by Sheba Karim
on sale 5/9/17!

Why YA Books with Muslim Protagonists Are More Important Than Ever

I grew up in Upstate New York, in a small town on the banks of the Hudson River that was home to very few Muslims and even fewer South Asians.  When I told classmates my parents were from Pakistan, a country born of carnage only a few decades earlier, hardly anyone knew where it was, let alone its history.  When I explained that it was “next to India,” my classmates often responded by hooting with their hands over their mouths.  “Not that kind of Indian,” I’d clarify, thinking of how much easier it was for my classmate Shannon, who was so fiercely proud of her Irish ancestry that she proclaimed it to anyone who’d listen and frequently wore a sweatshirt that said “Kiss me I’m Irish.”   Her heritage never required further explanation, or caused her any shame.

My religious identity was Sunni Muslim, which informed where and how we worshipped. My cultural identity was Pakistani by way of North India, which dictated the language we spoke, the food we ate, the clothes we wore, and our everyday customs.  These two identities intersected in such complicated ways that as a child it was sometimes easier to understand what I was not than who I actually was.  Though as children, we turn to books to seek knowledge that informs our sense of selves, growing up, I could find no books with either South Asian or Muslim American characters.   On page and screen, people like me simply did not exist.

Part of the reason I write South Asian/Muslim characters is in response to this childhood longing, this feeling of invisibility.  My first YA novel, Skunk Girl, is set in the 1980s, when I came of age.  In many ways, this decade feels like a different world; back then there was a complete dearth of representation, and less outright hostility toward Muslims.  Most of the people I met knew very little about my religion.  When I said I was Muslim, their primary associations were veiled women, desert landscapes, Muhammad Ali.  My classmates viewed me not through the lens of religion but as an American with roots in the third world. They did not consider me a potential terrorist, or a proponent of violence whose holy text consisted of only 6000 ways to say “Kill the infidel.”  Rather, they viewed me as different, and potentially a little dirty: a daughter of immigrants whose family now enjoyed proper sanitation and potable tap water but still held onto their pungent foods and strange customs.

My upcoming book, That Thing We Call a Heart, is a contemporary YA that explores the harsher realities for young Muslim-Americans raised in a post 9/11 world.  I knew the characters would have a very different relationship to their identity than I did growing up; whereas I craved representation, today’s young Muslim Americans have suffered from the wrong kind of representation.  They’ve never known an America without Islamophobia, have grown up hearing their religion vilified and stereotyped.  Though Muslim Americans are an incredibly diverse group of people with varied ethnicities, languages, cultures, histories, and beliefs, they are often treated as a monolith by society at large.   In this charged atmosphere, young Muslim Americans struggle to have their individuality recognized and their voices heard.

Due to the rise of Islamophobia, they also feel obliged to defend their very humanity.  Take, for example, the 2015 Buzzfeed video where young Muslim Americans make statements like “I’m Muslim, but I’m not a terrorist,” “I’m Muslim, and I’m a feminist,” “I’m Muslim but I don’t hate America.”  Videos like these are problematic because they imply that there is something incongruous about being Muslim and a feminist, or Muslim and patriotic.  The very fact that young Muslims feel it necessary to face a camera and say words that amount to “I’m a Muslim but I’m also a complex human being” is evidence of the extent to which Muslim Americans have been demoralized and dehumanized.

Given today’s political climate, young adult books with Muslim protagonists are more important than ever.  YA books with Muslim characters not only allow young Muslims to see their own stories reflected in positive and nuanced ways, but also enable non-Muslim readers to become familiar with the perceived “other”.  In books, Muslim characters are given the space to be more than “just” Muslim, to be whole, to be contradictory, to be complicated, to be teenagers.

In That Thing We Call a Heart, it was important for me to write characters with varied and complex relationships to both their religion and their ethnicity.  The protagonist, Shabnam, questions orthodox religion but turns to Urdu poems inspired by mystical Islam to help her understand what it means to love, while her best friend Farah is a punk rock-loving feminist who decides to wear the headscarf. Though Shabnam and Farah’s negotiation of their South Asian/Muslim identities is an important theme of the book, much of what they struggle with—the perils of young love, dealing with parental expectations (or the lack thereof), issues of body image, the importance of trust—are universally relatable.  The reader empathizes with Shabnam and Farah not simply because they are Muslim, but because they see aspects of their own emotional journeys reflected within them.

It is my hope that one day that there will no longer be a need for YouTube videos in which young Muslim Americans have to proclaim that they are complex people, just like you.  But until then, YA books with Muslim protagonists remain a powerful vehicle to move beyond stereotypes and vitriol, serving as intimate, literary reminders that each of us, Muslim or otherwise, contain multitudes.


SHEBA KARIM is the author of Skunk Girl, a YA novel. Her fiction has appeared in Asia Literary Review, Barn Owl Review, Femina, Shenandoah, Time Out Delhi and in several anthologies in the United States and India. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and NYU School of Law, and currently lives in Nashville.


THAT THING WE CALL A HEART * On sale 5/9/17 * ISBN 9780062445704 * HarperTeen