Tag Archives: Muslim

Mini Reviews: 5 Muslim Reads

Life update and mini review series introduction: I have a full-time job right now, so writing 600+ word reviews for every book I read has become unsustainable. However, since I still want to share my thoughts on all the books I read, I’m compromising by doing mini reviews for most books and full reviews for a smaller fraction. This first set of mini reviews will focus on five books with Muslim characters that I’ve read recently. 🙂

the-gauntlet

The Gauntlet by Karuna Riazi – Middle Grade, Fantasy, Adventure, Bangladeshi American MC, #ownvoices

In The Gauntlet, Farah Mirza is forced to play a larger-than-life board game in order to save her younger brother from being taken by the game’s Architect. It is such a fun book that really engages the senses, especially sight, smell, and taste. Loaded with loving and vivid references to Bengali, desi, and Middle Eastern cultures, it’s an adventure that you can’t miss. As someone who loves games and puzzles, it was a treat to read about Farah’s three game trials, especially the one involving Mancala, which I played with my sisters when we were young. There were colorful characters and interesting twists and a setting that literally shifts and changes to keep me engaged and delighted throughout.

The Lines We Cross

The Lines We Cross by Randa Abdel-Fattah (originally published as When Michael Met Mina in Australia) – Young Adult, Contemporary, Afghan-Australian MC

The Lines We Cross is a powerful story about racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia. The main character, Mina, moves from a racially diverse, working-class part of the city to a wealthier, white-dominated area. There, she meets and goes to school with Michael, who is white and the son of a local conservative political organizer who is the head of an organization pushing a xenophobic and Islamophobic agenda. Despite their differences, the two are drawn to each other and find common ground, and Michael is forced to confront his own privilege and question his internalized biases. The reason this learning and redemption arc works is because Mina’s perspective is there to complement Michael’s, it’s not just centering Michael. Moreover, Mina actively calls out Michael’s ignorance and biases and refuses to perform the labor of educating him, so her purpose in the story is not to serve his character development.

Saints and Misfits

Saints and Misfits by S.K. Ali – Young Adult, Contemporary, Egyptian/Arab-Indian American MC, #ownvoices

Trigger Warnings: Sexual assault

Saints and Misfits is a gem of a story about a Muslim hijabi teen, Janna, who’s trying to navigate the confusing feelings of adolescence and deal with her traumatic experience of sexual assault by a supposedly upstanding member of her community. Her voice is refreshingly honest, snarky, and down-to-earth. I loved the different relationships explored in the story, from her family drama, to her friendships with people at school and at the Islamic Center, to her crush on Jeremy, to her mentor-mentee relationship with her imam. The supporting characters really rounded out the story, giving it depth and breadth. The topic of sexual assault was explored with sensitivity and grace, and I found it to be an empowering story for survivors and an honest commentary on how a community may fail its members.

Love, Hate & Other Filters.jpg

Love, Hate, and Other Filters by Samira Ahmed – Young Adult, Contemporary, Indian American MC, #ownvoices

Trigger Warnings: Islamophobia, physical assault

Love, Hate, and Other Filters is a powerful novel about intergenerational conflict and Islamophobia, how it feels to be caught in between others’ expectations and your own aspirations. Maya’s parents have a plan for her, and it doesn’t involve going to NYU to study film or dating someone who’s not her parents choice of pious Muslim boy, especially not a white boy like Phil. Because of these suffocating expectations, Maya lives a double life, applying to NYU and meeting Phil in secret, and it will break your heart to see her struggle. Parallel to the day-to-day events of Maya’s life, a terrorist plots to wreak havoc. When the attack occurs, the prime suspect shares Maya’s last name, so she gets targeted with vitriol and violence. This book is such an emotional rollercoaster, and the author doesn’t pull any punches. Maya’s fear and hope are tangible, and you feel the weight of her choices. I loved the juxtaposition of Maya’s first-person narrative with third-person snippets of people whose lives are affected by the terrorist attack. It heightened the tension of the story and connected the dots between seemingly unrelated people.

That Thing We Call a Heart

That Thing We Call a Heart by Sheba Karim – Young Adult, Contemporary, Pakistani American MC, #ownvoices

That Thing We Call a Heart happens over the course of a summer, the summer before Shabnam goes off to college. She’s been estranged from her best friend Farah, so she finds companionship in a cute boy named Jamie, who lands her a job at his aunt’s pie shack. It’s hinted at in the synopsis, but Jamie is not that great of a guy, and he sort of fetishizes Shabnam, and through this experience Shabnam comes to learn what a bad relationship looks like and how infatuation can cloud your judgment. My favorite part of the story was her interactions with her parents, her best friend Farah, and her great-uncle who survived Partition. Her dad teaches her about Urdu poetry, which gives her a connection to her heritage and artistic inspiration. Her best friend Farah was by far my favorite character, defying stereotypes of hijabi girls by dyeing her hair and listening to punk music and not taking shit from anyone. Shabnam’s alienation from Farah is very much her own fault, and in the story, she has to work through the issues and make amends. The dynamic nature of their friendship felt realistic, and it resonated with me a lot as someone who’s gone through similar stages with my own best friend. Lastly, her relationship with her great-uncle felt really relatable to me as someone who doesn’t have very close relationships with people of my grandparents’ generation, who lived through two periods of colonization. Her uncle lived through a very horrifying and bloody chapter of history, and it’s hard to communicate and connect when you feel like there is so much you don’t know about someone and their history. Shabnam’s curiosity and weighty feelings and desire to learn more about that history mirrored my own with respect to 20th Century Taiwanese history.

