Naheed Senzai: A Character Like Me

Naheed Hasnat Senzai is the author of award winning SHOOTING KABUL, chosen by the Asian Pacific Librarians Association as their Young Adult Literature winner and an NPR’s Backseat Book Club pick, along with Edgar Award nominee SAVING KABUL CORNER and YALSA pick TICKET TO INDIA. She spent her childhood in San Francisco, Jubail, Saudi Arabia and attended high school in London, England where she was voted “most likely to lead a literary revolution” due to her ability to get away with reading comic books in class. Her upcoming novel is ESCAPE FROM ALEPPO, about a girl fleeing Syria at the advent of the Arab Spring (Spring 2018).

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My eyes widened in disbelief as I stared down at page nineteen, from the book my librarian had handed to me the day before. Shocked, I read the lines again:

“Like the Black Muslims,” yelled Sport.
“Don’t laugh, man,” said Harry, suddenly serious. “Not funny.”
“Hey,” Seymour was laughing, “you a Muslim, Harry?”
“I am for me,” said Harry. “I am with nobody.”

I was eleven years old and this was the first time a Muslim character stared back at me, from within the pages of an American children’s novel. Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area in the seventies, my sister and I were the only Muslim kids at our school. No one really knew what a Muslim was, and since our parents were from South Asia, it was hard enough explaining that we were not the kind of Indian Christopher Columbus had stumbled on in the Americas (Native Americans) but the kind he was actually seeking, in his search for a new route to India, to find his fortune in gold and spices. In the book Sport, I finally found a character, Harry, who somewhat resembled me. A Black Muslim kid, he was proud of who he was, an integral part of the kaleidoscope of multicultural New York City, hanging out with friends, Sport, Harriet, Seymour and Chi-Chi, who crossed religious, cultural and gender lines.

I didn’t encounter another Muslim character in the library for many years, not until 1989 when Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind was published. Within its pages, I was transported to Pakistan to meet twelve-year old Shabanu, the daughter of a camel herder in the Cholistan desert, forced to marry an old man to settle a family dispute. Although the novel raised legitimate issues of child marriage and patriarchal practices, it was written in a way that portrayed Pakistani Muslim women as exotic, culturally backward and oppressed. For impressionable children, it exacerbated negative stereotypes and left me feeling ashamed that this represented my culture and religion. The book went on to win the Newberry Award, the highest honor in children’s literature, was publically lauded and became a commonly read text in schools.

An avid reader all my life, it always amazed me how books magically transported me to new worlds to meet characters whose shoes I could “walk in” – enabling me to visit a marvelous chocolate factory, journey from slavery to freedom, escape Nazis during the holocaust and journey into space to find a long-lost father. As a child, I was fascinated by how an author could produce such wonder, simply stringing words together, and one day I hoped to write a book myself. When I reached thirty, I decided that I didn’t want to wake up at the end of my life and regret that I hadn’t written a book. With that goal in mind, I contemplated what to write about. One thing I knew for certain was that I wanted to focus on children’s literature. I’ve always believed that young people are more receptive and willing to absorb new ideas presented within books, unlike older, frankly more jaded readers.

As I brainstormed ideas, my husband “helpfully” suggested said I should write about him, since he was the most interesting person I knew. After I stopped laughing, I ceded that he may have a point. In 1979, his family had escaped from Afghanistan when the Soviet Union invaded the country. His father, a professor at Kabul University, planned an escape for his family, nearly getting caught by the KGB in the process. My husband’s arduous journey from Afghanistan was the source of inspiration for my first book, Shooting Kabul. (*Disclaimer, shooting refers to photography, not guns). As I plotted out the main character, Fadi’s journey, I knew my overarching goal, as with all writers, was to write best story I could, one that kept readers glued to their seat. Now, as an “insider”, I felt a responsibility to convey a story about Muslims, Islam, Afghan culture and the events of 9/11 and terrorism in a nuanced way – creating a story that served as both a ‘mirror’ and ‘window’ for my readers, key concepts in children’s literature.

Mirror books allow children to see themselves, their culture and community accurately represented in books, helping to promote positive self-esteem – what Sport did for me. Books that serve as “windows,” provide children a glimpse into the diversity of the world in which they live, helping them develop respect for unfamiliar people, places and lifestyles. In a homogenous community, a book that illustrates diversity may be the only way for a reader to meet and “befriend” someone from another racial, ethnic or religious group. Since Shooting Kabul debuted, I’ve received countless emails and letters from kids across the country. First, they expressed their enjoyment of the story – thankfully they stayed in their seats! Second, Muslim readers expressed their heartfelt thanks at meeting a character like themselves, while non-Muslim children conveyed their appreciation for gaining insight into the lives of Muslims in America and around the world.

The current environment for Muslims has become even tougher. Now, more than ever, we need to build bridges of understanding between all Americans, and I feel that literature provides a platform for children to connect with others. Hopefully, reading across racial, cultural and religious divides, kids can be emboldened to reach out to classmates different than themselves, which is especially important as we see the rise of bullying and animosity towards Muslim kids and those who appear Muslim – Sikhs, Latinos etc. I truly believe that young people have the ability to be agents of positive change for the future, as the letters of children who’ve befriended Fadi have illustrated, and that is why writing is such a rewarding endeavor.

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