Finding My Truth in Fiction

By the time I reached graduate school in 2004, my love of reading was not only dead, but putrified. The weight of five to ten books a week provides enough pressure to kill that joy. But to think of it, the joy of reading fiction died a slow and painful death from 1993 to 2003 during my long years trying to finish my undergraduate degree. From 1998 to 2001, I was too preoccupied with getting out of my rut as a college drop out to think about imagining the past, present, future, or alternative worlds through someone else’s eyes. As a waitress I worked double shifts and I was lucky if I had two days a week off. As a temp and admin assistant in various companies in Silicon Valley, I was often studying non-fiction books, even some motivational and popular psychology books. As a telephone operator and retail sales associate in a computer store, I was just too saturated with techno mumbo jumbo to pick up a good piece of literature. When started school in 2001, I spent most of my time playing catch up with the privileged kids at Santa Clara. I couldn’t relax and enjoy something like a book because that was too indulgent. There were no lazy Sundays reading, just crazy weekends trying to start a project far in advance or figure out how to get to graduate school. I did read novels while in school, but those were for required reading for courses. Usually I had just a night to read them. There was never time to enjoy them when I had to plow through so much material.

Since I’ve been free from indentured servitude, I have had a chance to read for my own personal enrichment. I’ve even enjoyed reading and re-reading books I’ve assigned my students in 10th, 11th, and 12th grade literature. To balance life out, I started new hobbies and revisited old ones–such as reading. Now that I have a few week off before another summer camp, I have a few weeks to indulge. Then we have about a month break till school starts again. But it will be Ramadan and I am going to focus on Quran, seerah, and Islamic texts. Now I can take a bit of a break, close my lap top, leave Hulu or netflix to turn pages.

I began reading again last year, it was an awkward slow start with Chung Kuo. Too bad all the novel’s females were merely receptacles for sperm. I couldn’t get past the first few chapters. I read Paul of Dune, but was really irked by the trend in science fiction writers to basically annihilate all people of color. In Chung Kuo, Chinese ruled the world, and of course, a white protagonist seemed bent on bringing it down. Why should I be interested in their white washed futuristic universe where I can’t possibly exist? Of if I did, I was part of what Tolkien describes as the swarthy masses. My husband reminds me that sci-fi and fantasy books, are just that–fantasy. And many white authors’ fantasies seem to be a world where there are no brown people. Likewise, the vampire books remind us that to be tragic and sexy, you have to be really really really pale. My husband took a writing course, where his classmate described a young white woman’s breasts being dragged in the forest as white and pure like bleating sheep or some nonsense like that. My husband pointed out that if the young author ascribed a value of innocence and purity to her whiteness. He asked him how would he describe a young woman’s purity if she had been a woman of color. This is in 2010, and I’ve already had my fill of classic literature in which the beauty of a woman rests on the absolute lack of melanin in her “pure” and “fair” skin. While I have steered away from Fantasy and Sci-fi, as an English teacher I can’t steer away from the English canon. That is why I’m trying to balance out the so-called classics with authors who I share some mutual history, religious, and commonality. Maybe even some of the authors affirm who I am, reflecting some of my truths as opposed to obliterating my humanity. That’s why I’m leaning more towards African American writers like Octavia Butler and writers from Muslim societies like Orhan Pamuk.

Currently Reading

  • Their Eyes are Watching God
  • The Road to Mecca

Books I’ve enjoyed reading with my students this past year

  • Othello
  • Anthem
  • The Crucible
  • Beloved
  • Fahrenheit 451
  • The Count of Monte Cristo
  • The Bread Givers
  • Taming of the Shrew
  • MacBeth
  • MidSummer Night’s Dream
  • Things Fall Apart
  • Hamlet

Books I’ve recently read on my own

  • The Translator
  • The Yaqoubian Building
  • Paul of Dune
  • The Kite Runner
  • Dracula
  • Cold Mountain
  • The Road
  • Angela’s Ashes

Summer Hit Reading List by Muslim Authors

  • Bensalem Himmich. The Polymath
  • G. Willow Wilson. Butterfly Mosque
  • Ilyasah Shabazz. Growing Up X
  • Radwa Ashour. Granada
  • Alaa Al Aswani. Chicago
  • Amin Alouf. Samarkand
  • Orhan Pamuk. The Black Book
  • Orhan Pamuk. My Name is Red
  • Leila Aboulela. Minaret

I look forward to reading more fiction by Muslim writers. Note that I call it Muslim fiction, rather than Islamic. There is a growing area of Islamic literature, where the purpose is to edify religious values. But Muslim fiction, may or may not do so. Often there is a cynicism and challenge to authority (especially religious authority), as opposed to the ideals of Islamic fiction. I find both forms of fiction extremely valuable and they speak truth to the experiences of the authors. I recognize however that there is a gap in the literature. Surveying the list of American Muslim fiction, I realize that there is a dearth of material written about the experience of Black American Muslims. A lifetime ago, I was a creative writing major in community college. I wanted to tell stories that weren’t told. So I wrote stories about two graduate students in different countries uncovering a multi-generational family history in Andalusia and Morocco. I wrote about an intercultural friendship between two women that opens the door for one of the women to begin a courtship with the other’s brother. I wrote about an unrequited love. I wrote about women who were beautiful in hijab. I wrote…I wrote…. and I wrote. One day I gave up writing, because I didn’t think I’d ever make it to the places I imagined. Looking back after so many years have passed, I realize that have been to so many of those places. And the places I want to go are within reach. Perhaps I should remind myself of the parable of the sower. Some of my students are talented writers. I hope to encourage the future generation of writers, as well as inspire myself to begin weaving my own complex tapestries of thought. Maybe together, we can spin tales that reflect our world view, build on our experiences, and speak to our hopes. Maybe we can find truth in our fiction, participating in a cultural production that says “We are here and we’ve done something beautiful.” We just have to sow those seeds so that one day they can bear fruit.