Monday, June 26, 2017

Writing for Change: Samira Ahmed Speaks

With the intensity of the 2016 election, I've found myself drawn to those like myself for whom current events can not be extricated with their work. 

On that note, I have Samira Ahmed, author of Love, Hate, and Other Filters (Soho Press, 1/16/18), here to share the ways in which the political climate has shaped her writing. Take it away, Samira!

Lean In…To Hope

Say their names.

Nabra Hassanen
Maulana Akonjee
Thara Uddin
Azzedine Soufiane
Ibrahima Barry
Nazma Khanam
Khaled Belckacemi
Aboubaker Thabti
Mamadou Tanou
Abdelkrim Hassane
Srinivas Kuchibhotla
Ricky John Best
Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche

This list represents only some of the individuals who have lost their lives in Islamophobic attacks in the United States and Canada in the last year or so. Not all of these people are Muslim, but, nevertheless, were victims of Islamophobic bigotry.

And this is only a partial list and doesn’t include assaults, vandalism, Quran burnings, anti-Islamic protests, and the ongoing threats and hate speech directed at Muslims or those who “appear Muslim.”

Islamophobia isn’t new to the United States—indeed it comes anyone living during the Iran Hostage Crisis or in the aftermath of 9/11 knows that. But since the 2016 Presidential campaign, anti-Islamic sentiment is on the rise.

My debut novel, Love, Hate, and Other Filters, confronts Islamophobia on the page. Some of my inspiration, if you can call it that, for incidences in the novel, stems from my own experiences growing up as the only Muslim in my small Midwestern town and from what I witnessed after the 9/11 attacks while living in New York City. In 2010, when I first had the idea for this book, a New York City cab driver was stabbed after a passenger asked if he was Muslim.

When faced with this rising tide of ignorance and hate, when you are made to feel like you are the “other” in your own nation, in your only home, there are a few choices before you—and sometimes you have to make the same choice every day. What can I do with my anger and fear and sorrow and disbelief?

I chose to use all of these feelings and filter them into my writing, but I chose to filter these feelings through hope. For me, leaning into hope was how I could write my resistance; how I could stand and not cower; how I could declare, as Langston Hughes wrote, that, “I, too, am America.”

I hope that my book can be a mirror for so many kids, Muslim or not, who might feel like they’re on the periphery. I hope it can show them that they are loved and that they are enough.

I also hope my book can be a window for so many kids who may have never met a Muslim, but have only heard the fear mongering from politicians and talking heads and hate groups. I hope those kids can see what it means to be a Muslim in America, firstly that it simply means that they are American.

But I also wrote this book for me. Putting this book into the world is a way for me to send a little light into the darkness, to hold onto hope and to remember.

--

Samira Ahmed was born in Bombay, India, and grew up in Batavia, Illinois, in a house that smelled like fried onions, spices, and potpourri. She currently resides in the Midwest. She’s lived in Vermont, New York City, and Kauai, where she spent a year searching for the perfect mango. You can find her on Twitter @sam_aye_ahm and on her wesbite at www.samiraahmed.com.

Her debut novel, Love, Hate, and Other Filters, is available for pre-order now.

--

Thanks so much, Samira! For more in the Writing for Change series, check out posts from Kelly Loy Gilbert, Tanaz Bhathena, Rachel Lynn Solomon and Pamela Courtney.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Writing for Change: Rachel Lynn Solomon Speaks

2017 remains a year with a particularly charged political atmosphere, and I've found myself drawn to those like myself for whom current events can not be extricated with their work.

Today I've invited Rachel Lynn Solomon, author of You'll Miss Me When I'm Gone (Simon Pulse, 1/2/18), to share with us the ways in which the political climate has shaped her writing. Take it away, Rachel!


I never thought I'd see a swastika outside a World War II movie. In fact, I avoid books and films about WWII partially for this reason. When I was young, my parents filled my bookshelves with Holocaust literature. I never grew desensitized -- I don't think that's possible -- but I did grow weary. It was too much. Too much hate for a child to try to process. Too many questions without answers.

In the days and weeks after the election, I saw them. Swastikas. Not in my neighborhood, but in news stories, scrawled across brick walls and painted on synagogue doors. It seemed the election had given racists, bigots, misogynists, and anti-Semites permission to go public with their hate.

My first revisions for YOU'LL MISS ME WHEN I'M GONE were due a few weeks after the election. On November 9, I couldn't get out of bed. I'd cried myself to sleep the night before. Finally, finally, I forced myself to brush my teeth, let my dog drag me onto a walk, wept with a friend into coffee mugs. I signed up for monthly donations to the ADL, CAIR, the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, numerous others. I started calling my representative and senators.

