In what has become a familiar scene, Saadia Faruqi and myself are sitting across from one another. Virtually, of course. The zoom logo in the corner of our screens and the wifi holds our conversation together across oceans and timezones. It’s the eve of the US election, the UK release of Saadia’s new book A Thousand Questions, and another day of devastating deaths due to the COVID-19 pandemic. There is a sense of weariness but urgency lingering in the air.
Saadia Faruqi, author and interfaith activist, has written something for everyone. For parents of small children, there is her early reader series Yasmin. A collection of stories about a young Muslim girl, who has everyday adventures. For curious tweens, there are her middle grade novels. A Place At The Table explores interfaith friendship or A Thousand Questions which explores class dynamics. And for her older audience, Brick Walls: Tales Of Hope & Courage From Pakistan. Despite the differences in age across her audiences, Saadia’s words in all her books encompass one ambitious goal: Muslim representation without a side of oppression.
Twenty two years ago, Saadia stepped off a plane from Karachi and arrived in the US. She spent time learning about her new home, where she fit in and finding a community. There was a sense of hope and excitement across the country. Maybe a new millennia would bring a new beginning.
Then 9/11 happened.
As an immigrant on a visa, and the Muslim community under immense pressure, Saadia tells me she had to hit the ground running. Any Muslim in the West can tell you, when looking at flashy headlines on tabloid papers, there is a “disturbing amount of hatred and misinformation about Muslims out there”. Things were no different 20 years ago for Saadia in the US. “I started dabbling in interfaith dialogue, through my mosque, through my friends, through my public library. I just started reaching out to people”.
“For Muslim Americans your life completely changed post 9/11. For me, my whole American existence has been in this era of fear and suspicion.”
In the early days of the interfaith group that emerged, Saadia tells me, she would talk to people about her faith and its teachings. She would make clear it didn’t condone terrorism, and that they were “equally upset and shocked and saddened”. A conversation so second nature to Muslims. As the years went by, what started as an informal discussion group grew into something much bigger. Soon, Saadia became known for her interfaith work and her opportunities grew.
It has been a tumultuous couple of elections for both the UK and US, and an overriding concern for minority communities has been our weaponization. Minority groups have been pitted against one another, and exploited by politicians and the press. It has created a toxic atmosphere for interfaith dialogue and made all our communities increasingly more isolated and vulnerable. It cannot be overstated how valuable the work of interfaith activists, such as Saadia, is in redefining the narrative.
“I realised that when I would talk about facts, people only listen for five minutes before their eyes glaze over.”
Storytelling has a power that plain facts don’t. Saadia found truth in these words when she spoke about her life in the US, or in Pakistan, or her experiences as a mother. In the end it came down to what it always does, finding something in common. As people began listening to Saadia’s stories, she realised she had the power to change perceptions and narratives. This led to her first short story collection – Brick Walls: Tales of Hope and Courage from Pakistan. Ask the first person you meet on the street what they know about Pakistan and you’ll hear similar responses. Malala and bomb blasts. Saadia’s aim with Brick Walls was to capture vignettes of life in Pakistan outside the common conception. For people asking questions it was the perfect response, the vibrant culture of Pakistan. Not on a fact sheet but in a book.
As a child, almost without exception, the stories we read in school or whilst being tucked into bed were full of white faces and white voices. These monotone stories would seep into my skin until I would pick up a peach pen whilst colouring in my portrait. Or squeeze my flesh until it was pale pink from deprivation. Finding pride in my melanin had to be found from within. So, when Saadia noticed her daughter’s aversion to reading, there was an unsurprising diagnosis. There was no one who looked like her.
Representation in children’s books has been a consistently poor area. A recent report found that only 5% of children’s books in the UK featured a Black, Asian or minority ethnic character, with similarly bleak statistics in the US. When Saadia looked through her daughter’s school books, she came across no brown protagonists, and certainly no Muslim representation. Saadia’s daughter found solace in one book series, Katie Woo, following the life of a Chinese-American girl. She connected through their experiences of being different. Saadia decided to write for her daughter, and that was when the Yasmin series was born.
Yasmin was an instant success. Parents, teachers, librarians and the wider publishing industry knew there was a need for these stories. Writing one children’s book could make a difference in a child’s life. Whether it was feeling like they belonged or learning more about this community to take with them as they grew up. Saadia always knew it was a risk to write stories about small segments of the population, but she was blown away by the support. Support that also extended to non-brown and non-Muslim children and adults.
Most importantly, Saadia told me, the Yasmin series was not just about Muslim representation for kids. Her faith and culture were in how her mother wears a hijab and her grandmother is called ‘Nani’, but none of the stories are focused on that. It just goes to show that if you write a good story, it doesn’t matter who the main character is.
“I didn’t think it would be a big deal because, how many people want to read about a Muslim family anyway?”
As a Muslim woman navigating the publishing industry, everything changed after the 2016 US Election. A year which saw the inauguration of Donald Trump. Known for his ‘Muslim ban’, and long track record of Islamophobia, attitudes towards the Muslim community were becoming evermore hostile. Saadia noticed that worried people wanted to reach out to assure that, whilst the administration wasn’t supportive, they were. There was a push from agents to librarians to teachers to make more effort towards representation. And that was when Saadia found her agent.
Despite the progress that has been made, it’s still hard in the arts industry. For many people of colour, their voices are tokenized and stories exploited. Our ability to produce good quality work is sometimes crammed into one tick box. But we are more than that. Saadia assures me she has great editors who give her the freedom to explore her craft, but not everyone has a similar experience. We have to continue to hold people and the system accountable for their actions.
On November 12th 2020, Saadia Faruqi’s latest novel was released in the UK. A Thousand Questions came from exploring these contorting aspects of identity that so many children of immigrants in the West relate to. For Saadia, returning to Pakistan to visit her mother was like a homecoming, but for her children it was the opposite. It was too hot. The power would go off. The food was too spicy. Among the complaints she would notice sparks of joy, where everyone looked like them and understood the quirks of their culture. There was a constant push and pull. Saadia was writing a love letter to her childhood, whilst also creating a gift for her children.
Identity and representation has been an ever growing conversation in the past couple of years. As Saadia and I finished our conversation, one Pakistani Muslim woman to another, the phrase ‘a burden shared is a burden halved’ had never rung truer. However, our work isn’t done. Saadia makes clear we shouldn’t place the weight of representation on any one person. Even within the Muslim community, there are South Asian, Black, Hispanic and white Muslims, and all their stories must be told.
Asyia is passionate about diversifying the media and uplifting underrepresented voices. @asyiaiftikhar