Welcome to Muslim Voices Rise Up, a month-long project taking place during Ramadan where Muslim authors and bloggers share their experiences on various topics. This project is dedicated to centering Muslim experiences and showcasing the diversity within our own narratives. You can find more info, along with other blog posts for this project, on the introduction post. In today’s post, Muslim writers share what drives them to write, what started their passion and what keeps them going. It’s all really inspiring, if you ask me.
One thing my mom loves to talk about the most (with the exception of the remember-when-you-wanted-to-be-a-garbage-lady story) was my obsession with creating stories. From a young age, I would draw and write in my childish scribbles and create books at a feverish pace. When I had asked her, “But why?” She simply shrugged. “I guess you just liked it.”
As I grew older, circumstances grew worse at home and my writing transformed into storyboarding and drawing. I’d constantly have an adventure playing in front of my eyes. I believe it was my way of dissociating from a difficult reality: the dissolving of my family. But when the images flew by too fast for my hands to sketch, I made the switch to write by hand.
Fun fact: All of my work was first written by hand. I suspect it had to do with the soothing motion of pen looping against paper, the constant pressure of my fingertips guiding each curve, each letter until the image that danced before my eyes sparkled on the page. Writing this way had me utterly transfixed because so badly in my teen years, all I wanted to do was run away from everything I had ever known, from the chaos of home, of family. But since running wasn’t an option, I found my escape with physical pages and words.
In my darkest moments then (and even now), sitting down to write gave me purpose. It was the anchor that held me when waters turned rough and dangerous. It was the grounding force that kept me from running, even when I was screaming to get away.
I wrote because it held me. Calmed me. Freed me.
Writing stories allowed me to hit pause on a life that was determined to fast-forward without me. It gave me a safe place, where only I knew the rules and only I could control who entered and who left and who dared and who stood quiet.
In my words, there were no surprises. In my words, I could find my way back home.
In short, writing for me is finding this moment, this place, this world of comfort and security. Because at the end of a tough day, I know there is a blank notebook, with a world of possibility floating in my eyes.
There is my safe place welcoming me with open arms. There is my home.
All I need to do is pick up a pen to get there.
Why do I write?
It’s a question that I ask myself over and over again, particularly when I begin brainstorming, plotting, or drafting a new idea. It’s a simple yet loaded question, and the multitude of answers never cease to amaze me.
I began writing at the age of five. I had finished reading all of the Angelina Ballerina books at my local library and was upset that there weren’t anymore. So I decided to write my own. At first, I simply copied down the books on lined paper, practicing my cursive. Gradually, I began to make my own plots featuring Angelina and her best friend Alice. I was writing fanfiction at five years old, and I didn’t even know it. The Angelina Ballerina books not only made me fall in love with writing, but they also made me fall in love with dance.
I’ve continued to write ever since then. In first grade I wrote an original eleven page story, inspired by my friend who had a cousin visiting her at school for a few days. I designed a cover and everything. My mom printed the book, making multiple copies, and together we bound the books with curly ribbon and sold them to family and friends for $5 dollars each.
I was so proud of myself, proud at the very fact that I’d created something that had never been created before, and it’s that spark that continues to drive me. Today, I write for slightly more serious reasons. As a Black Muslim young woman, there are very few stories written by people like me or about me. I take it upon myself to help fill that void. I know when I was reading Angelina Ballerina, Alice, the brown mouse, was the sidekick. But Black girls (and all PoC!) don’t deserve to be sidekicks. They’re complex, diverse, and beautiful and I try to portray all of those qualities in my work.
I write to release stress, express myself, and be creative. Writing taps into another part of my mind, that I don’t always engage during school. However, being a writer does help make school more interesting, as I’m always looking for bits of dialogue or slivers of ideas.
I write to inspire. I always write for myself first, but one day I hope that my words and my novels inspire even just one person. I want people to see themselves reflected in all of their glory, because I know I didn’t always see that growing up. I write because I believe that’s one of the gifts that I’ve been blessed with, and I should use that blessing to impact people in whatever way I can. And ultimately I write to make myself happy, because writing truly is a big source of joy in my life.
