Posted in Reviews

Sadia by Colleen Nelson

Nelson, Colleen. Sadia. Dundurn., 02/2018. 240 pp. $12.99. 978-1459740297. (ADDITIONAL PURCHASE). 10+

Sadia came out in February of this year, just after the formal release of young adult novel American Heart by Laura Moriarty, following controversyin fall of 2017. Much of the conversation around American Heart had to do with a white savior narrative, white gaze and lens, and reduction of a character of color to a device in order to enlighten and give complexity to a white character. This is all apart from giving an accurate depiction of Islam and of an Iranian woman. I cannot comment on the novel, given that I have not yet read it, but it is in our queue. Public opinion and reviews by other Muslim readers haven’t encouraged me to put it high on our list.

Sadia coverEnter Sadia. I asked a Muslim author if she had read this book yet, and we talked a bit about American Heart, white gaze and who should tell our stories. We talked about own voices; we talked about colonized minds and internalized racism and what happens when an “own voice” becomes a voice that oppresses. Sadia is a book by a white, Canadian author, Colleen Nelson, who is a teacher librarian in an elementary school. She has also worked with refugees.

Nelson reflects a bit in her blog about why she decided to write Sadia and what it meant for her to try to publish a book that was not an own voice. It is disappointing to see that she was worried that her book would not get published because more ownvoice/diverse authors are publishing books. Ultimately she did it for her students to be able to see themselves and to fill a void in her library, and hopes that there are many more published stories by Muslim writers in the future.   

In the novel, fifteen-year-old Sadia has lived in Winnipeg for the last three years. Her family left Syria, shortly before the war. Though she has had time to acclimate to her life in Canada, high school means even more confusing changes.

Particularly jarring for Sadia is the behavior of her best friend Mariam, whose family relocated to Canada after the Arab Spring in Egypt. Mariam has been Sadia’s best friend from the first day they met. They even started wearing hijab around the same time.  But this year is different. Mariam “de-jabs,” taking off her hijab during school, and putting it back on at the end of the day before going home. Mariam has also been distant, and her behavior has Sadia questioning the entirety of their friendship, which is made more complicated by her own friendship with Josh, Mariam’s crush.

Josh and Sadia are also trying out for the school’s co-ed basketball team, which Sadia desperately wants to be on. When Sadia makes the team her skill and passion is obvious, but playing basketball with hijab is more difficult than she had thought. Its especially disconcerting when she finds out that she may not be able to play in regulation games with it on.

Sadia is asked to help a new student acclimate to high school, Amira, whose family has recently relocated to Canada from Syria, under entirely different circumstances from her family. Thinking about the circumstances of Amira’s family fleeing Syria make her uncomfortable and the ideas Amira has about growing up Muslim in Canada have Sadia questioning her identity and how much she has already given up.

As someone who wears a headscarf on a daily basis, and has dealt with every day travails of scarf slippage and the like, I can identify with Sadia’s headscarf issues, but mostly I felt irritated with how hijab was given an impish, quirky quality where the Sadia cannot “take a jump shot without the bottom of the scarf flying in my face,” (p. 25).  or where her arm catches her hijab and falls into her eyes (p.23), or where Sadia has no peripheral vision (p. 26).

Mostly, I wondered (with consternation) why athletic Sadia didn’t have an Al-Amira hijab, often considered training scarves for beginner hijabis and ideal for athletic activities. Another reviewer pointed out that access may be an issue, so I give them props for taking that into consideration. Though not always true, it is a significant plot device that will give non-Muslim and non-scarf wearing readers a window into what someone who wears a headscarf may have to deal with. And though we have seen many women compete in sporting events over the years wearing hijab, it was only last year that International Basketball Federation (FIBA) overturned a ban on head coverings. If you want to learn more about a young Muslimah basketball player, watch this video about Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir, teaching Muslim girls how to play basketball.

