Have you ever done something that seemed completely rational at the time, but when you look back on it you’re like, What the hell was I thinking?
There is one incident in my personal life which comes to mind immediately. I won’t go into detail mostly because, to be honest, I’m rather ashamed of it. Before I give you the recap, let me just say, for those of you who don’t know me personally, that I’m generally a kind person. I believe in being compassionate, I believe in spreading love. I think anyone who knows me would say the same. But one day over twenty years ago, when I was a junior in high school, I was extremely mean to a girl. My intention, my rationale, was that by telling her off, it would make the boy involved (surprise, surprise, right?) see that he was a being a prick. Now, in truth, the boy was being a prick. But this girl, she wasn’t responsible for his actions. She was innocent… and I was just vile to her. I didn’t see it until sometime later. But I do regret it, and I hope that, wherever she may be, she will forgive me.
Recently I’ve had another what the hell was I thinking moment, although decidedly less regretful. It is a literary mistake I made with my newest release, Behind Picket Fences. And this mistake wasn’t made clear to me until some of my readers started making comments about the characters, asking why a Muslim character would act a certain way. “Ah…,” I replied in confusion, “but that character isn’t Muslim. I make no mention of any religious affiliation with her. Why did you assume that?”
It was the name, some of them said. Others, I think, simply assumed all my characters were Muslim just because I am Muslim. And while the latter reason saddens me because it forces me into a box that—no matter how much I grow as I writer—I may never escape, the former reason is my doing, and I must take responsibility for it.
For six out of eight of my main characters, I deliberately chose names that work across cultures. You’ll find plenty of Muslims and non-Muslims named May, Morgan, Mariam, Summer, Sidra, and Farris. My intention was that both my Muslim and non-Muslim readers would relate to the names. But, for at least some of my readers, this non-commitment probably did the opposite of that, leaving their vision of the characters undefined. Interestingly, this prejudice came from my Muslim audience; none of my non-Muslim readers mentioned this to me. I wonder if they feel they same.
And I wonder if it matters. The differences in stories that readers experience is part of the beauty of this art. There is a personalized dance that goes on between the writer and each reader. And each dance is both unique and authentic, lending to a very special reading experience. So does it matter that some of my readers attributed to certain characters a specific religion which I had not? I want to say no. I want to say it’s the same as me seeing a character as skinny and you seeing him as muscular. I really want to say it’s the same as that, that it doesn’t matter. But in this case, at least, yes, it does matter.
It matters for two reasons: First, my target audience is not only Muslims; I hope to reach and touch non-Muslims as well. And well, if a reviewer makes a comment that all (or most) of the characters are Muslim, this may discourage members of my non-Muslim audience. Someone who was thinking of picking up my book might change his mind based solely on the idea that he may be unable to relate to any of the characters.
Second, as a Muslim, it is my responsibility—taken willingly or unwillingly—to represent Islam. What I mean by that is, people who observe my actions, both in my life and in my writing, will judge Islam based on my presentation of it. It’s like that incident twenty years ago in high school: It tears me up to think that that girl thought my religion permitted my horrible behavior. As for my writing, well I can have Muslim characters do forbidden things because in life, that happens. But I will never glorify it. I will never normalize a sin. And for that reason, it is vital that my characters’ religious affiliations be clear. (Honestly, I thought that not mentioning a religious affiliation was the same as saying, ‘this person adheres to no specific religion.’ But clearly I was wrong.)
My readers presented me with a lesson, and I have learned it, and will continue to learn more with each piece I write. And I hope that my writing will be the better for it.