I didn’t always want to write.
Canadian libraries were my second home growing up. As much as I loved reading as a child, I never considered ever writing a book. From Grade 8 forward, accounting became my career focus and the field I would get my undergraduate degree in.
As a convert to the Islamic faith of almost thirty years, when I become a mom, I discovered the lack of children’s literature featuring children like mine. The writing bug bit me less than a decade ago but now that it has taken hold of me, I’ve discovered there is a tremendous amount to say.
As a Muslim mom of three daughters, I gravitate to giving the teenage girls in my manuscripts impossible choices. I’ve found a lack of Muslim protagonists of color in books today, that’s why I decided focus on that underrepresented demographic in my young adult projects. Muslim teenage girls of all hues need to be seen on the page. They need to be seen as human beings who are multi-dimensional and just as vital to our world as anyone else.
I write because others are oppressed and can’t speak up. Too many people subjugate Muslim women’s voices and my job is to use mine since I refuse to be silenced. I write because others are afraid to shout their truths. Those of us who can and are willing to, need to step up. We can no longer allow or tolerate others telling our stories for us. Patriarchy and racism are vile ideologies that need to be eradicated and young adult fiction can be a vehicle to get this accomplished.
But writing isn’t easy.
You have to be willing to learn the craft of writing and work tirelessly to hone it. Authors, especially from diverse backgrounds, face a hard road in today’s publishing world. We have to face gatekeepers who don’t understand and are not familiar with our struggles that shape our world view.
No matter the obstacles, we need to push back and reclaim our narrative.
As an someone with roots in both Canada and the United States, I’m willing to fight with my words and my stories, to make books that showcase those who are ignored or traditionally passed over are never again silenced.
When I was back in school, I had writing assignments and I hated how there would be a word limit specified for each time of writing style. Growing up I tried several ‘art’ forms, from painting to music. In the end I always returned back to writing. It’s what resonated with me the most, I felt I could express myself more in from of writing that I could ever say it out loud.
This was one of the reasons which encouraged me to publish my blog, to have a small place for myself where I can write posts on whatever topic caught my attention. Over a year ago, I came across my old writing from school and decided to re-write them and publish them into my first ever self-published poetry chapbook.
Writing for me, is a way to express myself. Unapologetically.
Nowadays, whenever time allows me, my dilemma would often be to either write or to read during those free times. Reading is more of a hobby than stress-coping mechanism which writing, for me, has evolved to. Most time, I would even save what I write, just because a times it’s an outlet. Other times, I would write and re-write it just to get it to sound the way it’s in my head.
After starting my bookstagram two years ago and entering the book bloggers community, reading became more than a hobby. It gave meaning to reviewing each book and talking to people who agree (or disagree) to what I think of a particular story. It opened another world of experiences, some similar to mine, some completely different. Yet nothing exactly like mine.
Writing for me, is a way to represent myself. Unconditionally.
Through writing, I wish to not only express myself, but also to reach out to those who might be able to identify themselves with what I’ve written. It fascinates me that you can reach out to hundreds of people and connect with them through your words, stories and uniquely shared experiences.
It is what drives me to make time to schedule my blog posts. It is what drives me continue drafting another book, who knows when it will get published, if ever.
Writing for me, is to evoke feelings out of words, it is what satisfies me.
I just want my people to be seen. As far as I know, there are zero stories in the international book publishing world about an Indonesian Muslim written by an Indonesian Muslim. Nope, and these people—by these I mean, the USA publishing world—are quick to judge. Even when we try so hard to write, our efforts would be erased immediately for an erred in grammar or with an “unable to connect” verdict.
It was depressing, especially since Indonesians were still not big on pursuing greater education. Hence why an English degree always seen as minority. The one you take if you’re born from a rich parent or if you didn’t get into the medical/engineering/law degree. Kinda hypocrite opinion in my opinion, since those parents will be quick to brag about their children who can speak English. But if you wanna pursue a greater education in an English degree, they’ll be quick to disown you. An experience from yours truly.
