All That Isn’t Said: Kaye M. talks Islamophobia in YA

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September 11, 2014, unfurled as it always did: star-speckled and red-striped, teary-eyed and aching hearted, weary and worn and somber in spite of the bright blue sky. It is always such an odd date, as an American, as a Muslim, as a millennial who remembers being lanky-limbed and wide-eyed, leaning over her aunt’s shoulder to read a newspaper about the Twin Towers falling – which plane hit first, who made the 911 calls, who was the first to be blamed.

Who would always, from that day onward, carry the yoke of shame on their necks for a deed they never committed and an act of utter, insensible hatred that their own faith condemned.

That September 11, a New York Times bestselling author wrote a post. It was a usual post. It was an innocuous post. It mourned the lost, offered comfort to the surviving families, lingered over the gray plumes of smoke that tainted the Manhattan skyline and the panic, the rage, the shock. And one aside that caught me in the gut and made me freeze, utterly taken aback.

A brief, tossed away remark about who was to blame. Who was to be suspected. Who was to be scrutinized with narrowed eyes, even when the sky seemed to be collapsing in on us and family members received frantic phone calls and there was nothing to do but cry, and pray, and stare for coverage on the television that seemed molasses-slow to be delivered.

(Coverage that already honed on one group of people, one faith, as its target for blame. Coverage that pushed the Muslim victims and bereaved families into the late hours of the night, when hardly anyone was awake to care.)

It stung. That remark that might have been nothing to that author – someone I read in my childhood, whose tattered paperbacks I held in one hand while balancing a popsicle in the other as a teenager – but something anecdotal and matter of fact, was salt in an unhealed wound.

This is what isn’t said in the books you read.

This is what you need to know.

That post wasn’t the straw to break the camel’s back. Perhaps it chafed in me as I watched Written in the Stars author Aisha Saeed rally voices in protest against the racist ABC Family pilot “Alice in Arabia” and saw how many supposedly reasonable, rational voices argued for the “nuance” in the story, insisted there was real life parallels to be found in the trite, tired tropes of arranged marriages, black-robed women and unpronounceable, supposedly Arabic names.

Perhaps it clung, like an itch you cannot reach because it settled beneath your skin and beside your bone, as I read an afterword in a middle grade novel that was supposed to offer a reasonable, rational take on 9/11. In this afterword, the author proudly admitted to suspecting a long time Muslim friend and his family down to his children. There was no mention made of how the friend might feel if, in his lasting relationship and good intentions, he read this afterword and saw just what she thought of him, that she’d dipped him in stereotypes and blotted out his entire self-identity in well-crafted lies. There was no mention made of an apology for the avoidance, the undeserved eyebrow raises and carefully masked interrogation of his confused, unknowing wife.

This is what isn’t said in the books you read.

This is what you need to know.

Every 9/11, I have taken to Twitter and bared my heart. I have listed every Islamophobic interaction since that first moment of tragedy that I can remember. I have catalogued every insult, attack, slur, stereotype, assumption, generalization and undeserved scrutiny inflicted on me. I have torn apart the carefully woven narrative with my small seam ripper of a voice and exposed the dark-dyed threads that serve as its supporting core.

Every year, everyone wants to recount where they were that fateful moment. Everyone wants to recount the first thing they felt, saw, heard.

I remember quite clearly: someone screaming at me that my people did this.

I was nine years old.

Every year, there are tears. There are apologies. There are uncomfortable silences. There are denials, even from people I know and love. There is an insistence that this cannot, is not happening in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.

There is always an insistence that if this is happening, it has happened. It fell off like an ill-fitting bracelet, wiped off like an unpleasant stain back in the early 2000s. It is not happening now. Donald Trump is an anomaly. His followers are not “us”. Their numbers can be denied. Their ignorance is dismissed as shockingly unAmerican.

Three Muslim students being shot over what is still being euphemistically deemed a “parking space dispute” and three more, talented, brilliant boys murdered execution style just a month ago is not worth turning heads.

At least, until now.

At least, not until the magical, money-making trend of the diluted, decanted Muslim was stumbled upon. And now, everyone wants to get in on it.

If you look through the tag specifically devoted to Muslim asks over at Writing With Color – a blog devoted to advice for writers who want to do diversity justice – you’ll notice an uptick in what I like to call ‘Green Eggs and Ham’ questions. Questions along the lines of, “I know Muslims are tired of seeing this problematic trope, but what about if I place it like this.”

“I know you don’t want to see this, but I think you’ll appreciate the way I see it.”

“The way I look at it, I’m appreciating you and your faith by writing it this way.”

If you read deeply and empathetically enough, you’ll notice our exhaustion. Our frustration. Our insistence that a writer’s desire to write about us as the exotic spice in their politically correct, stereotype stock soup is not what we need. It’s never what we’ve needed.

