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. Today I’m honored and happy and excited to have on the blog Nafiza Azad & Karuna Riazi, two Muslim authors I admire, while they talk to each other about all things fantasy, writing and representation.
Nafiza: Assalaam wa alaikum, Runa!
Karuna: Wa alaikum as-salaam, Nafiza! It’s such a pleasure to have this conversation with you!
Nafiza: It is! So, we’re here to interview each other for the Muslim Voices Rise Up series run by Fadwa and Adiba! I envision our interview to be more of a conversation.
So, let me jump in with the first question. Tell us about yourself! (Or your selves, depending on how multiple you feel today.)
Karuna: Okay! So, I like to describe myself as a Muslim girl who reads a lot of books, drinks a lot of tea and wears a lot of hats. One of those hats is, obviously, a children’s book author with Simon and Schuster/Salaam Reads. I am also a former ELA teacher who was responsible for wrangling high school and middle school hellions, an avid K-drama watcher, a baker and Great British Bakeoff enthusiast, and tormented perfectionist who should be writing her next draft faster than she currently is.
And now we see how quickly Nafiza regrets this conversation because I am very much a rambler! (Your turn, Nafiza!)
Nafiza: Yes, the world is waiting for Tam.
Me, I feel like all I have been doing these days is talking about myself. No one told me that being a debut author would mean talking so much about one’s own life. But just in case someone is really interested.
Like you, I wear a lot of hats. I think that’s what comes from being an immigrant or being children of immigrants. I call myself an Indo-Fijian Canadian. My debut novel THE CANDLE AND THE FLAME is out on May 14th and oh my gosh, whoever is the lead vocal of Melomance has my heart.
I like mangoes. Hahaha.
Now that we have introduced ourselves mostly, let’s talk about what we’re here to talk about. Muslimness and the expression of it in YA specifically. Would you like to start off the conversation?
Karuna: Yes! I would love for us to dive right into the fact that we both write fantasy. This may be a heavy question to start with right off the bat, but I love hearing you talk about it: why do you think it is important for speculative fiction, and fantasy in particular, to involve Muslim characters?
Nafiza: I went on my first class visit yesterday (April 18th) and I met several young sisters who confided to me that they have been searching for reflections of themselves in fantasy and coming up dry. They want characters who look like them, who have the same names they do, and who have adventures that seem so improbable in real life. So clearly there’s a demand for Muslims in fantasy.
Now to answer your question, WHY is it important to have Muslim characters in fantasy specifically.
I will bring in some theory that I read while doing my Masters in Children’s Lit. Fairy tales are known to be important to children because it allows them to place themselves in the position of the protagonist and defeat the mythical dragons. Solving problems in fiction allows kids to solve problems in real life. They may not face down real dragons in real life but their problems are just as immense and troublesome to them.
Speculative fiction featuring Muslim characters are important for similar reasons for Muslim kids, Muslim readers. Facing down fictional adversaries may give them courage and strengthen their belief in their own abilities.
Does this make sense?
Karuna: It absolutely does, and give me a minute to get over my awe and inadequacy in tacking this topic with someone who holds a Masters in Children’s Literature.
Okay. We can keep going.
I see the importance of Muslims in fantasy as being crucial in my work for two different reasons. One, in the words of Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop: windows, mirrors and sliding doors.
Fantasy is often degraded and reduced to a trivial, unnecessary genre, but in truth, fantasy does a lot of hard hitting in imaginatively addressing real-life conflicts, concerns and constructs in a way that is accessible to readers of all ages and backgrounds.
When Muslims see themselves in fantasy – and others see Muslims represented respectfully and diversely in fantasy – they are seeing themselves as worthy of having those conflicts discussed and addressed, while also being worthy of adventure, true love, happy endings and peaceful experiences.
Karuna: That is one of the things I love most about fantasy: you can have the important discussions of radical joy and radical pain. It’s a huge playing field, and that matters a lot. I also think writing Muslims into fantasy is important, as a Muslim author, because it carries on a tradition we’ve been very influential in for centuries.
Nafiza: Agreed. Having Muslims and other minorities in leading roles in fantasy is also, in my opinion, a way to counter many canonical works where POC only enter the narratives as easily-discarded characters or villains.
Nafiza: I’m looking at you, Tolkien.
Karuna: And in our prior works in the genre – I say our and mean Muslim creators, authors and craftspeople – we were huge players. Just look at the Islamic golden age and the stories that developed and are still passed on from there. It’s often surprising to me that we have Muslim authors who see writing Muslim characters into their fantasy as potentially blasphemous when this is something our predecessors, who were closer to the original foundation of Islam, readily experimented with and discussed their identity and other issues through.