So then comes the second batch. Those of us who spend our youth to fulfill our parents demands can only do so—being a writer, I mean—after we settle in life. And us who decided to fight to see our representation in the international book shelf around the world are those who grit our teeth and swallow our tears. But when you fight and fight, yet the walls give no sign of falling down, sometimes you start to wonder. Is it all worth it?
I don’t know how long I will last, writing still is something that I do for the little time I can set aside when I am not feeling permanently tired or rushing to do my job to serve my people.
So, what still drives me to write? Because if I give up, I don’t know if there is anyone who will take my position. And when we stop trying, what are the odds that world will know us? And care about us?
A. M. Dassu
We’ve all been children and all of us have at some point learnt to read. However, not all of us have had the privilege of reading books or articles in which we could see ourselves positively or even accurately represented.
Growing up, I didn’t really seek to find anyone like me in books or magazines. I’d never experienced it, so never expected it. Instead, I co-opted another culture that I could relate to, and felt as if I was seen if I saw anyone black or brown on TV or in books. They were my people. I hung off every word that came out of Will Smith’s mouth. I knew the words to all the soul and hip hop songs coming out of America. The soundtrack to my childhood was Bob Marley. I hadn’t struggled in life at all, but their struggle was mine. I was fascinated watching Alex Dimitriades on the Australian TV Series Heartbreak High, he looked like my people and back then when I didn’t have the Internet at hand to fact check, I just pretended he was South Asian. When Desmond’s, a BBC TV sitcom was aired each week, my mum and I would stop whatever we were doing and present ourselves in front of the screen. The black family experience, the mention of extended family back home, watching adults talking of another country, a better life, all of those conversations meant something to me, because I’d heard them before.
I’ve been writing poems and stories for a long time but never thought I could ever publish them traditionally. I wrote freely for myself, thinking I might somehow one day publish my own book (this was before self publishing became a phenomenon). When I was given the confidence to write for publications such as the Huffington Post and Times Education Supplement, my first intention was to write about universal topics, hoping that my brown face and foreign name would show others that we’re all the same. I am a British Muslim, descended from mixed South Asian parents. I feel I am more British and Muslim than anything else. I bridge two cultures, not clearly fitting into one or the other. I am both of them, intertwined. I am privileged to be able to enjoy and understand both. And so I write to represent and voice perceptions of marginalised communities. I want to show that people from ethnic minority communities aren’t that different; we have the same hopes and fears that others do. I am passionate about challenging stereotypes and do this by writing stories that have relatable characters, so that people who don’t get the opportunity to mix with ‘the other’ can make a connection.
The world seems to be going backwards, it feels as if the history tapes are being replayed. Media representation significantly influences the way certain groups are perceived by society. Where there was integration, division has been sown by politicians, media and extremists. My writing is driven by hope. Hope that somewhere, someone will read my work and learn about experiences other than their own, that they might be reminded, we all spill the same red blood, no matter what shade our skin or our belief. I write characters that are driven by their Muslim faith to do good, just like the thousands of other people of faith I know. But they are also flawed–because they’re human.
We know that people from diverse minority backgrounds are not adequately represented in literature, and although awareness of the lack of diversity in media has become an issue recently, not enough progress has been made. I was happy to read Pride and Prejudice and The Lady In The Tower and imagine myself in the character’s privileged shoes at school. However, with the rise of the far right and polarisation of communities, it is more important than ever before to write stories that will show our children, and through them possibly their carers, that there is nothing to fear, that there is indeed another side to the story they are being force fed. It is more important than ever for our children to see themselves portrayed in literature, to know that they can also aspire and dream.
It is only through adequate representation and allowing people from diverse backgrounds to authentically voice their lived experiences that we can learn about and from different lives and cultures, and hopefully bring people together. And this is what drives me to write, the hope that my stories will do just that. We’ve all been children and all of us have at some point learnt to read. However, not all of us have had the privilege of reading books or articles in which we could see ourselves positively or even accurately represented.