There’s always an assumption that bad representation is better than no representation. We are drowning in bad representation right now. It is all there is for us to drink and it is forced down our throats in buckets, splashed in our faces while we gasp for air and for some sense that this isn’t, never was, who we are and what we do in this world.

It is what continues to be offered with every question brimming with entitlement, with the idea that we’ll fall down on our knees and be grateful to be considered novel material. It’s been fifteen years since 9/11, fifteen years of turmoil and suspicion and being goaded into defending our faith before we were even an adult in the eyes of the law.

This is the first year that Publishers Weekly’s sneak preview for Fall 2016 is teeming over with 9/11 narratives – not merely the ‘one voice only’ narratives I used to thumb through as a middle schooler, seeking out a voice that felt as I did: like a convenient target, shamed for any display of patriotism in my own country, cast the evil eye when I clasped my hand over my heart during the National Anthem.

All of these narratives, save one, are written by white women. Perhaps it is wrong for this to gnaw at me as it does. Perhaps they are well-meaning. Perhaps they are well-researched. But all I can wonder is where these concerned, newly intersectional perspectives were for the past fifteen years. I wonder where they are now as the GOP supporters swell and ebb through the poll stations, and Donald Trump derides the entirety of Islam as though it is not a monolith of innocent, peaceful people living their lives and seeking a place to be accepted and breathe.

Last December, I tweeted about my dissatisfaction with a lack of Muslim and brown voices being allowed to address 9/11 and their subsequent ill treatment afterward, on the random searches and TSA heckling and more than occasional abuse and torment and even deaths we are forced to endure. A kind literary agent agreed with me, and retweeted it, seeking a voice that might be interested in writing such a narrative.

Only white women tweeted back. Every other brown voice felt it was too personal. They felt they would be sneered at, their experiences dismissed.

One outside voice, an author of a narrative coming out later next year, tweeted me to tell me how hard and painful it was for her to write this narrative.

“It is much, much harder to live it,” I tweeted back. “It is harder not to be able to set it aside afterward.”

This is what isn’t said in the books you read.

This is what you need to know.

It is not just Muslims this is currently happening with. Several recent YA deals were recently announced, all preoccupied with South Asian culture or the Western, Orientalist idea of the jinn. They painted these belief systems – these living, breathing senses of the world around us – as dead, decrepit tombs waiting to be robbed and excavated and used to add just the right sense of the Other (without the pain, without the brownness, without the realness of who we are) to their exciting new fantasy world.

Recently, Twitter user @gulabster delivered an impassioned, heartfelt series of tweets on how Muslim cultures and the South Asian and Middle Eastern world are being co-opted and appropriated by writers who otherwise do not seem to care what happens to us. The thread brilliantly touched on the nerve of what disturbs these voices as they write stories of their own and struggle for a sense of said stories being accepted and listened to from outside voices and readers.

(Writer Diya Mishra’s commentary, particularly focused on how South Asian culture in particular is very trendy at the moment, is also worth a read.)

The ridiculous, redundant tropes to fall back on were painstakingly listed: “Desert. Magic. Genies. Princesses. Despots/Sultans. Oppressive family structures. Threat of forced forcible marriage. Unleavened bread.”

That is apparently all we amount to: Aladdin, “A Thousand Nights” and Marco Rubio’s insistence that there are only some good Muslims. If you listen to Donald Trump, we are not redeemable at all. Off we should be shuffled to the internment camps, while our pain is profited off and spun into grand stories about rajas and shahs and sultans that make sure to show our worst sides more than what we truly are: achievers, great thinkers, intellects, dreamers.

This is what isn’t said in the books you read.

This is what you need to know.

You should know that my heart hurts for you, at what little I have to offer you beyond my own words and frustration every year, beyond a handful of other voices rubbed raw in the same way. Unlike a beautifully extensive feature on sexism in YA or even a catalog of all the racist things listed in YA books, Islamophobia in publishing – in the writers who pen the YA titles I love, even as my heart aches for not seeing myself in them – is not as well documented. There are no lists of sources or articles or industry thinkpieces.

It is as though there is nothing to see at all.

Move along. Just Muslims being hunted for what they believe in. Just another day and another trend to profit off.

You should know that I feel like I have very little to offer except for frustration and irritation and rage that will more likely than not be tone policed. You should know that I am bitter that some voices can trample over my existence and my experience blithely and carefree while I cradle bruised blossoms and pick my way through as carefully as I can, praying and fearing and worrying that I am not delivering a self-inflicted wound by one wrong description or misinterpreted scenario.