Review for Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan

aminas-voice

Note: This review is based on the eARC I received from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

My Summary: Things are changing around Amina. Her best friend Soojin is getting friendly with one of the “cool” girls and preparing to change her name to something “American”-sounding. Her uncle is coming from Pakistan to visit, and she has to be the perfect daughter or risk making her parents look bad. Then there’s the Quran recitation competition she has to participate in against her wishes and the Winter Choral Concert she wants to sing in but can’t find the courage to sign up for. While Amina struggles to be true to herself, tragedy strikes and shakes her community to the core.

Review:

While this book is primarily a “window” book for me since I’m not familiar with Pakistani culture, in some ways it was also a “mirror” book because I saw pieces of myself and my experiences in not only Soojin, Amina’s Korean American friend (there are a lot of commonalities in how East Asian Americans navigate white-dominated spaces), but also Amina herself because she is a second generation child of immigrant parents.

Both Amina and Soojin experience a variety of racist microaggressions from their white peers, from food-related taunts to language-related stigmas. Prominent among these is the butchering of their names, something that I’m intimately familiar with. Soojin, who moved to the U.S. as a toddler and is about to become a citizen, plans to change her name to something that white Americans can easily pronounce. I had a period where I considered changing my name, so I empathized with her situation, though hindsight makes me glad I didn’t go through with such a change. Amina feels off about this decision because she thinks Soojin’s name is fine as it is, so she does what she can to communicate this validation to Soojin. This was very heartening to read, knowing how strong the pressure to assimilate into the white mainstream can be and how vulnerable kids like Soojin are to these pressures.

In general, the friendship between Amina and Soojin was a highlight of the story. Two Asian Americans sticking by each other is realistic and an important kind of solidarity to represent. On top of that, the story explores how friendships change over time as new people enter your friend circles. In this case, the “interloper” is a white girl named Emily, who Amina doesn’t fully trust because of her history of perpetrating of some of the microaggressions I mentioned before. The distrust is mixed with feelings of jealousy and abandonment, and those feelings are addressed in a constructive way as the story progresses.

Another positive aspect of the story is Amina’s relationships with her various family members. Her older brother has his own character arc and development as he joins the basketball team at his high school and deals with both parental pressure and peer pressure. Amina may not fully understand her brother, but she is supportive of him and stands up for him to their parents when they are being hard on him over his grades (which is something I will never get tired of seeing portrayed in fiction because seriously, grades aren’t everything).

Amina’s relationship with her parents is also a loving and supportive one. They may be somewhat strict, but they are not unfair or uncaring. To the contrary, her parents encourage her, guide her through her problems, and keep her connected to her culture, heritage, and religion.

Her relationship with her uncle who’s visiting from Pakistan is a bit more complicated but dynamic. Her uncle is more traditional and conservative than her parents, so she has doubts about him liking her since she is Americanized in many ways. He becomes her tutor for reciting and learning Arabic from the Quran, and although she feels inadequate and self-conscious at first, she eventually begins to treat him more like a genuine mentor, developing a bond with him that also brings her closer to her faith.

One of my favorite things about this book was the depictions of everyday life at Sunday school and the Islamic Center. It’s such a lovely space that’s community-oriented and celebrates Islamic history and cultures with its displays and decorations. Everyone knows everyone else, and there are annual traditions and festivals that bring people together. You can tell that Amina feels very at home there. As I was reading about it, I couldn’t help but think of the Taiwanese Community Center that my family frequents on the weekends because of the similarities in layout and the feeling of comfort and familiarity it evokes for me. Since the story builds up this atmosphere of home around the mosque and the Center, the subsequent vandalism left a deep impact on me. The trauma of loss weighed on me as if it were real, as if I were Amina witnessing the events. Thankfully, the aftermath of this dark event lifts you back up with hopeful messages.

The title of this book, Amina’s Voice, has both literal and figurative meanings. The more literal interpretation is linked to Amina’s love of music and singing. She is talented but has stage fright and struggles to sing or otherwise perform in front of an audience. The more figurative meaning is about her coming to terms with herself and her identity and being comfortable with who she is. These two themes and struggles are intertwined and resolved over the course of the story in an empowering way. The ending was perfect (in my opinion).

Recommendation: Highly recommended! A heartfelt story about friendship, family, and community.

Review for God Smites and Other Muslim Girl Problems by Ishara Deen

god-smites-and-other-muslim-girl-problems

Note: I received a review copy of the book from the author in exchange for an honest review.

Note 2: I interviewed the author a few weeks ago, so I highly recommend reading the interview. 😀

My Summary: Against her parents’ desires, Asiya Haque goes for a walk alone in the woods with her crush, Michael, but what could have been a romantic getaway turns into something else completely when they come across a dead body. Asiya flees the scene at Michael’s behest, and then Michael goes missing himself and is accused of being the murderer. Asiya finds herself digging up clues to a murder mystery, a search that is not at all helped by a overly smug police officer who needs serious sensitivity training or her overly protective parents.

