Writing From a Place of Hope by Samira Ahmed
Lately, it feels like hope is in short supply.
I need only open Twitter to find Islamophobia and fear-mongering being tweeted out from the highest office in the land, from a house whose temporary occupant rents it from we, the people. From politicians who serve at the pleasure of the people to represent all of us. And yet, here we are, in an age where the President has referred to some neo-Nazis and white supremacists as “very fine people,” who has retweeted and so endorsed an organization that has advocated open violence against Muslims simply walking on the sidewalks.
Shocking as all of this may be, and it, is, indeed shocking as it should be. Fear-mongering and othering and scapegoating entire communities is nothing new to American life and politics. It is a shameful part of the American grain that has existed since the earliest settlers associated the wilderness with the dwelling of the devil and thus Native peoples. To hate another human simply because they exist, to hold a group accountable for the actions of a single individual, to ask the individual to represent the entire group, these are the prejudices, overt and subtle, that I lean into when I’m writing.
And I lean into them with hope.
To be a teacher is to believe that we, the people, must work together to form a more perfect union. I taught high school because at my core there is a flickering flame of hope; I write young adult literature for the same reason.
I like my writing to exist on the cusp—in that liminal space between childhood and adulthood. I want my writing to live in that realm of possibility, where a young adult is facing the world and in front of them are a million doors they might open that will lead them onward. Some of those doors are going to be hard to open and some kids will need a sledgehammer to walk through them, other doors lead to places they may not want to go, still other doors lead to paths they never could have imagined. Standing there, on that threshold, there is a place where hope lives. And it is there that it lives for me, even on the darkest days, in our most trying times. There is a door; there is a way to step forward.
My first experience with Islamophobia came during the Iran Hostage Crisis when I was about eight years old. In Chicago with my family, a grown man saw me, a child, and yelled, “Go home you goddamned fucking Iranian.” I was stunned. Literally could not turn my face away. I had never heard language like that; I had never seen adults act like that and say those things to a child. That was one of those threshold experiences, a moment when part of the illusion of childhood and safety and the goodness of people was shattered for me.
But hope wasn’t.
And in large part it was because of the adults around me, the ones who took care of me, who put out a hand to help me up when I fell, who helped me see that I could stand up and help others along the way. The teachers who saw me, an individual, who looked at me and said, you are enough. You are everything.
And I also had stories. Stories I made up; stories I read. Stories that had nothing to do with an Indian-American, Muslim girl growing up in a small town, but that reminded me about the humanity that connects us, books that allowed me to escape to different worlds and yet find the truth. I could use my wits to solve mysteries with Nancy Drew, be buoyed by the ferocity of Jo’s love for her family in LITTLE WOMEN, and find the strength to join Meg on an adventure to save her family, friends and the universe from the Black Thing in a WRINKLE IN TIME.
Books gave me hope; they helped me find my resilience. And I want my books to speak to that. Not present the world through rainbow-colored lenses, but to show the world as it is and to show a character, with flaws, who stumbles, who falls, who faces terrible, unfair things, but who stands up and takes a step. And then another. Who faces sometimes unbearable truths, but by naming them and bringing them into the light, resists them, begins to tear them down.
As my debut, LOVE, HATE & OTHER FILTERS makes it way into the world, one question I’ve been getting a lot is whether my book is a good fit for kids who aren’t Indian, who aren’t Muslim. Will kids who don’t see themselves in my book want to read it?
YES. I can’t be more adamant about this.
To write from a place of hope is to know that the power and magic of books is that they serve as mirror and window. They are one of the greatest forms of human interrelatedness that we’ve ever gifted to ourselves. I certainly don’t look like Nancy Drew, Jo March, or Meg Murry, but their feelings of being awkward, or outcast, or in love or despair, were my feelings, too. Reading books with main characters who are not exactly like us, shows us that there are no others in this diverse world we live in. Reading shows us that the person who is unknown to us need not be feared. Reading shows us the many ways in which we are unique individuals, but also the ways we are the same. That is why reading and writing are amongst our most hopeful acts. Reading and writing arm us to lean into a sometimes hostile world—even if it makes us uncomfortable or afraid, we learn we must stand up for the one who is being othered, because we realize there are no others. Because we understand that we are not being noble in doing so, we are being human. We are bearing the standard of what our humanity should be.
And make no mistake, our kids also need mirrors. As much as I loved Jo and Nancy and Meg, I longed to see even a glimpse of a hero who looked like me. That could be me. Books feed our imaginations and nourish that wellspring of hope. Every single child deserves that. A bookshelf shouldn’t be a place that defines our limits, it should be a place that helps us take flight and see the world beyond the confines of what we know or the unfair expectations and stereotypes people place on us.
Even in bleak times, hope is still that thing with feathers and, everyday, it reminds us that if, as a nation we are to be better; we must do better, together. Let hope unfurl. Stand up and speak in the ways you are able. Reach out your hand, so that others might take hold. Our children and our world need it.
SAMIRA AHMED was born in Bombay, India, and grew up in Batavia, Illinois, in a house that smelled like fried onions, spices, and potpourri. She currently resides in the Midwest. She’s lived in Vermont, New York City, Chicago, and Kauai, where she spent a year searching for the perfect mango. A graduate of the University of Chicago, she taught high school English for seven years, worked to create over 70 small high schools in New York City, and fought to secure billions of additional dollars to fairly fund public schools throughout New York State. LOVE, HATE & OTHER FILTERS is her debut novel. Find her at www.samiraahmed.com Twitter and Instagram: @sam_aye_ahm