NbA Muslim Founder, Layla Abdullah-Poulos
I am very pleased and honored to have on Sahar's Monday Morning Blog on Tuesday, the founder of NbA Muslims, Layla Abdullah-Poulos. Layla is also an adjunct at SUNY Empire State College, a graduate student pursuing an M.A. in Liberal Studies as well as advanced certificates in Women and Gender and American Studies.
It's not every day an author can review a book reviewer, so thank you for visiting!
My first question is this, -what inspired you to create NbA Muslims, and what were the challenges (research, literary, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?
My primary motivation for creating NbA Muslims was to have a space to organize the research for my master’s thesis. However, as I navigated through the various websites, blogs, media, and scholarly publications about Muslims in the United States, I realized that there was very little focus on the experiences and perspectives of African-American, Latin-American, and Euro-American Muslims. Although over 1/3 of Muslims in the United States come from those heritages, the American Muslim culture is almost exclusively framed as something inherently foreign and there is the tenacious generalization that Muslims comprise of people from specific regions across the Atlantic - mainly Middle Eastern or South Asian.
I decided to expand the original purpose of NbA Muslims and provide a space to highlight the experiences and perspectives of Muslims, who have extensive American heritages. I also sought to draw attention to those whose Islamic identity and application formed in this country and the influence those cultures had on the nuances of the American Muslim experience to facilitate better understanding and appreciation.
In the future, I will expand the reviews to NbA Muslim men as well as first-generation American Muslims. There are many perspectives Nba Muslims seeks to explore and feature.
Specifically, what genre of books do you review and why?
Presently, I review works of fiction written by Native-born American (NbA) Muslim women. I chose this demographic for a few important reasons. NbA Muslim women have the largest body of fiction that provides a broad range of works from which I could sample for my thesis work. Novels written by NbA Muslim women often represent the array of social intersections they embody (i.e. race, class, gender, etc.). Thus, there is the opportunity to explore multiple intersections and readers, like myself, have a chance to learn about and appreciate how dynamic and diverse the culture is.
The literary world serves as a model for the ways that the NbA experience is often overlooked by the broader and even Muslim society. For example, if you search “American Muslim Fiction” in Amazon, the results will be primarily of fiction written by immigrant or immigrant-descendant Muslims. This limits readers to the content of those authors, which can be very different from the works of NbA Muslim writers. Therefore, a major objective of NbA Muslims is to provide a platform for fiction that expresses the experiences of an often ignored social group and their writers.
What kinds of writing fundamentals do you look for and are most important to you when reviewing a novel?
This has changed for me over time. I have an extensive literary background. Most of my undergraduate and present graduate work focuses on literary analysis. Therefore, I went into this project with a certain set of standards that I have since had to adjust because of the realities in which many NbA Muslim authors must publish their work.
Because the publishing world can be so exclusive in determining what author(s) gets published, the works of NbA Muslim writers has gone basically unnoticed. Consequently, many NbA Muslims independently publish. Independent publishing is a great way to have works otherwise ignored introduced to the literary world, but it is not without its challenges. Indie authors publish without many of the advantages that authors with a publishing house have. There is little money for content and copy editors, and it has been my experience that a number of published novels reflect this. However, I refuse to penalize authors because of the shortsightedness of modern American publishing. I respect them for circumventing obstacles in order to put themselves and their works out there. Therefore, I concentrate on the plot and character development, and the authors rarely disappoint in those aspects of the novels.
These stories reveal some important social commentary about the NbA experience, and they offer the chance to eliminate stereotypes about American Muslims and enrich the American Muslim literary canon. Thus, until there is a publisher with the foresight to tap into this growing pool of authors, I will continue to focus on the stories and messaging of these works and leave nitpicking about commas to others.
As a book reviewer, what elements do you feel are most necessary to make a book become a bestseller?
Because of my present work and the demographic of authors on which I concentrate, I tend not to think in terms of book sales.
Is there anything you find particularly challenging when reviewing a novel? Any particular pet peeves?
I had to shake off many of my pet peeves to review these works. However, some have stuck. My biggest pet peeve is novel length. I rarely read let alone review a novel over 300 pages. In this sense, I am a product of our “short and sweet” technological society. I want to read a story within 300 pages and move onto the next one. If you can’t tell me your story in those amount of pages, you are not the author for me. I know some reviewers will gasp at my revelation, but I have found many in academia also have this sentiment. The only genre to which I will make an exception is sci-fi speculative fiction. However, there are great sci-fi authors that weave their tails in under 300 pages, so I tend to read those.
As far as Muslim fiction, in particular, I have little patience for novels with common Muslim/Arabic terms that include the English translation in parentheses. As a Muslim reader, I am quite familiar with those terms; the inclusion of English in the text disrupts the reading too much for me. Write a glossary of those terms in the back of the book for readers who may not be familiar with them instead of messing up the flow of the book.
