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An Interview with Samira Ahmed

In Samira Ahmed's new bestselling novel Love, Hate & Other Filters (Soho Press), Muslim teenager Maya Aziz struggles to navigate her own path in life while confronting a wave of Islamophobia in the wake of a terrorist attack. In this interview, Mobashra Tazamal talks to Ahmed about Maya's timely journey, and how it speaks to both our fears of division and our hopes for the future.

Mobashra Tazamal: As Islamophobia continues to grow in the United States and internationally, we see more and more literature analyzing this growing phenomenon. However, too often we find that these pieces speak to and are directed towards a certain audience, often circulating in an echo chamber. You tackled Islamophobia in a multitude of manners, exposing the gendered and racialized aspects of it, but doing so through your character Maya, a teenager. Why do you think it's important to have stories that are able to explain what Islamophobia is, without ending up sounding like an academic article?

Samira Ahmed: Stories are how we relate to each other. Since the earliest days of language, human beings told stories to each other to explain the world and our experiences. Books can be both windows and mirrors for readers. With Love, Hate & Other Filters, I hoped that some readers who've never been able to see themselves or their experiences on the page find something in Maya's story that resonates. I also hope that readers who do not see themselves in Maya, can catch a glimpse into her world, her life, and understand that she's not as different or "foreign" from them as they may first think. Maya's story is an American story, albeit with a level of complexity that many readers don't experience firsthand—that's what I wanted readers to feel—that Maya is a girl like all the other girls. That ultimately, in America, there are no Others; there is only Us.

MT: Growing up as a Pakistani–American Muslim female, I never encountered books that I could relate to. Reading your novel was extremely refreshing and all I kept thinking about was how much I would have loved this ten years ago when I was a teenager. How did your personal experience, growing up as an Indian American Muslim immigrant, influence this story?

SA: I think, in many ways, all writers leave a part of themselves on the page, in ways both subtle and overt. Maya and I share a similar background, but Maya's story is her own. We were the first Muslim and South Asian family to live in our town, so that experience was certainly a filter through which I wrote this story. Growing up in an immigrant family in America, being othered, informed the way I created my characters and gave me an insight into their world and their lives in an almost visceral way and I hope it helped me shape authentic, fully realized characters.

MT: In an interview, you recalled that the earliest experience of Islamophobia you can remember was during the Iran hostage crisis, when two men pulled up next to your parents' car and verbally harassed your family. Given that data shows hate crimes against Muslims have surpassed those immediately following 9/11, how has Islamophobia manifested or changed (if it has) since you've been in the United States?

SA: Islamophobes have certainly become bolder, more overt. Indeed, Islamophobia is institutionalized now at the highest levels of political power. I've always seen Islamophobia as a wave that ebbs and flows with the current events, but right now, it feels like a tsunami.

MT: Reports from civil rights organizations have found that Muslim children are increasingly being subjected to bullying and harassment. Maya's own experience with Brian reminded me of many stories I had seen reported in the media. You've worked in high schools and have worked in the broader education system. What do you think is needed to tackle anti–Muslim bullying and harassment? How does such harassment affect students in school?

SA: It is deeply disturbing and maddening that so many of our children are subject to hate and bigotry in our schools. Some of that harassment has come from fellow students, but we've also seen it come from the adults who are charged with educating our kids, as in the instance of Ahmed Mohamed who was accused of being a terrorist because he brought a clock to school and was led away from the building in handcuffs. In a CAIR survey one in five Muslim students in California reported being harassed by a teacher or administrator. As a former high school teacher and as an American, I find this horrifying. Schools and educators have an obligation to learn how to teach in a diverse environment and to make school a safe, inclusive space. However, that's merely a start, I think solutions to harassment and bullying go much deeper than that and extend to textbook publishers and writers, to school boards, to communities, to Congress.

MT: When it came to the attack that occurred in Illinois, you brought forth an experience that is rarely shared but often felt by Muslims in America. The terrible feeling one gets when an attack happens and you unconsciously think, "I hope it's not a Muslim." Maya says this in the novel, which makes the story very raw. Was it difficult to write this part of the story given how many Muslims often feel like they have to censor themselves when talking about such emotional issues?

SA: I didn't find it difficult to write about that part at all. I found it necessary. Sadly, it's an almost universal feeling amongst many American Muslims I know and I wanted to share that, to show that. Ignoring that would have taken away from the authenticity of that moment in the book. Since publication, that is one of the scenes I've gotten the most response to—from Muslims and non–Muslims alike—and it has been almost unanimously a positive one. Many Muslim kids have told me they were so happy to see that feeling shown on the page. I've also had a number of non–Muslim adults, including many teachers, who thanked me for writing that scene because they had not imagined that moment from the perspective of a young Muslim student sitting in a classroom and how alienating and terrifying that moment must feel.

MT: Maya's aunt, Hina, stood out for me in the novel. She's the desi woman who has broken barriers, pursuing her dreams rather than following a pre–written plan. She also is in her 40s and single, something that would most definitely draw gasps and concern from the many aunties I know. Why was it important for you to have someone like Hina in the story?

SA: I love Hina! She lives her life on her own terms. And I don't think that character is an unrealistic one. Desi Muslims are not a monolith. We each have our own individual experiences and stories. Hina's story is one I wanted to tell—precisely because she does go against stereotype and expectation. She's not the only one.

MT: Young Muslim Americans deal with the usual issues faced by all individuals: love, family, and expectations. But those who come from an immigrant background also deal with the complexities that come with balancing two differing cultures. What do you hope your South Asian American readers walk away with after reading your book?

SA: Especially for my young readers, I hope they feel seen and known. I hope they feel that their individual experiences are absolutely valid and valuable even if they buck expectations. I hope they can see a part of themselves on the page. It's not easy to live with a foot in two worlds; it's not easy to code–switch as a matter of course, yet so many Americans are navigating their lives this way and I wanted to represent that on the page. I really believe that every child deserves to see themselves as a hero on the page. Like Maya, who learns that she needs to step out from behind the movie camera she sometimes hides behind to become the leading lady in her own story, I hope some of the Desi kids who read my book realize that they deserve to shine.

MT: Lastly, will we see more novels coming from you? What can we expect from your future work?

SA: I have two novels coming out in 2019. First, in Spring 2019, Internment is set in a near future United States and follows the first wave of Muslim Americans who are forced into an internment camp and the seventeen–year–old protagonist must fight against Islamophobia, oppression and complicit silence. Then in Fall 2019, Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know is a dual narrative novel that follows an American Muslim teenager on her family's annual Paris vacation where she meets the descendant of French writer, Alexandre Dumas. Together they team up to unravel the mystery of a 19th Century Muslim woman who appears in letters between Dumas and the painter, Eugene Delacroix.

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