“Even though I had the comfort of reading, I was faced with the same ostracization in the stories“
When I was a child, I loved books, even though they were at times painfully unkind to me as a Person of Colour. Because I had brown-skin, hair on my legs and arms and face, and a strange accent when I spoke, I never had many friends. Books were my solace from the terrible loneliness and sense of alienation that I encountered while growing up in a predominantly White elementary school and then later on in junior high school. Even though I had the comfort of reading, I was faced with the same ostracization in the stories that I devoured as I had amid the scuffed linoleum and muddied walls of my educational institutions.
The characters of nearly all the books that I adored as a child were White. They either had blonde or brown hair with blue or green eyes and relatively slender forms. They never had to worry about things like misspeaking in a foreign language and having an accent people used to cast judgements about their intelligence. They rarely had parents who showed protectiveness or concern for them, or had any presence in their lives at all really. They were almost always obsessed with sex or violence, and if religion ever came up, it was related to Christianity or Catholicism.
“The only time I ever got to read about a Black character, or even a Brown character was when they were being portrayed as villains“
The heroes and heroines of the grand adventures that I had loved so much were never People of Colour. The only time I ever got to read about a Black character, or even a Brown character was when they were being portrayed as villains or being horridly mistreated. They were inciting violence and hatred, and as such, had to be treated with malice and aggression, or worse. When one is a child, especially a lonely one that seeks solace and hope in the beauty of stories, it becomes natural to want to be able to find inspiration in those same stories. The hope is that one day I can be just as strong as the superheroes that I read about. I can be just as beautiful or handsome or attractive as the princes and princesses in common fairy tales. Hell, that I do not even have to fit the Binary gender roles. I wanted to dream about being an honourable and brave human capable of experiencing magic and splendour as a Brown person. A person who did not need love in their lives or any references to whether they were a boy or a girl, because in the face of adventure, gender really does not mean much. My hopes were always shattered with the pieces flung away into the wind like petty trash.
Because I never received representation of who I am, because I never got the chance to hold rough-textured pages between my fingers that housed black ink blotches of anything other than villainy and abuse, subjugation and dehumanisation, I never had any confidence that someone like me deserved to succeed. It was my belief growing up as a kid that Allah had put People of Colour on the planet to serve the White Christian masses, and it never settled well with me. Somewhere in the very back of my mind and at the bottom of my heart, I knew this was not the case. Yet, when all there is to go by is what was in front of me in the books that surrounded me, it was difficult to perceive it differently.
“For the first time in my entire life, I read a story about a Brown-skinned Muslim girl“
Then about three to four years ago, after I began blogging and was trying to get established on Netgalley, I was approved for an Advanced Reader’s Copy of S.K. Ali’s Saints and Misfits. For the first time in my entire life, I read a story about a Brown-skinned Muslim girl who had an overprotective family that was passionate about their Islamic faith. She had struggles that were typical of the Western teenager experience, yet she never compromised who she was just to fit in. She was wonderfully Muslim. She was beautifully individualistic with amazing hobbies and interests. She was intelligent and proud of her identity and her brown skin and was steadfast in her choice to wear a hijab. While I’m not a woman, I identified with everything else in that book.
I sat down after finishing the last page and I cried into my palms for what felt like forever. I cried tears of sadness for not having something like this years ago. I cried in joy for being able to experience so many parts of myself in the thing I loved most. I cried for finally understanding that there was nothing wrong with me and that my cultural and racial differences did not make me less worthy of success or less intelligent. It was not that books had betrayed me and let me down. It was the world, and this systemised belief that if you don’t have white skin with blue or green eyes, and faith in Jesus as a god, then you were a failure and would amount to nothing. There was no room for anything other than this binary of idealised perfection. To learn how wrong and jaded that belief was, well, it was a monumental moment, to say the least.
I wish so desperately that I had Saints and Misfits, as well as other Muslim books, when I was a child or even a pre-teen. My hopes and my faith would never have gone through the blender of betrayal and disappointment that I felt from books back then. Yet, in other ways, while I can feel remorseful for what I lacked in my youth, I deeply appreciate and cherish that the youth of today shall not be deprived as such. There are Muslim kids and young adults, and even adults as well, who have stories with Muslims of all sorts, and so many different shades of humanity, to feel at one with. Tons of novels that can show them the hope and the inspiration that I had always frantically sought.
“My experiences are the reasons why I shall never stop promoting and advocating for the necessity of diversity in literature“
Today, I wanted to share my story of what it meant being a Queer Indian-Fijian Muslim growing up in a world where books with characters who looked or sounded or even loved like me did not exist. My experiences are the reasons why I shall never stop promoting and advocating for the necessity of diversity in literature, especially where People of Colour and Queer People of Colour are concerned. It may seem silly and unimportant for so many folx out there. However, I also know that for every one person who says diversity is pointless, there will be tens or hundreds to stand up and lay claim to how extremely vital it truly is.
No child should have to grow up feeling like they aren’t enough. No child should have to open a book and be told that they shall never be anything other than a villain or supporting cast. They are individuals filled with potential and possibilities that shall be marvellously unique to them, and their stories and experiences are just as important, if not more so, than all the others that choose to keep them down.
“It is hope and inspiration. It is a dream come true and a dream to aspire to.”
That is exactly what my Muslim Shelf Space means to me, as both a reader and a writer, and it is why I wanted to take a moment during Ramadan this year to talk intimately about what my Muslim Shelf Space represents in this home and my heart. It is hope and inspiration. It is a dream come true and a dream to aspire to. All these books, and all the newest additions that we are blessed with and shall continue to be blessed with, and all the brilliant humans writing these narratives, are marvels that fill my life and mind and heart with so much warmth, compassion, and belief that marginalised people are not trash, but a beacon of what we can accomplish and the joy that we can shape the future with in spite of being told that we’re not enough. Because you know what? We are enough.