There an omission in the text, where Sadia refers to her grandmother as Teta (p. 38) and then on the following page uses the word Sitta. Both are correct, and sometimes used interchangeably (according to Hadeal and Sara), but without context, readers may be confused. Some of the turn of phrase is awkward as well. On page 78, Sadia says, “I could feel a blush spreading under my hijab.” I’m not sure why Nelson does not say, “I could feel a blush spreading across my face,” instead, as Sadia doesn’t cover her face. I took issue with the idea of Sadia and Amira never having touched snow (p. 48), when it does snow in Syria though infrequently, it is unlikely that both have never touched it. At the end of the book, a student exhibit has a silver collection plate used to collect donations from attendees. This collecting funds is compared to the concept of zakat, a form of alms-giving treated in Islam as a religious obligation, one of the five pillars of Islam. It would be more accurate to compare this to giving to sadaqah, or voluntary charity.

There are many times in the book where the relationship between Sadia, Mariam and Amira on occasion, is reduced to hijab. Some of that is oversimplification and equating Islam with hijab, some of this looks familiar to reactions to “de-jabbing” in the Muslim community, and some general adolescent issues, where one could substitute hijab for any other thing that might drive a wedge in a friendship. The two also have a conversation about being judgemental and hypocritical. A positive is that problems between Sadia and Mariam are also solved by them, there is no intervention by a white character, or a male character. Nelson captures growth and adolescence well, with characters pushing against boundaries, though these boundaries feel much younger than high school.

Headscarves and Hardbacks blogger, Nadia, points out that the framing of hijab and forced modesty is problematic in the book, because ultimately parents are forcing head scarves on their daughters and daughters cannot be modest without one. A conversation about hijab occurs in class where Mariam says, “It’s a hijab, a head covering. A woman’s hair must be covered, according the Qur’an.” Then, when the student questions why she doesn’t wear one she says, “it’s a personal choice” (p. 107-108). Though this is a reality for some Muslim girls and a majority of Muslim scholars, having all characters define hijab this way, as a required heading covering at all times, is oversimplified.

Sadia and Mariam also feel discomfort and guilt in interacting with Amira and realizing that they have had privilege in their relocation, coming to Canada as non-refugees. Sadia’s familial conversations about Syria are inconsistent. They talk about helping relocated Syrians early in the text, but when the family discusses those unable to leave, Sadia’s brother Aazim says, “It’s a war. That’s what happens. Innocent people suffer.” This struck me as rather callous. Similarly Mariam does not seem to reflect much on leaving after the Arab Spring in Egypt. Both families are not particularly proactive until the end of the book.  

Nelson does capture some issues well. There are Islamophobic experiences that involve Sadia and her mother, one involving stares on the bus and another with a woman that tells Sadia’s mother, if she “wanted to stay in Canada, I should be Canadian and stop dressing like a terrorist.” Sadia reflects on if students in her class might feel the same way. There is also some self-realization in the book, where Carmina, Sadia’s Filipino-Canadian friend, wants to create a graphic novel featuring a Filipino character because she hates that there aren’t books with characters who look like her. Mariam wants to be both Muslim and Canadian, and while one should be able to be both, this sentiment captures the feelings that many Muslims have over having to choose identities and what that means in terms of cultural loss and normalization of “western values.”  

Overall Sadia’s teammates feel genuine and have depth, even if on occasion they are used as devices. Alan is given depth with the revelation that his brother Cody has cerebral palsy. Nelson also has placed a male Muslim character on Sadia’s basketball team, but there is no interaction between the two of them. His primary function being to be on the basketball team and to tell Josh that there was no hope for him in being allowed to date Sadia.  Despite the sports trope, with the opposing team depicted as unsportsmanlike racists, it is moving to see Sadia’s team and the spectators cheer for her and advocate for her to play, on top of Sadia and her parents separately advocating for her religious rights as a Canadian citizen.

So what is my overall verdict for this book? There is definitely a didactic and educator positive feeling to this book, promoting the idea that a really good teacher can have the power to foster empathy, create nuanced conversations and give students agency. Teachers are also presented as people who make mistakes. Yet, this book has its own mistakes and I still struggle to see, between a Muslim and non-Muslim reader, whose gaze is most important. Sadia gives non-Muslim readers a glimpse into the lives of several Arab Muslim characters with a level of complexity to their personalities. It allows Muslim readers to see a few pieces of themselves, with some amount of accuracy, though I do wonder if any Syrian Muslim readers vetted this book prior to publication.  