Review:

I went in with high expectations for this book, and by and large, it did not disappoint.

The decision to make this a first-person narrative was absolutely perfect. Asiya has a very distinctive character voice that made her so real to me. Her internal world is rich and complex and compelling. On top of that, she is downright hilarious. I lost count of the number of times that I busted out laughing because of something she said aloud or in her head. And though she’s not perfect, she does have a sense of justice and tries to do the best thing.

Asiya’s narration also brought to the fore an insider’s perspective on Islam. There are the congregations at her masjid, where you get to follow along with the communal prayers and witness the true foundations and tenets of the religion: peace, generosity, empathy, etc. There are also the interactions between Asiya and individual Muslims in her life. And of course, the internal dialogue she has with God as she faces her troubles.

From these passages, it’s clear that Asiya has an intimate relationship with her faith and God, but it’s complicated by other people’s cultural and individual biases that favor certain interpretations of God’s word. Through Asiya, her family, and her fellow Muslim community members, the author shows how Muslims are not a monolith. Even Asiya’s parents interpret certain lines from the Quran differently from one another and from their imam.*

Speaking of the parents, I really liked the way Asiya’s relationships with her parents was developed. Although they don’t see eye-to-eye on everything, they do care for one another and stand up for one another when it counts. Her parents were flawed but sympathetic characters, giving the scenes of family tension emotional weight because they’re more complicated than one side being right and the other wrong. I really loved her relationship with her father, who clearly has a soft spot for her. I have a similar relationship with my dad, and I wish there were more representations of such relationships when it comes to Asian dads in diaspora, who tend to be stereotyped as distant or controlling.

Asiya’s relationship with her younger brother was also a surprising positive. Although he definitely has his annoying brother moments, he still respects her, and Asiya in turn stands up for him when their parents disparage him over his academic performance. She’s the one to validate him and what he brings to the table in terms of talents and skills. This is so important in an Asian diaspora narrative because I think second generation kids internalize so many toxic beliefs about the value of grades, where we’re not just being encouraged to succeed in our education but are punished for every mistake made, to the point where we feel like we’re never good enough because of some numbers and letters.

There were a lot of little moments like this, little critiques of the harmful norms and practices around Asiya, including Islamophobia, body-shaming, and even the theft of indigenous children by the government. It was like an Easter Egg hunt for little nuggets of Keeping It Real.

The mystery elements didn’t take a backseat to all of this, of course. Between the different competing murder suspects and the obstacles to Asiya’s attempts at investigating, there was plenty of suspense to go around. The clues were laid out very cleverly to spring one on the reader when the dots are connected to reveal the whole picture. Maybe I’m not that great at piecing things together, but I definitely did not expect the answer to the whodunnit question.

And then at the end of the book, I got a cliffhanger that just ruined me. I’m eagerly anticipating the second book, Mutaweenies and Other Muslim Girl Problems!

For problematic content, I did notice issues with how Nate was portrayed with respect to his supposed OCD, which I wasn’t sure was intended to be clinical OCD/OCPD or just a personality thing that was described hyperbolically as OCD. However, I saw from Glaiza’s review that this part was edited out of the final edition, so that shouldn’t be an issue for most of you.

That issue aside, there were four other things. First was a place where Asiya’s remarks about Michael were heteronormative and exclusionary toward asexual people regarding his assumed sexual history. Second was the use of “opposite sex,” which excludes non-binary people. The third issue I picked up on was when Asiya said she heard a “male voice,” even though you can’t and shouldn’t assume someone’s gender based on how they sound. Better wording would have been to describe the pitch and texture of the voice without automatically gendering it as male or female. The last was the labeling of the culprit as “crazy,” which I found to be disappointing because there are ways to express that someone is terrible without stigmatizing mental illness.

*If you’d like to read some #ownvoices reviews from Muslim readers, here are a few:

Saadia Faruqi | Ayah Assem | Ruzaika Deen

Recommendation: Recommended for those looking for a good mystery that’s equal parts funny, heartfelt, and suspenseful.

Author Interview: Ishara Deen

Hi, everyone! This is my first time hosting an interview on my blog. For this super special, very first interview, I had the pleasure of interviewing indie-published author Ishara Deen. Her debut novel, God Smites and Other Muslim Girl Problems, releases today, January 15th!

Before we get to the interview, let’s take a look at the book cover:

god-smites-and-other-muslim-girl-problems

Wow. I really love this cover! It features a brown girl front and not-quite-center, looking confident and poised to kick ass. The font has a nice and casual vibe, and I’m partial to the background because purple is my favorite color.

Now, for the cover blurb/synopsis:

LIKE NANCY DREW, BUT NOT…

Craving a taste of teenage life, Asiya Haque defies her parents to go for a walk (really, it was just a walk!) in the woods with Michael, her kind-of-friend/crush/the guy with the sweetest smile she’s ever seen. Her tiny transgression goes completely off track when they stumble on a dead body. Michael covers for Asiya, then goes missing himself.

Despite what the police say, Asiya is almost sure Michael is innocent. But how will she, the sheltered girl with the strictest parents ever, prove anything? With Michael gone, a rabid police officer in desperate need of some sensitivity training, and the murderer out there, how much will Asiya risk to do what she believes is right?

