Writing a Story That’s Not Yours

It happens unexpectedly, like a slap on the face by a friend. You wake up one morning to read an announcement on social media: a new book about a (insert minority group here). This should be great news, especially if you belong to said minority group. But it’s not, because the author is white.

The same often happens in a religious context as well. Muslim stories are frequently co-opted by writers who are non-Muslim. (So are black stories, native stories, LGBTQ stories.) The bulk of western publishing has leaned white and Christian for centuries, so the fact that this occurs as often as it does shouldn’t be surprising. We’ve been complaining about this for the longest time, but has anyone been listening?

Now, however, Muslims have a voice amplified by social media and more publishing weight through imprints such as Salaam Reads. Increasingly, Muslim stories are being told by big-name authors (Rick Riordan’s Magnus Chase series comes immediately to mind) and also newcomers who have gained quick popularity (Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan, for instance). As a result, the noise is loud and immediate when Muslim authors wake up one morning and see another story written about them.

Sometimes the author in question withdraws with apologies, at other times he or she insists there is nothing wrong with what they’ve done. At the end of the day, two camps exist, and neither is happy.

For authors who may be tempted to write a story about a Muslim main character, consider this: do you truly have unique insight into another religious group? Is that story so important to tell that you cannot wait for a Muslim writer to tell it? Do you have any stories of your own to tell, or are you simply jumping on a bandwagon to get some quick publicity because the political climate is ripe?

All these are very probing questions, and they may garner a shocked or offended reaction. Of course I’m not trying to get publicity! Of course this is an essential story to tell! Perhaps. The important thing is being honest about it to yourself before you begin writing. If the answers to all these questions are yes, then go ahead, but do know that others along the publishing journey will question your decision every step of the way.

You may think it’s important for everyone to hear Muslim stories. I agree. In an era of Muslim travel bans and refugee crisis, the need for authentic stories about Muslims is critical. But those stories must come from the people who experience them, not from someone who is looking at them from the outside. Consider this: if you write a Muslim main character, do you know what culture she will belong to? Will she eat chappati or hummus or pizza? Will she speak Urdu or Bengali or Arabic or English? Will she wear the dupatta or chador or abaya, and do you even know what those are, or do you use the catchall term hijab which actually doesn’t mean a head covering at all?

Does it really matter?

If you’re an author who thinks that telling a good story is the only important thing, and to heck with the details, then nobody can dissuade you. But if you are the sort of writer who thinks it’s the details which bring richness and depth to the character (and the story), then you’ll realize how important it is to not tell an inauthentic story. Not to use stereotypes you don’t even recognize as stereotypes. Not to create cardboard cutouts instead of the real thing because all you know of Muslims has come from Disney’s Aladdin.

We live in an era when Muslims in the U.S. and abroad have the ability, platform and willingness to tell their own stories. Be their ally and their loudspeaker. When they get published, share their books on social media, buy them for all your friends, and shout about it from the rooftops. Isn’t that a better (and easier) way to tell a true Muslim story than go write your own?

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Saadia Faruqi is Pakistani American author of the early reader Yasmin series by Capstone. She also writes fiction and essays for adults and is editor-in-chief of Blue Minaret, a magazine for Muslim writers. She was profiled by O Magazine in 2017 for her interfaith and intercultural sensitivity trainings. Visit her website at www.saadiafaruqi.com.

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