I think it is a matter of upholding that legacy to embrace our identity as Muslim fantasy authors and write #ownvoices fantasies.
Nafiza: Definitely, there is a wealth of classical fantasy literature created by scholars of the past.
Karuna: I feel that you and me are inheritors of that history, and that is something to be proud of.
But I am rambling and that was a longer answer than I expected to give.
Nafiza: TALES OF THE MARVELLOUS AND NEWS OF THE STRANGE translated by Malcon C. Lyons is just one example. So, my next question. How does being a Muslim author affect your writing?
Karuna: I think it affects my writing in so many different ways. Being raised Muslim – or, I should say, being raised in my family’s particular Muslim experience – colors my approach to fantasy, for instance. I think of jinns and associated Bangladeshi legend and lore about them as much as I think about the Southern ghost stories my grandmother got into my hands (shout-out to the legend Patricia McKissack for scaring me silly at an early age and also grounding my African-American heritage with The Dark Thirty).
I also consider issues of identity, immigration, racism and bigotry, far more deeply than I might have if I wasn’t a follower of a marginalized and frequently attacked faith.
I think my experience as a Muslim child in America post-9/11 really lends itself to my desire to balance angst in my stories with a happy ending, and focus more on hope than (what is admittedly reality) dismal experiences and Islamophobia.
Nafiza: Yes, definitely. I feel like though we write contemporary, all the issues threaded into our worlds and the conflicts our books explore are a direct result of our Muslim identities and the hostile attitudes we have to field daily.
Karuna: I’ve had that criticized in mainstream reviews – “I wanted to give this to my students but the author didn’t focus enough on Islamophobia and I wondered why” – and I in turn wonder why Muslim students and kids need to have narratives that solely focus on those conflicts and trauma.
We are a very traumatized demographic on the whole and I know how much of my experiences have been colored by that continuous pain. I think it’s important to remember that kids need fictional escape and imaginative hope as much as they need validation and confirmation of the experiences they have.
Nafiza: I think the pigeon-holing of our work is something we will struggle against. The West sometimes feels like it is only willing to accept a certain narrative from us. Do you feel that?
Karuna: Yes, definitely. I think that We Need Diverse Books’ appearance on the children’s literature scene in 2014 helped in that we now have a little more space than we used to and aren’t blatantly encouraged toward writing “issue books,” but there’s still underlying pressure and expectations to mold ourselves to a particular gaze and assumption of who we are and what we experience.
Nafiza: Yes! Also, real talk, I feel like we are at times judged by our community too for the books we write. Sometimes I think about being true to the story or being ‘good’ as defined by my elders. This hasn’t happened to me yet but I have had some run-ins with the dreaded haraam police. I feel like being a Muslim author is a heavier responsibility precisely because there are so few of us.
Karuna: Yes! This is something I’ve worried about a lot, and I think is an issue that I’ve heard Muslim authors worry about just as much, if not more, than general reception of their books. I think that is particularly sad and frustrating that our community often grapples with this desire to have one ideal narrative that does not acknowledge or engage the reality of our being a faith with varied followers, practices and customs.
The truth is that we’ll find ourselves more successful if we acknowledge the missing narratives and the narratives that are just as important even if they are hard for us to swallow.
Nafiza: Yes! We talk about diversity in the greater sense but forget that what makes our Ummah so beautiful is the diversity within our ranks. This acceptance is something we need to work on, for sure.
Karuna: I know part of this is the external pressure of how we are already misconstrued by the media and generally written out of our own representation, but it is still frustrating.
True, and another issue I’ve been recognizing a lot in children’s literature as well as Muslim narratives in general is a lack of acknowledgment of that diversity that should be amended.
Nafiza: I feel like it is important to take ownership of the ways in which we, as a community, are lacking so that we can address these ways.
Karuna: For instance, the American Muslim population features, as its highest demographic, Black Muslims. However, Black Muslims are often not allowed to be the leading face or image that is considered or put in the spotlight as part of America’s Muslims.
And yes, definitely!
Nafiza: YES! I have noticed that and I feel we need to have real candid talk about this. This will allow us to address our own biases and prejudices. Dialogue is important and I hope to promote it through my books, iA.
