Children’s author Razeena Omar Gutta examines the use of names in books and whether marginalized authors should use their own names. She asks the question: Have you ever used your own name in a story?
I’m 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. As a teenager I thought it would be great to write a book someday, but I never imagined what it would be about. In my 20s these thoughts lingered, but I told myself I would have to live life a little more before I could write about it. Writing for children became an option, but I still struggled with ideas. It wasn’t until I had my own children that I realized that I’d never read a book where a character was like me, having adventures I loved reading about, or being a main character in their own stories.
I had read about Christmas but never Eid, Church but never Masjid, Gingerbread but never Burfee. I don’t know why it took me so long to realize this, but I was wondering if that’s why I was struggling with ideas.
After digesting the fact that I had never seen a brown Muslim character in a book before I thought back to the times I encountered non-white characters in a book and they were mostly stories about slavery, trauma, hardship, pain and struggle. Stories where non-white characters were always the supporting characters, never the heroes. I couldn’t find myself in these books.
Recently, I had the biggest realization of all: while I had never read a story with a character who had a Muslim name, celebrated Eid, or wore a hijab, I had never written a story with my own name or a popular name either. Rather, the characters in my creative texts were named Jane, Michael or Stephanie, never Muhammad, Amina or Fatima. Or even Razeena – and I had no idea why!
Dear reader of a marginalized community, have you ever used your own name as a protagonist in any story you’ve written—be it a creative writing assessment in elementary school or high school?
Whenever I have asked this question to others, I see the revelation taking place when the revealing thoughts come to mind: the surprise (no! I did not), the wonder (Should I have?), the Lightning (why have i never thought about it?!).
Walter Dean Myers is an American writer from Children’s Books, five-time winner of the Coretta Scott King Prize for African American Authors, with over a hundred books under his belt. 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 to some extent in the books he read. Books served as “a landscape upon which I could roam freely.” But during one of the darker times in his life “When I found out who I was, a black teenager in a white-dominated world, I saw 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, really needed, was to become an integral and valued part of the mosaic I saw around me.” Unable to recognize himself in the books he read, he stopped listening for a while read.
But later, fueled by a conversation with an English teacher, writing became a savior at a difficult time in his life. He started reading again and discovered a book by another African American author, James Baldwin, who changed his experience.was a story dealing with black people as I knew them. By humanizing people like me, Baldwin’s story humanized me. The story gave me permission I didn’t know I needed, permission to write about my own landscape, my own map.”
Reading Myers’ article touched me. I remember the first time I found a book with a character that looked like me in a popular mainstream bookshop while on holiday in South Africa. Finding this book by an author who shares my South Asian roots – although she wrote about her British Muslim experience while living in Australia – was exciting to me.
Seeing a Hijabi woman on the cover of a regular bookstore was revolutionary. reading Headscarf love in my 20s made me feel seen and sparked my thoughts on writing for children. But although I was determined, I had never seen a children’s picture book about Muslims that went beyond the creation story or the life of Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ). There were no adventure, mystery or detective books about Muslim children.
Around 2009 books like Ramadan moon and night of the moon were released in the traditional market and they were brilliant to look at. But I feared that someone like me with no background in writing or publishing connections would ever get the chance. 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 Fatima and Ahmed, followed two siblings on their journey to learn about the life of the Prophet (ﷺ). I re-faced the books I had seen before, added color and characters, and tried to make them more appealing to younger children. It garnered incredible support, selling over a thousand copies to online stores. It became clear that there was a hunger for this type of colourful, entertaining yet informative book for Muslim children.
The Muslim publishing space has grown immensely since then and I am grateful to have witnessed and been a part of it. While Headscarf love, Ramadan moon and night of the moon great on shelves, it took years for more Muslim-authored books with uncompromising Muslim representation to be acquired by publishers and hit bookshelves. It’s still a rare sight. Muslims are often portrayed as villains, oppressed, terrorists. Most of the time people write about us, overwrite them and misrepresent them. Taking back the narrative, taking responsibility for the portrayal, and publishing our own stories is still a difficult, arduous task, but luckily for us, many, many great stories are being written.
The self-publishing experience has led me to focus on the traditional publishing market. I refined my writing and started asking questions. Agents and publishers became aware of Muslim books and although it took a long time I finally found an agent and my book, Hana’s hundreds of hijabs published by Barefoot Books USA, will be available this month.
Back to the title question – have you ever used your name in a story? – I want you to ask the children around you – your own, 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 yourself the main character, imagine all sorts of possibilities, include Eid and Ramadan and Hajj in their stories, and mention the Masjid, Hijab and Salaah. Don’t shy away from who they are. Give them permission that many of us didn’t even know we needed.
In his NYT article, Myers says, “I later realized how much more meaningful it would have been to have known Baldwin’s story when I was 15 or 14. Maybe even younger before I started my unconscious search for identity.”
If I had seen positive Muslim representation in the books I read as a child, it might not have taken me so long to start writing my own stories. If I had been given “permission” to use my own name in a story, perhaps my writing journey would have been clearer?
If we can encourage so many young Muslims today, and anyone who has never seen themselves in a book, to take their own stories into their own hands and write authentically and proudly, we could accelerate many children’s “subconscious search for identity.” . Perhaps we can sow the seeds of great ideas and see many great writers grow. By writing books and finding books that our children can relate to – books where they see characters who look, sound and act like them and who are heroes – we can give them confidence.
And as the publishing industry keeps pace with the diversity of the world around us, maybe my dream of having as many Eid books on the shelf as there are Christmas books will one day come true, in sha Allah.