And a brief description from the author herself:

God Smites and Other Muslim Girl Problems features Asiya Haque, a Bengali Canadian teen, who is finding her strength and feminism while making her religion her own. The story showcases meaningful friendships, a confusing crush, heavy family drama and unexpected humour through a cozy mystery.

I don’t know about y’all, but between the cover and the descriptions, I’m hooked! I have my copy of the book already, courtesy of Ishara herself, and I can’t wait to read it and share my thoughts on it. Hopefully you’re curious and want to learn a bit more about the author and writing process for this book because here we go with the interview!

(Note: SW stands for Shenwei, a.k.a Me, ID is for Ishara Deen. My comments and questions are in bold font.)

SW: Every author has a story, a progression of events that eventually leads to them becoming an author, even if there are major detours along the way. What’s your story?

ID: I’ve heard a lot of authors say they write the characters they wish they grew up seeing in books. I wish I’d been that smart! I grew up playing with blonde, blue-eyed Barbies and reading Sweet Valley Twins, not noticing that something was missing there. Instead my brown-skinned self, who grew up poor (relative to Canadian standards), obese, and hijabi, went through too much of life thinking something wasn’t up to par with me.

I guess that makes sense why I’ve been writing for years, but watering down my work so that an assumed audience whose lives were more like Elizabeth and Jessica’s could understand or relate. Thankfully, each draft I wrote let me see the imaginary audiences I was writing for and edit them out so that the isolated teens who matter to me could take priority. Writing was a thing I’ve always done – it builds me as a person. Becoming an author, particularly of a series of books, is about sharing the beauty of rewriting. I want teens to know that no matter where you’re at, you can edit, clarify and construct until you’re the person you want to be.

SW: That reminds me of my own experiences with writing. I wrote a lot of characters who weren’t like me until gradually I worked my way toward writing about characters who shared my identity and experiences, the many intersecting ones I have.

In the description you gave me, you said your book tackles issues such as “religion, Islamophobia, abuse, (white) feminism, (internalized) misogyny, and the weight of being a minority within a minority group.” Did you find it difficult to incorporate all of these issues and balance them in your story? Or did they come naturally as you wrote?

ID: Writing about all of those things would have been easy, had I stopped caring so much about what others would think –as if they were the true judges of an experience they hadn’t lived!

I was so affected by the pressure, I almost didn’t publish. I had set a December release date and after the US election, I felt like it was necessary to double up on critique of Islamophobia and delay my release indefinitely because of the critique of things within the Muslim community.

Two things changed my mind. First: reindeer dick. I saw a book about a Reindeer-shifting romance. I’m going to clarify here that I’m not critiquing people’s personal fantasies –the world is hard, I totally support people getting happy. But I am critiquing that white women are free to write mothers like the one in White Oleander and fantasies about reindeer-shifters without having all white women labelled as abusive, reindeer-dick lovers. It had me wondering: why did I as a Muslim author feel responsible for those who would twist my story into “See! All Muslims are misogynists”?

Second, a small voice reminded me that increased Islamophobia didn’t mean decreased harm from white feminism or internalized misogyny. #Ownvoices authors have a right to critique and demand improvement in their communities. Writing that kind of critique is both natural and difficult, but as an author that’s what I will continue to do.  

SW: Well, I’m very glad that you decided to go through with publishing your book. In these times, voices like yours are more important than ever. Hopefully your example will inspire others to speak up. Which leads me to the next question…

Are there any authors who have inspired you a lot? If so, tell us a few.

ID: So, that part where I talked about blindly reading what’s out there and not questioning? Yeah, I read “mainstream” for too long. I’ll always have a soft spot for Nancy Drew. In romance, I loved Susan Elizabeth Phillips (even when I had to mentally edit out problematic content). Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum mysteries were great up to a point.

For a long time, I gave up on traditional publishing houses to produce what I was looking for and read only indie books. I was happy to read widely, if it meant that I’d find authors like Mariana Zapata and Nyrae Dawn. I love when authors can address tough issues but write feel-good, inspiring reads.

*trigger warning: homophobic (past) thoughts

One book that stood out for me was Tanuja Desai Hidier’s Born Confused. This was where I finally saw some of myself reflected and learned much more. I had this horrible notion growing up, that being gay couldn’t be real because more people across many backgrounds would be gay if it were true. Unfortunately, the extent of representation I had of the LGBTQ community was as the butt of jokes in movies and they were always presented as a tiny minority of white people. That made the limiting and harmful societal and religious beliefs I was taught so much easier to absorb. Born Confused showed me that the intersection between being a woman of colour and being lesbian existed. I don’t think I understood back when I read it, how much of a shift in my thinking that representation made possible. Even thinking on it now is inspiring me to address a lot more than I’ve had the courage to in my first book.

SW: Ah, now I have two more authors to look up! I am also bumping up Born Confused on my TBR list, where it has been languishing since I found it in the early days of my quest to read more diversely.

Speaking of diversity, in the past two or so years, there has been a strong call for diversity in young people’s literature. Has that movement affected how you approach writing?

ID: I love seeing how activists, academics, bloggers, reviewers, and everyday people are forcing the industry to recognize the importance of representation, especially for young people. It’s hard enough to write while holding out for the bleak hope that I’d be one of the very few women of colour that publishers decided to take on. In order to free myself from that pressure, years back I’d made the decision that when I publish, I would do it indie.

