Children’s book author Razeena Omar Gutta explores the use of names in books and whether marginalized writers should use their own names. She asks the question: Have you ever used your own name in a story?
I am often asked why I write for children and the conversation always takes deep and insightful turns. My journey began as an avid reader; as a child, I was always lost in a book. In my teens, I thought it would be great to write a book one day, but I could never imagine what it would be about. In my twenties these thoughts continued, but I figured I needed to live a little longer before I could write about it. Writing for children became an option, but I always struggled with ideas. It wasn’t until I had my own kids that I realized I had never read a book in which a character looked like me, had the adventures I loved to read, or was the protagonist of their own stories.
I had read about Christmas but never Eid, the church but never the mosque, gingerbread but never the burfee. I don’t know why it took me so long to realize this, but I wondered if that was why I was having trouble coming up with ideas.
After coming to terms with the fact that I had never seen a brown Muslim character in a book before, I thought back to the times I had encountered non-white characters in a book, and those were mostly stories of bondage, trauma, hardship, pain and struggle. Stories where non-white characters were always the secondary characters, never the heroes. I did not see myself in these books.
Recently, I had the greatest realization of all: while I had never read a story with a character who had a Muslim name, who celebrated Eid or wore a hijab, I had also never written a story using my own name or a familiar name. On the contrary, the characters in my creative writing pieces were called Jane, Michael or Stephanie, never Muhammad, Amina or Fatima. Or even Razeena – and I didn’t know why!
Dear reader from a marginalized community, have you ever used your own name as the protagonist in a story you’ve written – whether it’s an elementary or high school creative writing assessment?
Every time I’ve asked this question of others, I see the revelation happen as revealing thoughts come to mind: surprise (Nope! I do not have), wonder (should I have?), love at first sight (why didn’t I ever think of that?!).
Walter Dean Myers is an American writer from children’s books, a five-time winner of the Coretta Scott King Award for African-American Authors, with over a hundred books to her credit. In an article for the New York Times (NYT), “Where are the people of color in children’s books? he explained how, as a voracious reader, he found himself in the books he read to some degree. The books served as a “landscape on which I was free to roam.” But during one of the darkest times of his life, “discovering who I was, a black teenager in a world dominated by whites, I understood that these characters, these lives, were not mine.
I didn’t want to become the “black” representative, or a shining example of diversity. What I wanted, what I really needed, was to become an integral and valued part of the mosaic that I saw around me. Since he couldn’t see himself in the books he was reading, he stopped reading for a moment.
But later, fueled by a conversation with an English teacher, writing became a savior during a difficult time in her life. He started reading again and through that he discovered a book by another African-American author, James Baldwin, who transformed his experience.was a story about black people like the ones I knew. By humanizing people who were like me, Baldwin’s story also humanized me. The story gave me a permission I didn’t know I needed, permission to write about my own landscape, my own map.
Reading Myers’ article resonated with me. I remember the first time I found a book with a character that looked like me, in a popular mainstream bookstore, while on vacation in South Africa. Finding this book from an author who shared my South Asian roots – even though she was writing about her British Muslim experience, while I was living in Australia, was thrilling to me.
Seeing a hijabi woman on the cover of an ordinary bookstore was groundbreaking. While reading love in a scarf in my twenties made me feel seen and rekindled my thoughts of writing for children. Yet, as determined as I was, I had yet to see a children’s picture book about Muslims that went beyond the creation story or the life of the Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ). There were no adventure, mystery or detective books about Muslim children.
Around 2009, books like Ramadan Moon and moon night were released in the mainstream market, and they were brilliant to see. But I was worried that someone like me, with no writing experience or publishing connections, would ever get the opportunity. The more I researched, I decided that self-publishing would be the route I would take for my first book. My first self-published book, Fatimah and Ahmad, followed two siblings on their journey of learning about the life of the Prophet (ﷺ). I revamped the books I had seen before, added color and characters, and tried to make it more appealing to young children. It was met with incredible support, selling over a thousand copies to online stores. It became apparent that there was a craving for this type of colorful, fun and informative book for Muslim children.
The Muslim editorial space has grown enormously since then, and I am grateful to have witnessed it and been part of it. Whereas love in a scarf, Ramadan Moon and moon night were great to see on the shelves, it took years for more books by Muslim authors, with shameless Muslim portrayal, to be acquired by publishers and appear on the shelves. It’s still a rare sight. Muslims are often portrayed as wicked, oppressed, terrorists. More often than not, we are written about, written about, and misrepresented. Picking up the narrative, taking on the representation and getting our own stories published is always hard and hard work, but luckily for us there are many, many great stories being written.
The experience of self-publishing pushed me to target the traditional publishing market. I refined my writing and started questioning. Agents and publishers were noticing Muslim books and although it took a while, I finally got myself an agent, and my book, Hana’s hundreds of hijabs published by Barefoot Books USA will be available this month.
Going back to the title question – Have you ever used your name in a story? – I would like you to ask the children around you – yours, your students, your nieces and nephews if they use their names in their stories. If they don’t, encourage them to use their names, make themselves the main characters, imagine all the possibilities, include Eid, Ramadan and Hajj in their stories, and mention the masjid, the hijab and salaah. To not hesitate to who they are. Give them the permission that many of us didn’t even know we needed.
In his NYT article, Myers says, “Later I realized how much more meaningful it would have been to know Baldwin’s story at 15 or 14. Maybe even younger, before I had began my subconscious quest for identity.”
If I had seen positive Muslim representation in the books I read as a child, maybe it wouldn’t have taken me so long to start writing my own stories. If I had received “permission” to use my own name in a story, maybe my writing journey would have been clearer?
If we can encourage as many of today’s young Muslims, and all those who have never seen themselves in a book before, to take charge of their own stories and write themselves with authenticity and pride, we could accelerate the “quest subconscious identity” of many children. Perhaps we can plant the seeds of great ideas and witness the growth of many great authors. By writing and researching books that our children can see themselves in—books in which they see characters who look like them, sound and act like them, and are the heroes—we can ground them in trust.
And as publishing catches up with the diversity of the world around us, maybe my dream of seeing as many Eid books on the shelves as there are Christmas books will one day come true, in sha Allah.