I recently read and loved The Gauntlet by Karuna Riazi, a Middle Grade book that is a mix of Jumanji and The Wizard of Oz, featuring a Muslim protagonist. We are delighted to be hosting its author today to talk about the experience of writing the book.
Farah is the first.
I tell people this all the time, and they blink and nod and smile. I am not sure if it is because I do not articulate myself properly – how deeply that sentence is rooted, all the ways in which it branches off, thin and fresh and hopeful for some responding reaction from the soil surrounding it to encourage it to dig deeper, think bigger, live freely – or if they do not entirely understand how much it has taken for me to write a book, this book, sitting on their lap or on mine, turned open to a page that is polished and typeset and gives no hint at the tumultuous first draft that it stands on.
Farah is the first Muslim character I have ever written. If you had asked me when I was Farah’s age whether or not I thought I could do what I’ve done now, willingly piecing together a character with a similar family and love of board games and hijaab on her head (no reluctance to describe it, no hesitation or quick press on the delete key to remove that telling detail), I would’ve thought you were teasing me.
I would have burst into tears.
I had burst into tears, in front of my mother at that very age, when she asked me why I never seemed to reach into my own experiences and faith and background for the stories I pecked out on the family desktop. (There were a good hundred of them, sometimes just a beginning I thought was clever or a giddy paragraph or two describing a dress or a palace or whatever currently dwelled in my mind thanks to fairy tale retellings and TV shows.)
“Because no one wants to hear stories like that,” I told her. “No one cares about us. No one thinks we’re interesting enough.”
I held to that, for years. I think the first time I actually opened a blank document and typed out the words, “This character is Muslim,” was directly after being involved on the We Need Diverse Books team and watching fellow teammate and inspiration Aisha Saeed land a book deal with a character that was openly brown and Muslim, while herself being openly brown and Muslim. Even then, that wasn’t the cure. That was just the flicker of hope.
If her, then maybe – just maybe – me, too.
But I was still dragging my heels. I could say, and believe it, that Muslim children of every background and ethnicity deserved representation in the books they read, and in seeing the authors they admired. I just still didn’t feel like it was me.
Farah is the first. No one seems to feel the gravitational pull of those words. Personally, when I say them, they tug against my spine like puppeteer’s strings and lay a gentle hand under my chin to raise it higher. Farah is the first, for all that I worried with every word I typed that I had taken on something far too great for me to even aspire to.
I’ve been a twelve-year-old American Muslim girl in a shalawar kameez, with an anxious knot in my stomach because I was surrounded by people that I knew in my bones thought I was bizarre from head to toe. I’ve been Farah, in some ways more than others, and when I sat down that first night to try and tap into her voice, the weight of what I was about to do settled down into my fingers.
I had to do this justice. It had taken me this long, with so many uncertainties and fears. People often seem to assume that when you are writing from your own experiences, details and memories fall into place like well-carved jigsaw puzzle pieces. You write smoothly, efficiently, without a need to snap open a browser window and hurriedly type out a Google search.
Writing as a woman of color, to me, increasingly feels like creating pearls – out of pain, out of ignorance, out of years-old irritations and lost friendships and the wistful taste of the juice your grandmother poured for you and the fading memory of your late grandfather’s lap…You have to take all of that out from the drawer you dumped it into, realize that somewhere along the years, it came off its string and now you need to actually touch the loose beads, feel those twinges of what used to be and what you sometimes wish never was, and work it into something new and profound and often very frightening.
When I think about creating pearls, and growing as a writer, I wish I had real oysters in my hands to seek counsel from right alongside the Muslim authors I look up to and respect and learn from. I wish I could see those first pearls, those cushioned irritations, and compare them over the years to what comes as you lacquer with more ease, take what has hurt you and challenge it, make it beautiful, make it you.
We talk so often, in media, about being the first, or part of a group that is the first, or the very few. We rarely talk about how frustrating and lonely it is, how it takes years and more connections and friends and understanding to realize when and where you were reinventing the wheel and why you weren’t ready to unpack that particular moment from your childhood – not yet – and what needs to be taken back to the drawing board and reassessed.
(There are Muslim authors in middle grade who have paved the way, who have written their words and formed their pearls and done it beautifully. I wish I could say, specifically, “This wasn’t too hard for me because I had another middle grade fantasy with a hijaabi heroine to refer to,” or “If you read this book by this author, you’ll get an understanding of how I crafted this girl, her life and her family.” But here, too, in the realm of boarding schools and magical gadgets and best friend trios facing down evils together, Farah is the first.)
This was the first pearl, and so, it was often slow and tedious going. Nothing about writing The Gauntlet came to me wrapped up and ready to find its place in the draft. There were scenes that I wrote and crossed out in the backs of school notebooks, and I was stunned at how visceral and raw they were and how they lingered with me. There were inside jokes from family members I smiled over but had no place to weave in. There were plenty of words that made me as comfortable in my biracial identity as an itchy sweater, embarrassed to realize how little I know in spite of wanting to know, what I’ve never had and what will never be.
The Gauntlet is what comes from the best of my current ability, from the author that I am right now and the girl I used to be.
I will continue to grow, away from the twelve-year-old who burst in tears due to feeling unwanted on the shelves that she loved so deeply. I will continue to make mistakes and shift about in my own identity and compare my new words to the older pearls and perhaps wince at how ill-formed and tentative I was in taking everything that makes me who I am and giving it a new life on the written page.
But this is what I’ve done now.
Farah is the first.
May she not be the last.
Karuna Riazi is a born and raised New Yorker, with a loving, large extended family and the rather trying experience of being the eldest sibling in her particular clan. Besides pursuing a BA in English literature from Hofstra University, she is an online diversity advocate, blogger, and publishing intern. Karuna is fond of tea, baking new delectable treats for friends and family to relish, Korean dramas, and writing about tough girls forging their own paths toward their destinies. The Gauntlet is her first novel.