I started writing when I was 17, since December, 2013. I opened a Word doc on my sister’s PC and began to type in a story, any story, because back then I was dying inside my mind. I had just lost three people I love in my life all in three months. Before that time, death didn’t touch my life as it did during then. Depression had a hold on me so tight I couldn’t escape. So I chose the last open door for my escape.
I began to write.
And I never looked back.
Since then till now, I wrote seven manuscripts, two of them unfinished.
So suffice to say writing saved me. Writing was, is, and forever will be my knight in shining armor. Whenever life tries to bury me, writing gives me a hand and pulls me up.
I still write because of this reason. But now that I write, many more reasons have sprung up.
When I was young, I heard a saying in Bangla,
“Women, when young, are their father’s daughters and brother’s sisters.
When married, they become their husband’s wives.
When old, they become their son’s mothers.O woman, what is really YOU?”
And it hit me hard. Because where I come from, this is the only identity a woman can have within herself. Being someone to some man. Her identity, her existence must be tied to the relationship she shares with a man. Else? She has no identity.
I don’t want that for myself.
I want to be known for being ME.
So I write. Because I want writing to be my identity. I want to be known as ME, the writer. Not as someone’s daughter or sister or wife or mother.
Another thing that drives me to write is to give something to kids from background to see themselves in. Ever since I learned what a dragon is, I always saw white people as their riders. If you search for dragon riders’ pictures on Pinterest, 90% of the photos will contain white people riding dragons. Only 10% are East Asian.
No riders are like me, a brown South Asian girl. These riders are either wearing Western cultures’ clothing, or robes from East Asian cultures. I agree dragons are not South Asian mythological creatures.
Tell that to a kid who is too young to realize the why behind it, and simply wants to see someone like them riding a dragon.
That’s why, simply this is why, I write.
So kids like me, kids from my background sees themselves, or someone like them, riding a dragon, and slashing monsters, and being total badass, not be pushed to the sidelines for white protagonists to steal the thunder and essentially the spotlight.
I write, so kids like me see themselves one day, riding dragons and being the protagonist, for once at least.
Naheed Hasnat Senzai
Many authors whisper that they hear voices inside their head. Persistent voices that insist that you let them out. Therapy and medication you say? well that may be true – most writers are a little crazy. It takes a special kind of crazy to sit down and stare at an empty screen, or a blank piece of paper, and devise an entire universe – a world filled with interesting characters, memorable settings and drama… lots of drama.
If you ask most writers, they were readers first. I was no different – a voracious reader I was fascinated how authors could string words together and magically transport me to new worlds. I encountered characters whose shoes I could “walk in” – enabling me to visit a marvelous chocolate factory, journey from slavery to freedom, escape Nazis during the holocaust and journey into space to find a long-lost father. I haunted the library and the librarians handed me all sorts of books, not just fiction. I went through biographies of mad kings, treaties on space travel, exotic Amazonian poisons, travel diaries and cookbooks. It was in the fifth grade that I decided to write a book myself.
Fast forward nearly two decades. I was working in the technology industry and lived with my husband son, a cat in a house in the San Francisco Bay Area. Although still a devoted reader, my promise to write a book had fallen by the wayside. Until one morning when I came to a certain truth – I wondered how I would feel if I woke up at eighty and wished I’d written the book I had always wanted. That was my turned point.
Although writers write for many reasons – to create something new and original, to win awards and prizes, to make an impact on the world, to make lots of money (good luck with that one), mine was to achieve a personal goal I had set for myself at aged ten. The voices had always been in my head, wanting their stories told. So that day, I settled down and got serious about two things; one how the publishing business worked, and second learning the craft of writing itself. And three years later, my first was came out into the world.
And it’s a wrap on this post of Muslim Voices Rise up, friends! I hope you liked reading all the reasons these Muslim folks write as much as I did and took something away from it!
A million thanks to Aimal for the graphic!
That’s it until next time.
Hope you enjoyed, write to you soon.