the 'artsy' or 'deep' friend that just happens to be Muslim, not the Muslim friend who's artsy and deep. I want Muslim characters that forget to do salah because they're too busy with schoolwork, Muslims that generally actually don't know a lot about their own religion because, God, where I'm from so many people are that. Muslims who drink and smoke because, yeah, even though it's Haraam, still so many people do that. Just. Muslims being normal human beings, to be honest."
Twitter user Saquina (@plummeted) offered the views of a young Muslim outside of the United States:
Speaking as a Muslim woman from another country (Philippines), I want more books by Muslims, more books with Muslim characters on the shelves of bookstores that don't rely on bigoted stereotypes and internalized islamophobia. I want books and stories of us being just like anyone else—flawed and human. Not caricatures.
But I also want to read about Muslims who don't wear hijab or burqa or abayas, about lgbtqia+ Muslims. It's also kind of a problem here in my country because we're the only Southeast Asian country with a heavy Christian population. All my life I've never heard or seen or read characters who look like me, who would come from a similar background as me. It led to a temporary dislike of who I am—because I didn't see Muslim kids in any media I look at, and it's still happening today.
I want more of us in literary spaces—not just as writers, but in publishing, too. And not just in YA, but positive representation of us in every media/genre should also be.
They carry the emotional baggage of being The Other. They carry the burden of America's fear and hate. They carry the lightness and beauty of youth and hope and dreams and the infinite possibilities of a nation that endeavors to be a more perfect union.Let them carry books that are mirrors. And doors. And windows.
And in closing, Intisar Khanani offered a clear, beautiful reason why this struggle for representation in YA is so crucial and heartfelt:
YA is where our future lies. Young adults are struggling with the big questions in life,
they have the fire to change the world, and they have that most vital ingredient of
all, hope. It is this group more than any other that needs complex narratives of the
world, needs to see themselves positively reflected in the world and in what they
read, if we are to hope for a future built on a foundation of understanding and
(If you would like to add your voice to this round-up, please message us on Twitter at @themuslimsquad or email@example.com!)