Then I opened my book, and I turned my rage into words.

YOU'LL MISS ME WHEN I'M GONE is my fifth completed novel. Strangely, it's also my first book with Jewish characters. I figured I never read books about Jews that weren't about the Holocaust, that those kinds of books didn't really exist. It seemed as though there was no way to write about our rich traditions, beautiful languages, and cultural history without it being wrapped up in tragedy. Characters in YA novels celebrated Christmas. I did not. That's just how it was -- despite how Other it always made me feel.

When I began drafting YOU'LL MISS ME WHEN I'M GONE about four years ago, I wanted it to feel more personal than any of my other books. My characters, I decided, had to be practicing Jews. Through the revision process, YMMWIG grew into even more of a challenge to the current administration. The book is unapologetically feminist, sex-positive, liberal, and Jewish. My characters pray, observe Shabbat, and speak Hebrew with their Israeli mother.

Eight months after the election, I am still in mourning for our country. I am still fighting back in small, perhaps not always visible ways. And while I still struggle with Holocaust literature, what I've learned in recent years is that tragedy is not our only story as Jewish people. I want more stories about Jews in the modern world, about JDS and JCC and B'nai B'rith and Birthright. About the holidays we observe. About the feeling you get when you meet another Jewish person and you feel in your bones that you understand each other on some deep level. Klal yisrael, a phrase I include in my debut: we are all connected.

And there is the story about my relationship with Judaism, too -- one I am still figuring out how to tell. One day, I'll get there.

--

Rachel Lynn Solomon is the author of the contemporary YA novel You'll Miss Me When I'm Gone (Simon Pulse, 1/2/18), available for preorder now. A former journalist, Rachel currently works in education and loves tap dancing, red lipstick, and new wave music. You can find her on Twitter @rlynn_solomon and online at rachelsolomonbooks.com.

--


Thanks so much, Rachel! For more in the Writing for Change series, check out posts from Kelly Loy Gilbert, Tanaz Bhathena, Samira Ahmed, and Pamela Courtney.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Writing for Change: Tanaz Bhathena Speaks

In 2017, news headlines are hard to ignore. I can't remember a time in my life where politics have been so center stage in my mind. As writers, we have our own unique role to play as we struggle to reflect truth in our prose.

Today, I have Tanaz Bhathena, author of A Girl Like That (releases 2018), here to tell us how the political climate has shaped her work. Take it away, Tanaz!

Finding Hope in Darkness

I abhorred reading about politics as a teen. Yet, oddly enough, I've always liked books that have had a political backdrop. In school, I was the kid most likely to check out Rohinton Mistry's Such a Long Journey along with J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter from the library and enjoy both for how they reflected our world in different settings.

While reading the news often filled me with despair, fiction lifted my heart, giving me glimpses into human beings and their failings and also their innate capacity for goodness. I eventually began to follow politics more closely to see how it impacted people and their lives.

When I first started writing my book in 2006, I did a great deal of research--not only about the politics but also the history of Saudi Arabia. A part of me still wholeheartedly believes in people and their capacity for goodness--so much that I wondered if some of the themes I would be exploring would still be relevant when this book finally got published. Here's the thing though: People are slow to change, even when it is for the better.

In 2017, debates still break out worldwide over regulating women's bodies and consent. Wars are fought over race and religion. Domestic and sexual abuse are still problems and so are bullying and mental health.

I initially wrote A Girl Like That with an adult audience in mind. There was swearing (a whole lot of it that has now been cut). There were adult perspectives alongside the teenage ones. In the end, though, no adult publisher wanted it. It was too dark, they said. "Do the two main characters have to be dead at the beginning? Can you change that?" they asked me.

When I finally did sign a contract with a young adult publisher, these voices still echoed in my head. Will teens want to read this book? I wondered. Will they find it too dark or too issue-heavy?

But then I remembered the teen who hated the darkness of our world and found hope in even darker novels.

As Madeline L'Engle once said, "You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children."

--

Tanaz Bhathena was born in Mumbai and raised in Riyadh, Jeddah and Toronto. Her short stories have appeared in various journals, including Blackbird, Witness and Room Magazine. A Girl Like That is her first novel, available for preorder now. You can learn more at tanazbhathena.com.


Thanks so much, Tanaz. For more in the Writing for Change series, check out posts from Kelly Loy Gilbert, Rachel Lynn Solomon, Samira Ahmed, and Pamela Courtney.