This summer, I served as a story coach for a workshop with 10 Muslim-American teen writers and artists. The two-week long workshop was the first phase of a collaboration between Shout Mouse Press (SMP) and Next Wave Muslim Initiative (NWMI) to provide young Muslim American writers and artists a place to produce a collection of art, poetry, fiction, and non-fiction that gives different perspectives on being a Muslim American in the current political climate.
This was my first time working with Shout Mouse Press. It was also my first time working on a collaborative project and having literary conversations that explicitly related to Muslim American identities.
As a kid, growing up in Turkey, I loved reading so much and was so captivated by the English books I read that I never fully questioned what was missing from them. I studied Literature in undergrad, and later received my MA in Literature at American University, here in the Washington D.C. During this time, it took me a while to realize that my journey in academia had dominantly been “Western,” and without realizing, I had come to accept that my culture and my religion was separate from my studies. I read and wrote about Western books written by Western authors about Western characters and Western issues. This bothered me more and more and I made tackling this issue my academic goal. I decided not to separate my culture and religion from my studies, but to find different platforms to talk about them and present my story from my point of view.
When I first heard about this project from my friend Sarai (SMP Story Coach and Outreach/Development Associate), a voice inside me said “You have to be a part of this! This is what you have been dreaming about.” This collaboration between SMP and NWMI provides the Muslim community a rare and valuable platform. Knowing that a group of ten young Muslim-Americans are producing the book that they never got to read--that I never got to read--and hope to present to the world their story from their point of view empowers me. They tackle stereotypes about young Muslim Americans in the United States and are aware that this task is vital and urgent.
On the first day of our workshop, we brainstormed about the mission of the book, the intended audience, and the messages we want them to take away from it. We talked about how Muslim identity is (mis)represented in popular culture, how there are never characters who just happen to be Muslim, who have fun with their friends, chill, laugh, and eat burgers; who take pride in their culture, who are diverse, extraordinary, and awesome! We created an overarching theme: being a young Muslim-American in the current atmosphere of the United States. Every author was free to contribute in any form and submit more than one piece.
I took home Amina’s Voice, acclaimed YA author and SMP Story Coach Hena Khan’s book, from SMP’s resource library after meeting her on the first day of workshop. I saw myself in Amina’s struggle to balance her American school and Pakistani-American home. I wondered how our lives would have been different if we had the opportunity to see more of our Muslim-American selves in the books we read growing up, and if words like Baba, Masjid, Quran, Islam came up more, but detached from the negative connotations surrounding them? What if questions of immigrant or dual identities came up in a celebratory way? I wondered what kind of a reader I would have been then--maybe one who was excited and proud to see her culture and religion in books, rather than disappointed, hurt, insulted, or even ashamed. Disheartened by the recent news about the immigration scandal on the US border, I also wondered how America would have been different. Maybe we would be in a different place if kids grew up reading characters like Amina and recognized that immigrants are humans too: humans with diverse experiences and struggles, but also similar experiences and struggles with non-immigrants.
Over time, I became more and more amazed by the writers. Yes, they were all young Muslim-Americans living in the United States, but they each brought something unique to the table. We workshopped a variety of pieces: a dystopian story about refugees, poems about prayer rugs and dual identities, a Muslim- superhero-girl-group, “How to be a Young Paki-American” guidebook, vignettes about moments where one feels most “Muslim,” the relationship between Islam and music, and YouTube comment sections. Regardless of the content, we made sure that each piece connected to our theme of Muslim-American identity and provided a counter-narrative to the existing stories about Islam. The book these authors are putting together engages with such important questions, and I can’t wait to share it with everyone I know.
During the two weeks I spent together with these empowering young writers and artists, I learned more than I taught and left feeling hopeful for a world where these lovely people are the future.
Watch out world,
Muslims teens are coming
To inspire you,
To empower you,
To entertain you,
And to show you their story from their point of view.
I listened to them, I learned from them, and I respect them. I encourage you to do the same.
– Zeynep Cakmak, SMP Story Coach