Karuna: For me, if I can take the mic at an event, for instance, and say, “It was easier for me in some ways to write about the Desi side of my identity because I felt that predominantly Desi-led communities I worked within would acknowledge my book readily – and protect me from anti-Blackness that I’ve already been accustomed to in said communities, and I’m challenging myself to be braver about claiming my Blasian identity and writing Black characters in my books,” that is part of that needed candid talk.
I personally am doing my best to work past concerns about community reception and focus on the representation and unpacking my own internalized concerns or worries about appropriately embracing both sides of my family.
Nafiza: Yes, I completely agree. I think this dialogue and this awareness of the prejudice and bias against Black Muslims is something we need to be actively aware of and continuously work against
Karuna: Yes. I think we also need to be comfortable with acknowledging that yes, as a Muslim, I’m marginalized, but is there someone I can pass the mic to who can speak to their experience and is more on the sidelines than I am?
I have a closing question for you, Nafiza: are there any ways in which you feel you’ve become more confident in your identity, or expressing certain aspects of your identity in your fictional narratives, since you first started writing?
Nafiza: I think that after writing THE CANDLE AND THE FLAME with its unapologetic Muslim characters, I have become prouder and braver of my religion and my culture.
As sad as it may seem, facing the continuous hostility as a visible Muslim woman made me timider about my identity than I should be. I feel like by writing these characters, this world, this story, I took ownership of myself. I reclaimed myself, if that makes sense.
I am not what this world, what the toxic narratives in the media or social media, want me to be. I am myself, Muslim and proud of it.
I turn the question to you, Runa. How have you changed?
Karuna: I feel, over the past few years and the shift from teen blogger on the sidelines of the community to active participant and published author, I’ve run low on cares.
To elaborate: I care very deeply about the needs and rights of marginalized communities. I care less about the respectability politics I often felt I had to adhere to when I first started writing. I would often step away from community discourse feeling as though I’d burned bridges by calling people out on racism, for instance. Now, I feel that, for the sake of the readers I’ve met over the past two years in particular, I have work to do and keeping myself constrained or chastising myself for saying what needs to be said is not part of that work.
As mentioned before, I’m also digging deeper and working toward representing myself in a way that honors the young(er) girl I used to be who did not see herself in the books she read and felt there was something wrong with her, or lacking in her, as a result. I love what you said about taking ownership and reclaiming, because that is so true.
I feel like part of the job as a Muslim author is to reclaim a narrative we have been worked out of, and figure out how that reclaiming works and looks like and how we can empower not just ourselves but others through that reclaiming.
Nafiza: Yes, definitely, agreed.
Karuna: I think it is good for us to be kind to ourselves and treat it as another work in progress, because it really is. The Runa who wrote The Gauntlet is not entirely the same Runa who wrote The Battle. She grew, and is still growing.
Nafiza: Or the Runa who is writing Tam. Ahem
Karuna: Or, yes, the Runa who is writing Tam.
Nafiza: If you are still reading this, we have finally reached the end. Thank you for sticking around and reading us talking to each other. I hope our thoughts have given you something to think about!
Oh, and it’s not too early to say, Ramadan Mubarak!
Meet the authors
Karuna Riazi is a born and raised New Yorker, with a loving, large extended family and the rather trying experience of being the eldest sibling in her particular clan. She holds a BA in English Literature from Hofstra University, and is an online diversity advocate, blogger, and educator. She is a 2017 honoree on NBC Asian America’s Redefining A-Z list, featuring up and coming talent within the Asian-American and Pacific Islander community, and her work has been featured on Entertainment Weekly, Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, Book Riot and Teen Vogue, among others.
Karuna is fond of tea, Korean dramas, writing about tough girls forging their own paths toward their destinies, and baking new delectable treats for friends and family to relish. The Gauntlet (S&S/Salaam Reads, March 28, 2017) is her middle grade debut, with a forthcoming companion, The Battle.
Nafiza is a self-identified island girl. She has hurricanes in her blood and dreams of a time she can exist solely on mangoes and pineapple. Born in Lautoka, Fiji, she currently resides in BC, Canada where she reads too many books, watches too many Kdramas and writes stories about girls taking over the world. Her debut YA fantasy, THE CANDLE AND THE FLAME, will be released by Scholastic in 2019.
And that’s it for today’s Muslim Voices Rise up post, friends! I am so deeply in love with this conversation and how candid and real both authors are, and how this is a starting point to so many conversation we need to have as a community. I hope you loved reading it as much as I did.
A million thanks to Aimal for the graphic!
That’s it until next time.
Hope you enjoyed, write to you soon.