I would argue that the tone of the book, and the level of conflict make the book feel younger than a typical YA book, and could have been targeted to younger readers. Still, it is a solid entry point for readers who want a basketball-playing, hijab-wearing protagonist in a coming of age story because, as far as we know, those don’t exist yet. Are there better books about Muslim identity by Muslim authors? Yes. If you do add this book to your collection, don’t let this narrative be the only one your readers will get.

Posted in Author Interviews

Author Interview: Alexis York Lumbard

Alexis (Rabiah) Lumbard York is an author of mostly children’s picture books that are aimed at younger readers, but reach readers of all ages. Many of York’s tales have Middle Eastern origins but transcend religious labels, conveying an ethereal sense of the divine that is be accessible to children of many religious and non-religious backgrounds. For more information about York, please visit her website or her featured author page on Wisdom Tales.

Interview Questions were compiled by Ariana Hussain and Hadeal Salamah

  1. If you feel comfortable with this question, how do you identify yourself? (i.e. religion, ethnicity, nationality, sexual identity, gender, etc.)
    I feel most comfortable identifying myself as a simple human being. I like the Quranic word
    nafs, or soul, because it is related to your mental state and character and that is what I’d like to be identified the most with–at least that part of us which strives be more–the higher nafs. Outwardly we can be any ethnicity, nationality, gender or orientation–none of which I think matters all that much. It’s the stuff on the inside which matters. But outwardly, yes, I’m American, white, heterosexual and female. My inward life is very much defined by my religion (Islam) but it isn’t the only expression of truth which speaks to me. I guess you can say I am a human trying to enjoy life and not leave too much of a trace, except for those traces which are beautiful and harmless. 
  2. You say on your blog that if it weren’t for motherhood that you would not have become an author and that the books that you wanted to read to your daughters did not exist. Could you expand on this?
    Sure! Over a decade ago, when I was expecting my second daughter and my first was old enough to move from board books to longer stories, I was searching for titles which could expose her to Islam or Muslim characters. I was especially looking for something to teach her about the life of the prophet (peace be upon him) and apart from Demi’s book there was nothing of quality in English. And while Demi’s book is beautiful, it was too mature (too long and too complex) for a young child. So I thought I should write one myself! Haa! I soon realized that writing was difficult. I also realized that I loved the process and kept to it–attending SCBWI conferences and reworking the story. Because it was faith-based I decided to self publish it as an app. It is still one of my favorite books, but it never really took off, I think in part because we chose to illustrate the Prophet visually (face covered, though). At any rate, it was a valuable experience and I hope to resurrect the story in some form shortly.
     
  3. Two of your books The Conference of the Birds and When the Animals Saved the Earth are illustrated by Demi. Demi’s illustration are a perfect pairing to your text, which is so lovely, lyrical and spiritual. Was this a choice that your editor made alone? Did you have any input or was it just a lucky pairing?cover of Conference of the Birds
    Great question. Typically speaking, books are first accepted by a publisher in manuscript form. A writer painstakingly creates a story, submits it to publishers and hopes someone grabs it. It is then the responsibility of the publisher to find an illustrator. Most larger publishers do not seek the input of the author. They have a design team and the design team executes the choice. There are exceptions, though, especially with smaller publishers. In my case this book had many exceptions to the rule, for after I wrote a final draft for The Conference of the Birds, I first contacted Demi and she pounced on it (having always wanted to illustrate the book). She told me to sell it and I did (Wisdom Tales Press, 2012). It was an unusual pathway to publication.
     