Maybe I’m a little too Type-A, but nothing has changed for me. I didn’t pitch a single agent or query any publishers. I’ve seen the Lee & Low survey on Diversity in Publishing and I’d worry about giving up editorial control where the majority of people don’t understand the experience in the story. I’d wonder if an industry – where Marketing & Publicity departments average at 77% White/Caucasian – would understand the importance of featuring a brown-skinned teen prominently on the cover. I’d outright throw a fit if their cover designers tried to bleach out the beautifully brown skin of my main character. I get that there are people outside and inside the industry who are fighting to make a difference – their work is essential and is making many worlds of difference, now and for the future. But I like that there are other options too. And for now, I need to be in charge of the details, right down to the exact CMYK colours.

Yup. I’m definitely Type-A.

SW: I totally relate to those worries, as they are thoughts I’ve had myself while thinking about getting published. In fact, anxiety about not being able to find acceptance in the mainstream publishing industry has pushed me to consider indie or self-publishing on more than one occasion. What advice would you give aspiring authors who are considering self-publishing or indie publishing?

ID: Do it! But only if you are okay with being responsible for the whole writing process, coming up with business and marketing plans, taking charge of all design and layout, learning how and where to publish, finding the right help, and a handful of other things.

I can’t pretend that the indie process is easy and I won’t lie, I have doubts that what I produced is good enough. At the same time, I don’t think anyone is claiming that the gatekeeping days of the publishing industry is over. And we’ve all seen the repeated publishing fails in the industry (seriously with the Nazi romances?). Publishers aren’t written off for their failures, indies shouldn’t be either.

My advice is this: If you don’t need the prestige of being traditionally published, if you know you write well but your topics are too far outside what the mainstream can handle, if you can hold on to the idea that indie-publishing royalties can be substantially higher if you work hard enough at making book sales, if you are willing to take your story and make it as good or better than traditional publishers could possibly make it – then I invite you to consider, someone has to be producing fabulously diverse literature. Why not you?

SW: That’s a very encouraging statement. Thank you very much!

Because the industry is the way it is, one of the common experiences that marginalized people have is that search for representation, for characters who are like us. Do you have any book recommendations for characters with similar experiences to your own?

ID: I would recommend Randa Abdel-Fattah’s Does My Head Look Big in This? for people looking for a funny, sweet read about a Muslim teen. I already mentioned how great I think Tanuja Desai Hidier’s Born Confused is for South Asian readers and others. And despite the main character being a half Mexican, half Argentinian, all-star athlete, I loved Mariana Zapata’s Kulti for its humour and inspirational main character, but also because I could relate so well to the depiction of what it’s like being the child of immigrants.

SW: Thanks for the recs. I’ve actually read Does My Head Look Big in This? myself, and I’m seconding that rec. (Readers: You can find my review of the book here.)

In relation to the previous question: Despite the recent increase in diversity in publishing, there are still many experiences that have not been represented. What kinds of stories are you still waiting for?

ID: I don’t consider myself well-read enough to comment on what’s missing, but what I haven’t seen a lot of in genre fiction is enough humanizing representations of people of colour who live below the poverty line. I want to see something beyond the tropes. Probably because I can’t figure out how to write poverty with a sense of agency, I’m hungry for recommendations on any books that can. If you know some, send them my way?

SW: Oh yes, that is definitely a gap I’ve noticed, especially as far as Asians in diaspora go. The model minority myth says we’re all successful and socioeconomically well-off, but that’s definitely not the case all across the board, especially when you disaggregate by ethnicity. One of the books that I’ve read recently that addresses class divisions and working-class POC is Alice Pung’s Lucy and Linh (originally published under the title Laurinda, in Australia), which focuses on a Chinese-Vietnamese Australian teen from an lower-class background. I wrote a review for it here. If anyone among my followers has additional recs, feel free to send them my way (leave a comment) and to Ishara (via the links at the bottom of this post)!

And that concludes the interview! Thank you for taking the time to compose such thorough and thoughtful responses. Once I post my review of your book, I will put the link on Twitter and @ you so you can share it. 🙂


Ishara Deen, author of God Smites and Other Muslim Girl Problems, is also a copywriter and grad-school dropout. She did finish a Master’s degree in World Lit, but still prefers a good mystery, fantasy, or romance over “literature.” She’s a hobby-collecting nerd, the latest of which are archery and bass guitar, and her goal in life is to write and publish what scares her, because it’s likely to scare the people that put that fear in her even more.

You can add God Smites and Other Muslim Girl Problems on Goodreads!

For future book releases, excerpts from upcoming books, and fun extras, sign up for the Muslim Girl Problems newsletter at www.isharadeen.com. You can also find purchase links for God Smites on the website.

Connect with Ishara Deen!

Facebook: www.facebook.com/isharadeen
Twitter: @isharadeen
Email: hello@isharadeen.com

Last, but not least, spread the word about this book! It’s a great addition for the #MuslimShelfSpace project that’s happening on Twitter right now!

