As the Teacher-Librarian at an elementary school, I ask students for suggestions on what books they want to see on the shelves. Mermaids have popped up a lot lately; so have horse books (I’m not a horse book person) and books like the Amulet series (thank you, ‘Nameless City’, for coming along at the right time). One student, an avid reader in grade six, had only one request. She wanted a book with a Muslim main character. We didn’t have many and the ones we did have (The Breadwinner series), she’d read. I asked the book store and other teachers and librarians, but no one had any suggestions. I realized there wasn’t much reading material that featured Muslim main characters. I knew there must be other kids, like my student, who wanted to read a book that reflected their life and their struggles, so the solution was obvious to me—I had to write one.
While doing research, I came across an article about a girls’ basketball team who had to sew their own uniforms to ensure that they were hijab. An idea started to sprout and within the space of six weeks, I had a decent first draft of what would become ‘Sadia’.
There was still the obvious problem that I wasn’t Muslim and I was writing about characters who were. Luckily, a kind and generous friend of mine, Nadia, offered to read ‘Sadia’ for me. It was through her explanations that I saw how some of my misconceptions had snuck into the story. She told me that she’d initially had reservations about reading a book written by a non-Muslim writer about Muslim characters, but her worries subsided as she read. Bolstered by her support, I did a round of significant edits using her comments as a guide.
Around this time, I started to pay more attention to diverse voices in writing. I got worried that because I wasn’t Muslim, my book wouldn’t get considered for publication. I even thought about not sending it to publishers. But I also remembered my student and how excited she was when I told her I was writing a book about a tomboy named Sadia, a basketball-playing girl who wore hijab. Was it worth risking backlash to put out a story that I knew Muslim and non-Muslim girls would love?
I decided that yes, it was. Publishing any writing makes an author vulnerable. Every time something is posted or published, the author is opening themselves up to comment or criticism, and let me tell you, negative comments can sting. But I knew Sadia filled a void and was a good story, about much more than being Muslim or wearing hijab. It was about friendship, acceptance and standing up for yourself; it showed a variety of characters in challenging situations. I wasn’t making a political statement or saying that I could write this story better than someone else could. I was just writing, creating character and giving readers a peek into someone else’s world, which is what writers do.
I’ve been pleased with the response I’ve gotten so far from early readers. A writer-friend, Monia Mazigh, read and agreed to endorse the book. While my student has moved on to middle school, I hope she gets a copy of ‘Sadia’ so she can see herself reflected in the pages. Writing about a different culture was challenging and, to be honest, I don’t know if I would do it again. There is so much more attention being paid to #ownvoices, that I expect there will be a raft of new and authentic writers publishing their stories in coming years. The void I saw in my library, is thankfully, getting filled.