  4. The Conference of the Birds and When the Animals Saved the Earth are both based off of Persian Sufi poetry and a century old fable respectively. How did you come to select these works to interpret?
    My husband is an academic. His speciality is Islamic studies, especially classical Islam, so he often feeds me interesting story ideas. Sometimes they stick, sometimes they don’t! I have to be able to first wrap my head around the original story and feel compelled to adapt it for children (and then to figure out how exactly to do that!). I also enjoy browsing academia.edu for ideas, which can lead one in fascinating directions. The site posts more articles than full books, which I find easier to digest.
  5. Your books are very spiritual and sophisticated, yet Conference of the Birds is labeled as being for readers ages 4-8. There is a sense of love for God, humility, and longing. When you have presented the story to younger readers what has their perception been of the story, especially the trials of each of the birds (i.e. the hawk and the partridge)? What do they take away from the book and its message?Image result for conference of the birds york
    It is true that there is a vast world of difference, cognitively and developmentally speaking, from age 4 to 8. This is one of the challenges of picture books. How do we create a story that can be understood and enjoyed by such a wide range of little people? Honestly, when I adapted The Conference of the Birds, it was easier in my mind to focus on the higher end of that age group. But as I toured schools and mosques and read the book to audiences who were closer to the younger end of that spectrum, I realized that little kids can and do understand–though it is more visceral–less “academic.” We stop and talk about the size of the bird or the speed of a bird and how or why that might symbolize some of the ideas presented in the book. They get it. You can see it in their eyes–the way they light up and widen. It is magical to see and has taught me to never underestimate your audience.
     
  6. We talk a lot about windows and mirrors for marginalized readers and readers of color. Where and when did you first see yourself in literature? We recognize that identity is intersectional, so please do list multiple titles, if applicable, that coincide with your identity.
    As a child I wasn’t an avid reader. I read what I needed to–for school and homework–but I didn’t read freely and spontaneously as my own children do. Most of my memories are of playing outside and getting dirty in the creek behind our northern Virginia townhome or as a teen hiking in the Shenandoah mountains. Nature was my favorite book and nature never discriminates. Once I actually converted to Islam (as an older teen–18), I was focused more on academic books–on learning my new religion. So the issue at that time was moot to me. And that was pre-September 11th. The world has changed a great deal since then. But now, as a parent and an author, I’m undoubtedly passionate about intersectional books–fiction and nonfiction–which speak to the wide experience of American Islam. There are more books coming out which reflect this, but it is still a small percentage (then again we’re a tiny group). I’m curious how my own kids would answer this question. Only my eldest, now a teen, remembers what it was like growing up in the states. We currently live outside Dubai and are moving soon to Doha. Both countries are very international. My kids are third culture kids. Back home they are religious minorities. Here they are ethnic minorities. Most of their classmates (who are mostly Arab or South Asian) cannot believe they are “actually Muslim.” Because they are “white” and ‘American.” In a way, we are constantly “explaining” ourselves (overseas and at home). On that level our identities are flexible and I think that is a healthy approach.
     
  7. What other authors and titles in the area of “spirituality” for children do you appreciate or recommend reading? How does their work impact your own?
    Sometimes I find the word “spiritual” to be off-putting. So rather than recommend books which are “spiritual” I think it is much easier to speak of books which are written from the heart (so much less pressure on the writer and the reader). To that end, I highly recommend picture book author and illustrator Leo Lionni, middle grade authors Kate DiCamillo, Pam Munoz Ryan and Sharon M. Draper, and YA authors John Green, Renee Watson, A.S. King, and Jacqueline Woodson. A book which recently brought tears to my eyes is A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. I love it when a book compels me weep. I also have to give a shout out to Canadian author Rukhsana Khan and British writer Naima B. Roberts–for they write with soul and are true survivors (of this crazy industry called publishing). They give me hope.
     
  8. Do you feel that books featuring Muslims are being created and marketed in a positive way? Are there trends you like or hope will change? For children?
    Yes. On the whole the direction is positive. Children’s book editors are generally speaking some of the kindest, most thoughtful people you will work with–much like librarians! They’re our strongest allies. The only caution I’d give editors and the kidlit world in general is to be careful not to tokenize. Islam is not monolithic and Muslims are complicated human beings just like any other group of people. We are nuanced and diverse–in our beliefs, practices, and make-up. Demographically speaking, the majority of the American Muslim community is not of an recent immigrant background. The majority is 24% white and 24% black–from convert backgrounds. I’d like to see more of their stories, too. I’d also like to see more non-fiction coming out–especially the forgotten history of American Islam from old slave narratives to contemporaries stories about the influence of indigenous Muslim Americans on contemporary American culture.
  9. What is the best feedback that you have received from a reader? What is surprising (good or bad) feedback that you have received about your books?cover of Angels
    I have a really simple concept-book called Angels. I wrote it for toddlers to comfort them before they go to sleep, but I’ve had a quite a few people write to me and tell me how much the story meant to an elderly person in their life–someone who felt alone and was approaching death. If I can bring someone comfort at the end of their life, too, then mashallah…I feel like I’ve done something meaningful… something good. 
  10. As a child what book helped shape your sense of spirituality or your sense of God? As an adult, what books help you to reinforce and grow in spirituality?
    I grew up in a secular, Protestant household. There weren’t many books in my home which shaped my sense of the divine. I was, however, raised on a steady diet of the Berenstain Bears. I still have some of those books. They’re not very well written and can be both hokey and didactic, but something about them always resonated with me. Maybe it goes back to the nature-thing and how I’ve always wanted to live in a tree. They also present a world that is wholesome and family-based and I think that is wonderful. As an adult, my go to spiritual books are often collections of poetry–usual Persian. I love both Rumi and Hafez, but so, too, my namesake, Rabiah (not Persian).
     