You should know that there are problematic, unhappy titles that our non-Muslim colleagues and friends and contemporaries tout as positive representation. We cannot bring ourselves to comment. We cannot bring ourselves into that public ring of dismay, that disregard for our opinions, that insistence that it is one of the few titles out there that even considers us at all and so we should bite our tongue and be pleased with it.

(There is one title, in particular, that several friends and I have sat on for months. It leaves bruises on my heart and itches in my fingertips. I am still not sure how to address it. I am still not sure if I should.)

You should know that it upsets me, it curdles my very soul, when Pamela Gellar (self-titled political activist, writer and rabid Islamophobe) expends her bigoted vitriol on Salaam Reads, the industry’s very first Muslim-devoted imprint, and no one in publishing, in spite of their unforced joy over the creation of Salaam Reads, offers any support or concern about potential pushback on such a project in an atmosphere of tension and hate.

It troubles me that every Muslim in this country sits with a hand over their mouth during the GOP debates, while well-meaning friends and neighbors rub their eyes in disbelief that, fifteen years after 9/11, other Americans cannot tell the difference between Muslims and Sikhs and Hindus and brown people living their lives and trying to do their jobs without being run over or beaten or having their scarf yanked off.

This is what isn’t said in the books you read.

This is what you need to know.

We are not your money makers. We are not your guinea pigs or lab experiments to prod at. We are not your wild child rebels or subdued servants or doe-eyed harem beauties to place about your draft like cardboard cut-outs.

Our children deserve more from the books they read than the same stereotypes used to bully and subdue their souls being painted over and offered up as something new and enjoyable.

If you care about us – if you want to know us, to see us – listen to us.

Listen to what we want to say. Boost our voices above the hateful masses. Pay attention to what is already being said about us, what is already being done to us, what we supposedly deserve. Digest that our pain predates your interest, is deep-veined and multi-faceted.

Fifteen years after 9/11, this is all that isn’t being said.

This is what you need to know.

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About Author

Kaye M.

Kaye M. is an all-American Muslim magical girl, YA and MG writer. She is the founder and on the outreach team for The Muslim Squad. You can find her on Twitter at @gildedspine.

7 Comments

  1. Thank you for this post. It touched my heart.

    Stereotypes are hard to deal with because they do have a function in societies, though often having many negative side effects.
    Stereotypes give easy and quick answers to complex questions. Alas the answers are often wrong. Nevertheless, people like quick and easy answers.

    Even I have trouble not slipping into new stereotypes as you use the word “we” in your post.
    Who’s this “we” you’re representing, I ask myself. If I fill in an answer to this question, ain’t I making my own stereotype?

    Damn hard problem to deal with.

    Peace be with you.

  2. Thank you for this, and for what you do on Twitter to broaden perspectives and open eyes. Can you recommend any good, fair, non-stereotypical children’s or YA books with a Muslim hero(ine)? Besides the one you’re writing, of course, which I am looking forward to reading when it comes out.

    • Hey Amy! Thank you so, so much! I would definitely keep an eye out for all the titles coming up in 2017 under Salaam Reads. In YA, I am so happy we have Aisha Saeed (Written in the Stars) and I’m hoping there are more voices like her soon. There is also Sara Farizan, Na’imah bint Roberts and Medeia Sharif, off the top of my head. In kidlit in general, there is Rukhsana Khan, a legend, G. Willow Wilson and Ms. Marvel (which in my opinion is pretty much universal) and Hena Khan – again, just off the top of my head. The sad truth is that there are very few of us to recommend right now, because so many more of us are still seeking representation BUT if you check The Muslim Squad’s site (muslimsquad.com) you’ll see that our lovely team members are collecting all the current titles out there right now and it’ll probably exceed what I can think of at this moment!

      • How to choose which books to recommend? I definitely wouldn’t recommend Roberts to a general audience any more than a NY publisher would sell a Mormon conversion story as mainstream YA. (Just as an example; nothing against them.)

        • Hey R! I would suggest, with all respect, not assuming that a general audience cannot handle a given narrative. Non-Muslim friends have actually gushed over Roberts’ works with me and been able to understand the heart of what is going on within them.

          When I recommend a title, I’m recommending it knowing that it gives a good example of how diverse the Muslim narrative is, how many different voices we have that need to be heard, and in an attempt to balance out the aspects of said narrative that have been stolen or co-opted from us.

          I think that Roberts’ She Wore Red Trainers, for instance, is good for people who assume that Muslim teens don’t have romance or romantic inclinations (and also, starcrossed love and family member disapproval for a relationship is a bit more universal than a conversion story, in my opinion).

          Aisha’s Written in the Stars challenges the overt, Western narrative on forced vs. arranged marriages. Sara Farizan is entirely focused on Iranian voices and experiences.

          It’s all about what the person specifically might be looking for at that moment.

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