Too Much or Not Enough?
Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to engage in another NbA Muslims Twitter Chat, history in the making. The topic we covered and discussed? -Exploring Sex and Violence: Can Muslim Fiction Go Too Far? Before I begin to delve any further into this conversation, I would like to explain briefly, using the definition provided by NbA Muslims to express exactly who we are and why it is so imperative that we as Muslims dialogue on the various spectrums concerning the telling of our story. Why it is necessary that we write about our Muslim-American experiences as opposed to exclusively being written about, -even by well-intentioned non-Muslim authors who write contemporary fiction books about or including Muslim characters.
“NbA Muslims endeavors to gather and analyze socio-cultural elements that comprise the developing American and native-born American Muslim hybrid cultures.”
NbA Muslims Twitter Chat Synopsis: https://nbamuslims.com/2016/04/11/nbamuslims-500-muslimfiction-twitter-chat-can-muslim-fiction-go-too-far/
What does this mean? Well, the American Muslim culture is vast, complex, and nuanced. We, as a people come from all walks of life and experiences. While our dissimilarities are no doubt significant and recognized, it is our commonalities, which remain substantial. We, as American Muslims share a cultural and familial bond that has begun from and before our country’s inception, trailblazing through generations of political, religious, and social unrest, while concurrently emerging into a separate hybrid culture.
As a community many authors are actively engaged in using the written platform to promote social reform and change, some with the intent to bring forth those diverse topics that are the unique fiber of our collective existence. Therefore, to prevent the continuing erasure or being shelved as ‘the other’ it becomes imperative that the stories surrounding American Muslims not be left as a topic for others to generalize about. For American Muslim fiction authors writing Muslim fiction, degrees of sexual and violent content has become a subject which is being weighed and dissected with regards to both the pros and cons, as in this past week’s discussion.
Questions such as:
-What is too much?
-Can a Muslim author go too far in describing the graphic and explicit content [there is a substantial difference between the two] when writing about sex and violence, and if so, what exactly is that limit?
-Is this decision left to individual authors to discern or has a subjective limit been placed on content, determined by the genre, the subject matter or both?
-And given that consideration, who is then responsible for gauging what that line in the sand is or has this already been determined by the mandates of our belief?
Many, if not all of the authors participating in the Twitter conversation [who presented in a wide variety of genres], collectively agreed that where graphic and explicit content are concerned, there is a fine line we all tread and weigh within ourselves, tempered by our personal relationship to our Creator. Intention therefore was deemed paramount, and again, of a personal nature. ‘Man judge’s action while only Allah, God can judge intentions [what lies hidden in the heart].’
Therefore, in light of intention being the mandate, I would like to continue discussing this topic as one individual voice, -mine. I recognize and acknowledge that I am not qualified to sit in judgment of what other authors decide to do, say or think. I am also certainly not in a position to enforce rules and regulations. However, for myself, as a Muslim, an American, a woman and an author; I have grappled with this particular topic with each book I write. During interviews, I have been asked repeatedly to elaborate on my use of graphic description. In all honesty, I expect this response because the subject matter I have chosen to write about, domestic violence, sexual abuse, incest, etc., has pretty much dictated that I do so. So here is the crux of the matter for me.
On the one hand, although my platform is contemporary fiction, I still very much wish to write true-to-life stories that engage the Readers in such a way as to make them empathize with a story’s characters as well as their tribulations. I want to bring nuance to stories that for so long have either been mind-numbingly generalized, sensationalized for distraction or completely hidden from plain sight. And to do so, I know I must engage realism and frankly realism isn’t always pretty. And not only isn’t it pretty, but the accurate depictions and portrayals in writing can be downright uncomfortable. It has the ability to force one to question strongly long-held beliefs or positions and in doing so foster a sense of vulnerability or work to empower and enlighten.
Decades ago, I’m dating myself now, but I remember as a teenager writing a letter back to a ‘friend.' In her letter, she told me about her life and then in closing asked how I was, and what I’d been up to. Basic general questions. But me being me, I decided to write her the truth back. I wrote about what I saw, experienced and learned about living where I was, and in return, I got a heated scathing response back. Not from her mind you, but from her mother who took it upon herself to read the letter I had written to her daughter.
She informed me that I had no right to tell her daughter about the terrible things happening in the world. That when I wrote a personal letter to her child, she only gave me permission to discuss beautiful things, like butterflies, happiness, goals, the weather [I kid you not] and leave out all the ugliness and suffering I had decided to expound honestly upon. She made it abundantly clear to me that I was not permitted to share these truths. Informed me in no uncertain terms that I was not welcomed to tell her daughter about the bigotry and prejudice I had witnessed. I wasn’t allowed to discuss misogyny, the homeless on the street, or the alcohol and drug abuse that left grown men peeing on my mailbox. I couldn’t describe the lady who pushed the food cart filled with all her life’s belongings while she incessantly mumbled to herself through blackened deteriorated teeth. I wasn’t allowed to share the story of the young woman I saw crying out on her front stoop, nursing a swollen jaw and a black eye. And I was never, ever allowed to tell her entitled child about the long lines waiting outside soup kitchens; the inequality perpetrated on people of color in our country, or the endless micro-aggressions I witnessed chipping away at the souls of too many. Nope. Not allowed.
I remember crying. Upset. Rebuked. I thought I had done something terribly awful. Maybe I didn’t have a right to expose these horrors. Maybe I shouldn’t be writing about such horrific happenings…just keep them to myself. Mind my own business. Look the other way.
But that’s not who I was and it is certainly not who I am. I will not look the other way, nor will I cushion my stories to make the horror of abuse, racism, prejudice, bigotry and misogyny more palatable in whatever form perpetrated or by whom.
I won’t scurry to hide from the ugly truths… water down my writings for the Readers, finish up my tales with all happy endings like some canned laughter- 30-minute sitcom because for me, as an author who writes on these particular topics, that’s not real life. That’s not truth. It’s disingenuous and unfathomable.
But in a crazy way, that mother did me a big favor because she gave me my first vapid taste of what was in store for me if I continued on the same course I was on. She severely enlightened me with the understanding that just because I decide to tell or write the truth in all its graphic nature didn’t necessarily mean it would be welcomed. And, as a matter of fact, despite her viciousness, she reinforced within me the promise I made to myself that from that point moving forward I’d never look away.
So yes, my books are graphic. They expose the ugly underbelly of what hate, power and control can generate when left unimpeded. I most certainly write about topics that make tears run, hearts pain, and souls whimper. I don’t merely use gentle innuendo when describing rape, incest or physical abuse. I adamantly refuse to ignore racism, bigotry, and prejudice, and will address any who victim-blame with unfettered vengeance. Guilty as charged. Let the tar and feathering begin.
My next book is almost ready to be handed off to the publisher. I believe in my heart it is another important, and yes, painful story that I pray will resonate and inform, despite the raw nature of its execution.
Thank you again to all my loyal Readers. Without your continued support I wouldn’t be able to continue to write about these less than popular topics. I’m so blessed we are taking this journey together… In peace always, Sahar