Review for Ticket to India by N.H. Senzai

ticket-to-india

My Summary: Maya flies from the U.S. to Pakistan to attend the funeral for her grandfather. There, she finds out that her family has roots in India through her grandmother, who moved to Pakistan after Partition. In order to complete her grandfather’s final rites, her grandmother wishes to seek out an old family heirloom that was left behind in India. Maya sets off for India with her grandmother and older sister to hunt for this family treasure in a race against time, but unexpected complications result in her tackling the search completely on her own.

My Review:

N.H. Senzai became one of my favorite middle grade writers last year after I read Shooting Kabul and Saving Kabul Corner. Having written two books that focused on her husband’s Afghan American heritage, she decided to write one based on her own as an Indian and Pakistani American.

Ticket to India is many things at once. It’s a whirlwind tour of India (both the beautiful and the ugly), brought to life through vivid descriptions. The story cleverly incorporates landmarks into the plot: Maya’s grandmother  uses them to remember the location of her old home and the location of the family treasure. The perspective through which we see these landmarks is different from that of a regular tourist, however, because even as these sights are new to Maya, they are also in a way familiar to her, echoing the landscape of Pakistan.

Other facts are included in the story through the use of epistolary format. Part of the story is excerpts from Maya’s journal for a school assignment. Since she is writing with her teacher as an audience, she lists various facts about Pakistan and India, among other things, thus supplying some of the background for the story. It takes the place of an unnecessary info-dump in the middle of action or dialogue.

Although some neutral facts are stated, the book doesn’t shy away from critiques of British imperialism in the past and rampant political corruption and religious conflict in the present. These views are communicated through Maya’s interactions with various adults as well as her observations of various situations.

Aside from being informative, the book is also a suspenseful adventure. Maya faces many obstacles and setbacks as she makes her way across India. She meets both people who show her kindness and help her and people who have malicious intentions. She also meets people with good intentions who still make her journey difficult because they have their own ideas of where she should go. I was on the edge of my seat wondering whether she’d make it out of trouble spots in one piece and ultimately succeed in her quest.

The book is also about sibling relationships. Maya’s older sister tends to outshine and overshadow her. She’s more assertive and kind of a know-it-all. However, their unintended separation gives Maya a chance to come into herself and develop a sense of independence.

Like Shooting Kabul, Ticket to India tackles complex political issues, this time concerning the Partition of the Indian subcontinent and its continuing aftereffects. Aside from Maya and Zahra’s sisterhood, there is also the “sibling relationship” between India and Pakistan. They share many things, including a common history up until Partition. However, there is also conflict as only siblings can wage against one another, intimate and painful.

The author takes a hopeful and optimistic approach to the question of the two countries’ futures. The similarities between India and Pakistan are emphasized over the differences. Moreover, by making Maya the viewpoint character, she breaks down the idea of India and Pakistan as being in binary opposition to one another. Like the author herself, Maya is both Pakistani and Indian, not just one or the other, and the conflict is not a zero-sum game.

Recommendation: Highly recommended. This book is both entertaining and thought-provoking, a great middle grade cross-country adventure!

Review for The Garden of My Imaan by Farhana Zia

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My Summary: Aliya has a lot of problems typical for a fifth grader: she wants to fit in, she worries about being popular enough for student council, and she has a crush on a cute boy who will probably never notice her, and she’s loaded with homework assignments that she’s not too excited about completing. Unfortunately, on top of that, she faces Islamophobia from people around her, even though she’s not even very strict about observing certain Islamic traditions. Then, a new girl, Marwa, arrives. She’s Moroccan and wears the hijab, which makes her a prime target for bullying. Aliya can choose to avoid association with her, or maybe Marwa has something to teach her about being true to oneself.

Review:

Even within diversity, there is diversity. Although the majority of Indians are Hindu, there are many who are Muslims. I think this is the first book about an Indian Muslim American that I’ve read, and I’m glad I found it because it covers a lot of issues in an way that’s accessible to kids.

Aliya’s family is Indian and Muslim. They speak Urdu at home, and she knows a bit of Arabic for the common prayers and greetings. However, the women in her family don’t wear the hijab, eating halal food isn’t a huge priority for the family, and Aliya hasn’t observed the fast for Ramadan with much success. Throughout the course of the book, she starts to see her faith in a new light and make commitments to observing certain practices.

Aliya is a flawed but still sympathetic protagonist. She wants to do the right thing but feels inhibited by fear and social pressure and doesn’t always know how to respond to difficult situations. Thankfully, she is not alone in her struggles; she has Muslim friends from Sunday School at the local Islamic Center to commiserate over hate incidents and regular tween issues, and her parents, grandmother, and great-grandmother are there to support her as well, offering their wisdom and advice to guide her toward growth.

Unfortunately, due to a bunch of teasing and bullying from kids as school, directed toward Marwa or toward Aliya, she internalizes some of the negative and xenophobic perceptions about people like herself.

It takes two different school projects and then some for Aliya to come to terms with her faith. One is for her Sunday School and takes the form of a series of letters she writes to Allah with the intent of bettering herself. The other is a project for regular school where she works with her best friend Winnie on a display board to showcase their respective cultures and religions.

This book is a celebration of diversity in two ways. One is Aliya’s best friend Winnie, who is biracial Jewish Korean American. Like Aliya, she faces microaggressions from people, even from Aliya’s own grandmother (Aliya tries to correct her), so even though she’s not the main protagonist, her experiences are represented on the page.