  11. What are you reading now?
    I’m finishing up my first YA novel and I’ve been reading a ton of academic journals and online blogs about the history of religious and white supremacy in the United States. It’s very depressing. On a positive note, I’m reading Betty Before X by Ilyasah Shabazz and Renee Watson via my kindle. Strong women who have known struggle give me hope. Hope and strength. Such qualities are needed. Especially in our current political climate.
  12. What books are on your #Muslimshelfspace?
    I read and support everyone, especially the ladies. In no particular order here’s a sampling: Samira Ahmed, Randa Abdel-Fattah, S.K. Ali, Sadiya Faruqi, Karuna Riazi,  Nayyirah Waheed, Uzma Jalaluddin, Ilyasah Shabazz, Hena Khan, Intinsar Khanani, G. Willow Wilson and Jamilah Thompkins Bigelow. Now these are the contemporary kidlit authors. We’ve got lots of books in Arabic, too. Mostly from the past. For that I’d have to take up a lot more of your time!
     
  13. What do your children think about your books?
    They are wonderfully supportive and age-wise they span all the genres I love working with from picture book to Middle Grade to Young Adult. My eldest is a teen and she’s a fine critic of everything–my own work included.
     
  14. What are you working on next?
    Big secret! But it will be my first non-fiction series and the main character is a horse. A very, very smart horse.
  15. What is the best way to support Muslim authors, agents, editors, librarians and those involved in creating Muslim literature?
    Read, read, read. Seriously, put your money and your time where it matters the most–the future of our kids.
     
  16. What do you hope the literature world looks like for Muslims in the coming years? In 20 years?
    I hope it is thriving. And I hope a Muslim wins the Newbery Medal and another the Caldecott (seriously, where are all the Muslim illustrators?) and that we become heroes and role models for non-Muslims, too. I’d also like to see Muslims putting money toward writing grants and scholarships. Writers need all kinds of support. Mosques should support these endeavors, too. 
  17. How do you hope your work can impact the Muslim community? How do you hope your work can impact perceptions of Muslims?
    I few years back at RIS (Reviving the Islamic Spirit Conference) I met a young Somali girl who wanted to be a writer when she grew up. She also wanted to take a photo with me (and I with her!). I hope that I meet her again, in ten to fifteen years, and see that she has made it. In short, I’d love to see that work that I do and others like me continues to inspire younger Muslims to share their voice and their stories. I hope this has a ripple effect with society at large so people stop seeing us as boogeymen.
     
  18. Are there any words of wisdom that you would like to pass on to young writers?
    Don’t limit yourself to one genre. Try your hand at a genre you don’t even read. The best parts of life are “accidental” discoveries. You are capable of so much more than you think. 
  19. What is something that you would like your readers to know about you?
    I know what it is like to approach a group of strangers and to have them give you the cold shoulder for no reason at all (at least not a valid one). I know what it is like to learn a second language and to be laughed at when you’re struggling to communicate. I know what it like to move far from home and start over–broken and hurt. But I also know that all of these things can make you stronger…even if it doesn’t feel like it. Don’t give up. Don’t quiet down. Always be you. That in itself is a wonderful gift to the rest of us. We need your story–all the bits–good, beautiful and still-in-the-making.