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.

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7 thoughts on “Finding My Truth in Fiction

  1. I’m glad to see someone writing on this topic and also to see you laying out your relationship to reading & writing -Particularly how the context of our lives encourages or excludes us from the practice. As an English major undergrad I was expected to read 500-800 page books (gotta love those Victorians) in incredibly short periods of time so really appreciating reading fiction was replaced by feelings of anxiety & pressure. And now as someone who writes critically about literature as a grad student the experience of reading ( and writing my own fiction) can often get filtered through canonical ideals of what is deemed “great”. Yet I am really encouraged by the work of Muslim women- Leila Aboulela, Mohja Kahf, Jamilah Kolocotronis, Umm Juwayriyah & many more. It was actually after reading them that I felt I could write again- in my own voice.

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  2. Salaams Samira,
    Thank you for the link. I’m so excited to read your work. I just read one story last night and I’m absolutely in love with your writing. I thought about being an English major in undergrad. But I really couldn’t bear reading all that Shakespeare and other difficult European writers. Now, I’m teaching that stuff, it is a trip.

    I have a few friends who write and I’m almost inspired to resurrect characters I created a decade and a half ago. I definitely look forward to reading the writers you mentioned. I have a lot of catching up to do in this department. But it is exciting work.

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  3. Hi Margari,
    I usually lurk, but the subject of “books” is too tempting.
    I have not yet read “The Yakobian building,” but will in the future. My first love is the biography and memoir.
    But, when fiction immitates real life and the characters are well developed, I enjoy novels.
    If you like Chinua Achebe, you might enjoy
    Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Nahid Rachlin, Laila Lalami, Uzma Aslam Khan, Nadine Gordimer, Yasmina Qadra and Assia Djeber.
    The novels that I have finished this year:
    “The Swallows of Kabul,” by Yasmina Qadra
    “Q and A,” by Vikas Swarup
    “A suitable Boy,” by Vikram Seth
    “Sensoring: an Iranian Love story,” by S. Mandanipour
    “Moth’s smoke,” and “The reluctant Fundamentalist,” by Mohsin Hamid
    “The Case of Exploding Mangos,” by Muhammad Hanif
    “Aranged Marriage,” by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
    There are probably more, I just can’t think of them.
    I am still reading “Things fall apart,”
    For me, I have to mix up my subjects.
    I can’t read too many biographies or serious books about struggles. I try and throw in a few books on spirituality, short story collections and such.

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  4. Jan,
    You’ve mentioned some great titles and authors. I look forward to reading and discussing them. I love biography and memoir also. But the nerd in me bemoans the vacuum of color in science fiction and fantasy. I’m about the read the Polymath and mix it up with Road to Mecca. Honestly, I can’t handle all the depressing fiction that comes out of the Muslim world, but I’ll try. I do get tired of the cardboard religious characters. Being a religious person, I find some of the tropes offensive. It is sort of like an amoral person who who has no integrity and unable to transcend their own immediate wants and desires to help others telling me in a condescending way, “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” Sometimes reading the New York Times Bestselling novels gives me that feel. I’d like to read more fiction about spiritual awakening, about the struggle against degradation brought upon by not just religious intolerance and repression, but also poverty, sexism, racism, and corruption in Muslim majority societies and communities. Some books just reinforce common stereotypes about Muslims, dehumanizing anyone who decides that practice is a part of their way of life. With that all said and done, I still look forward to reading and critiquing works based on their merit and not just on my own views of the author’s religious perspectives.

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  5. I read Minaret and some of Abu Leila’s other short stories…. love her! and immediately thought of her as I perused this entry. Good to know she’s already on your list.

    happy reading!

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  6. I did some research about creating cooperative entities to publish books and it is actually very doable. I am horrible with remembering numbers, but I do remember that a self-publishing is affordable, especially if people worked together and aren’t expecting to get rich 😉 The bulk of the work comes from marketing. Considering the Bernice McFadden piece last week, maybe it is time for Muslim writers (who don’t want to exploit the tropes or who are not the right color/ethnicity) to consider this.

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