What is your favorite genre of books to read? Any particular book, stick out as your all-time favorite? Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest, and what is it that really strikes you about their work?
I am a romance junkie. No matter the setting, give me two lovers trying to get together any day. Part of my thesis is to explore the unique expression of love in a NbA Muslim context. Novels like Areebah’s Dilemma: Love or Deen by Karimah Grayson and American Boy by Zara J. were especially helpful in looking at the dynamics of American Muslim love. I am also a thriller fan, but I do read almost anything. Just tell me a good story (in under 300 pages of course), and I am hooked!
My all-time favorite book is the Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X and Alex Haley. I never get tired of reading, referring to, and discussing that book. It is a necessary read for all teens in my family.
I have to say that there are so many fabulous NbA Muslim women authors creating a rich compendium of literary works. Publishers should be seeking these women out and add some diversity. Let’s start with the first-timers. Among all the novels I’ve read, Elle Muslimah stands out as a new author with a lot of potential. Her book The Real Muslim Housewives of Philly grabbed and kept my attention. She definitely made things entertaining, and her characters were very well developed. Jatasha Sharif is also an author who exhibits a lot of potential. Her book Khadijah’s Life in Motion was full of complex characters and subplots.
I am expanding my selection and filling my Kindle carousel with authors like Hend Hegazi and Nasheed Jaxson. I am looking forward to reading Papatia Feauxzar’s “Just for Sisters” Muslim erotica. It may prove very interesting.
Can you share a little of your current work with us?
Currently, I am in the process of working with selected NbA Muslim women writers on a research study to discover the various ways that the merging of Islamic and American cultures by Muslims in the United States produces a distinctive hybrid culture and cultural artifacts. The authors were carefully selected for the project, and their input is pivotal. My experience with the authors has been very positive, and I hope to expand this project further after completing my thesis.
Through NbA Muslims, I am able to create a series of video book reviews. Each video highlights a book from a NbA Muslim author. I receive many positive responses to the video reviews from authors, my colleagues in academia, and viewers. Alhamdulillah, the authors, seem especially pleased with my analyses. I try to remain constructively critical as well as point out the unique cultural references and social commentary each book contains. Authors are contacting me to recommend their books, and I am looking forward to future reviews. I am also planning to have video interviews of authors in 2016, inshaallah.
In one sentence, what advice would you give to an aspiring author?
What do you do when not reviewing books?
Alhamdulillah, I am blessed with a multi-faceted life that provides me with many opportunities. Primarily I am an educator. I homeschool my six children and am an adjunct at SUNY Empire State College, where I tutor students in writing and teach writing workshops. I am also a social activist. I am president of the student group Minority Students in Action, where I work with members towards more inclusion in higher education.
I also spend time traveling the country and presenting at various professional and academic conferences. I’ve delivered an array of historical, cultural, and social presentations over the years. I am preparing to present “Muslim Love American Style: The Islamic American Hybrid Culture and Romance in Muslim Fiction” at the Popular Culture Association’s national conference. In the presentation, I will show how fiction produced by NbA Muslim women reveals ways in which the merging of Islamic ideals about love and romance with prevailing Eurocentric secular American cultural notions produces a unique romantic perspective.
Although I don’t write novels (well I don’t finish novels), I do write articles for NbA Muslims as well as other publications. My work has been published in collegiate publications as well as online publications. I serve as a U.S. correspondent for onislam.net. I also write opinion-editorial articles for The Islamic Monthly. It is my main goal to open positive dialogues about American Muslim experiences and resist racism, sexism, and anti-Islamic rhetoric tainting our society.
I write print reviews for my college’s online newsletter as well as Book/Mark, a quarterly literary review publication. I use these platforms to expose readers from the broader society to Muslim fiction.
Where can readers find more of your work?
My most recent work can be found in Empire State College publications All About Mentoring and The Metropolitan Review. I am also published in The Islamic Monthly, OnIslam.net, and Muslim Village.
What is your general submission process and guidelines for a book to be considered for a NbA Muslim traditional review and/video review?
I prefer that authors contact me. An author can email me at email@example.com. I work with the most proactive authors first. I need a lot of information and participation from authors, so things like bios, website/social media info and quick response to my questions is essential. There are plenty of authors I’ve passed on because of inconsistent communication, so it is integral that authors be professional and informative.
There are occasions where I may reach out to an author because the premise of their book intrigues me. However, the need for professional and consistent communication is still important. Authors should consider themselves as brands, and no one wants to deal with an inconsistent brand, no matter how interesting the book.
For more of Layla Abdullah-Poulos's exciting work, book reviews, social commentary and enlightening insights:
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