The other way is in its portrayal of the differences in how various families and individuals interpret and practice Islam. Marwa wears the hijab with confidence, Aliya’s mother does not and believes it is not necessary to cover up to be modest. One or two of Aliya’s friends from Sunday School wear the hijab, with varying degrees of confidence because of the Islamophobic attacks that happen so frequently to girls who wear it. More importantly, they’re shown as having agency in doing so; it’s a personal choice that they make for themselves.

Aliya’s personal and religious/spiritual journey were a pleasure to follow along with. The book alternates between a typical first-person narration and an epistolary format for Aliya’s letters to Allah. Those letters bring the reader into the intimate relationship she has with Allah, and the change she undergoes is apparent from the progression from mere complaints about what is happening to conscientious self-reflection and constructive action. She may not know all the answers at the end, but she has greater confidence, self-discipline, and wisdom to navigate her future.

The major themes in this book were interesting to me because they approach adversity and Islamophobia/prejudice from a gentler angle than, say, Does My Head Look Big in This?, which has a very different tone, overall. However, the “quieter” methods of dealing with bigotry are not necessarily less powerful or effective.

My one criticism was an instance of ableist language. Aliya nicknames her finnicky and crotchety great-aunt Choti Dahdi “OCD,” which stands for “Old Choti Dahdi.” Her great-aunt isn’t a two-dimensional character defined purely by her neuroticism, but the nickname was an insensitive one.

Recommendation: It’s a great book for young readers that teaches empathy, resilience, and integrity.

Review for Shooting Kabul by N. H. Senzai

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My Summary: In 2001, Fadi’s family flees the Taliban and emigrates to San Francisco from Afghanistan. However, his little sister Mariam is accidentally left behind. As Fadi attempts to adjust to his new life in the U.S., he struggles with not only prejudice from peers fueled by the 9/11 attacks but also his guilt for his role in Mariam getting lost. Hope for rescuing Mariam arrives in the form of a photography contest where the grand prize is a trip to India. Despite the obstacles he faces, Fadi develops a new hobby, makes friends, and strives to win the photography contest.

Review:

Shooting Kabul is a good book in many ways. From the characters, to the handling of complex political situations, to the themes–all of these things make this book memorable.

For most Americans, especially white Americans, the Taliban and Islam are far removed from their personal experiences. What little they know is filtered through biased media and outright misinformation peddled by hatemongers and those who stand to benefit from the conflicts and wars the U.S. wages abroad. The choice of an young Afghan American refugee as a main character serves to remove that emotional distance, rendering the political personal.

For Fadi, the Taliban is not just a news item, they are something that has direct ties to and influence on his family. The Taliban are the reason they have fled Afghanistan. His family’s history with the Taliban illustrates the way the group evolved from being the heroes of Afghanistan against foreign invasion to the oppressive rulers, defying the oversimplified narrative of Taliban=evil.

By setting the story in late 2001, the author is able to explore the repercussions of 9/11 on Muslim Americans. The victims of 9/11 aren’t just those who died in the attacks, but also the people who have faced backlash due to racism and Islamophobia. As we see from Fadi’s bullies, children are impressionable and will internalize the prejudices of their environment and perpetuate it. That’s why this book is so important: because it teaches empathy.

Although Fadi faces bullies, he also makes friends and allies at school. Most notable among these are Anh, a Vietnamese American classmate who convinces him to join the photography club, and Ms. Bethune, his Black art class teacher and the sponsor for the photography club. They help him out and encourage his creativity. (POC friendships are the best.)

In various ways, the book highlights the diversity of San Francisco. From Fadi’s classmates and teacher to the urban landscape of the city, readers get the impression of the mosaic of peoples and cultures that populate Fadi’s world.

One of the things I really loved about the book was the detailed descriptions of photography. The author deftly portrays the labor and the artistry in the process of producing a photograph, from the planning of the shot to the making of a photo print. It really gives you a deeper appreciation for the art. I learned a lot about photography from reading this book.

Although Fadi faces unexpected setbacks, he ultimately gets a happy ending. The ending left me with a sense of hope, and the reassurance that sometimes when one door closes, another opens.

Recommendation: This is great book about family, friendship and perseverance. Though it’s a middle grade novel, I think anyone can read it and enjoy it.

Review for Does My Head Look Big In This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah

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Note: I read this book as part of the #DiversityDecBingo reading challenge. You can find out more about it here.

My Summary: Amal, an Australian-Palestinian girl living in Melbourne, is about to start her junior year, and she has decided to start wearing the hijab full-time. After making this decision, she must confront judgment and prejudice from classmates, neighbors, strangers, and more. On top of that, she’s developed a crush on a classmate. Soon, junior year becomes the year for herself to struggle with and explore her identity and figure out how to remain true to herself and her principles in the face of social pressures to conform.

Review:

This book was first published in 2005, but it’s still relevant and important, given the current political climate and rise in Islamophobic sentiment. Amal’s story stands against hatred and prejudice by centering the perspective of a Muslim hijabi, someone who is very vulnerable to vitriol and violence due to her hypervisibility.

The book is very explicit in its handling of stereotypes and Islamophobia. It directly calls out the biases and assumptions that even well-meaning people hold. Since the narrative is in first-person, readers get to experience Amal’s visceral responses to prejudice and harassment. We get to empathize with her frustration, fear, and fury.

Amal is a great character. She’s snarky and strong-willed, but she has her flaws. She doubts herself sometimes, makes poor decisions, judges people unfairly and has to confront her own biases, etc. She’s capable of being sensitive and insightful, but she’s still a teenager who has a lot to learn.

Aside from having a strong protagonist, this book features a diverse supporting cast that add to the richness of the story. One of Amal’s two closest friends at school is Japanese, having bonded with her over shared experiences of blatant racism and classism from a horrible classmate. The other friend is fat and struggling with her body image, but supported by friends who love her unconditionally. Amal also manages to build a friendship with an elderly neighbor who’s a Greek Orthodox Christian immigrant.

The supporting cast showcases the diversity within Muslims and within Arabs. One of Amal’s Muslim friends, Yasmeen, has a Pakistani father and white British mother who converted to Islam. The other, Leila, has roots in Turkey, where her mother grew up. Amal’s family attends a family friend’s wedding where the bride is Syrian and the groom is Afghani. Beyond their ethnic differences, each of these characters has a different relationship with Islam and interprets and expresses it differently.

Amal’s thoughts, actions, and interactions with others actively debunk the notion that Muslim women are all oppressed and that Islam is inherently oppressive. Her agency and choice are emphasized throughout as she fights multiple people who assume her parents forced the hijab on her. The book very clearly calls out [white] feminists “who don’t get that this is me exercising my right to choose.”

Furthermore, Amal makes the distinction between cultural/social norms and religious doctrine, which are often conflated by people who are ignorant about Islam. She also reflects on the way culture and religion change over time, and how often immigrants cling to traditions and ideals that have become obsolete in their homeland since they left. These situations and thoughts bring nuance to Muslim identity.

Overall, I enjoyed the book. However, there were certain patterns I noticed that interfered with my ability to fully embrace the book. Specifically, there were several cases of ableism and [internalized] misogyny.

Humor and sass feature prominently in Amal’s character, but a number of her quips were dismissive of people with disabilities, especially mental illness. For example, she disdains her mother’s “neat freak” tendencies (which are never explicitly labeled as OCD or OCPD but could be interpreted as such), calling her “neurotic.” She also refers to her decision to don the hijab at her snobby prep school as “psychotic.” In facing down another girl’s prejudice and meanness, she thinks that the other girl was probably dropped on her head as a child. Those are just a few examples.

Although the book tries to champion the woman-power, it doesn’t succeed completely because there are still noticeable instances of misogyny. Despite Amal’s discussion of how wearing the hijab is her choice and not something she should be judged for, she judges other girls for showing too much skin. She disdains girls as “bimbos” if they seem to care too much about their appearance and dress to get attention (by her assumption), which is hypocritical given her own tendency to spend a long time getting dressed and made up and her own insecurities about how she looks to other people. Although one character called out a white girl for making a racist statement, his comeback fell flat for me because the implied insult hinged on slut-shaming based on the girl’s perceived promiscuity.

Recommendation: Despite its flaws, I’d recommend this book for its strong character voice and nuanced representation of Muslims.

Review for Written in the Stars by Aisha Saeed

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My Summary: Naila tries to please her parents, who give her considerable freedom in many ways. However, she breaks one of their strict rules about dating and boys by falling for Saif. When her parents find out that she has been dating him in secret, they decide to take her to Pakistan to “reconnect” with their roots. Unfortunately, their plans for Naila also involve forcing her to marry a man she doesn’t know. Alone and desperate, Naila must find a way to escape this nightmare.

Review:

Two different people I know had arranged marriages set up for them as early as middle school and high school (Indian American and Vietnamese American, respectively), so it’s not an exaggeration to say that this is a real issue for Asian Americans. Although arranged marriage span a diverse spectrum of experiences and not all arranged marriages end up terribly, this book highlights the extreme end in which there is undeniable coercion involved.

Aisha Saeed doesn’t pull the punches in portraying Naila’s struggles as a captive in her relatives’ and in-laws’ homes. The violence of coercion, the isolation, the bullying and abuse from in-laws, the feelings of helplessness–all of these are laid bare through Naila’s first-person narration. You are immersed in her world and her emotional reality, and it pulls you in.

However, despite these obstacles and limits on Naila’s freedom, she holds onto her agency. She resists, she plots and attempts to escape. She needs help, but she isn’t just a passive victim waiting to be rescued. Although multiple people tell her there is nothing she can do to change her situation, she continues to fight for her free will and control over her fate. That is what makes Written in the Stars an empowering story to me.

Another thing I appreciated about the book was the epilogue. It isn’t a fairy tale happily-ever-after type of ending; it addresses the repercussions of Naila’s traumatic experiences on her life. It reflects on the contrasts between Naila’s former expectations and the reality she faces, both the setbacks and the gains she’s had.

My only point of dissatisfaction is that I wanted more substantial and in-depth exploration of the aftermath of the climax. Healing from trauma is a long process, and being able to watch and experience that through Naila’s perspective would have been great and empowering in its own way.

Overall, I really liked this book. It tackled a very serious and underexposed issue in an informative and entertaining fashion. It humanizes people who are so often dehumanized by their environment.

Recommendation: Read this book! In our current political climate, it’s more important than ever to uplift the voices of Muslim Americans.