Telling Secrets

Recently, I watched the indie film "Mooz-lum," written and directed by Qasim Basir. It is the coming of age story of a Muslim American college freshman, set against his strict upbringing (told in flashbacks) and the events of 9/11. The film is compelling, although not exactly subtle. For me, the characters weren't as nuanced as they could have been--the good Muslims were really good and the bad non-Muslims were really bad. 

(Of course, then I thought about a spectacularly warm and generous Muslim woman I know who founded a community service organization, and about Glenn Beck. Possibly, I thought, possibly Mr. Basir has a point.)

What struck me most about "Mooz-lum," was the portrayal of the bad Muslim character, a  teacher at the Islamic school the boy's father forced him to attend. And by forced I mean that his parents got divorced over it.  This teacher beat the boy savagely for talking to a girl and for sneaking out to trick or treat. And by beat, I mean lashed. A lot.

It wasn't the lack of nuance in that  (despicable) character that struck me, but the fact that  Mr. Basir, who has admitted that the film is partly autobiographical  rendered such a portrayal at all. He was asked about that choice in an interview on NPR.  About why, in a political climate that often demonizes Muslims, he went there.

Mr. Basir's response?  He wanted to tell an honest story.

There are people who would disagree, who think that to air a community's dirty laundry is to work a treason against that community. Or those who think that it can be told, but just, please, not right now.

Those people probably wouldn't like the novel I'm currently querying.  Which, by the way, I think of as a positive portrayal of a couple of strong, modern Muslim American women. Unlike many media depictions, they are actors in their lives and not victims.

Still, I got some not entirely unexpected feedback. "It's like you're telling secrets," one person said in response to Chapter 11. And even though I understood the comment--the chapter includes a scene at a mosque where some conservative people chastise one of my characters--all I could think is wait until you get to Chapter 44.

I understand the impulse to prevent piling on and the fear that people will only focus the bad, and ignore the good. I get that.  But to pen something that only shows the good--in a person or a community or a country--is not a novel.  It's propaganda.

And who wants to read that?


  1. Powerful post. Very powerful . . .

    In one or two of my novels, I have been questioned by people in my personal life, who perhaps knew autobiographical elements that inspired things, "Why did you have to go there? Couldn't you have told the story without . . . ?" And my books are not particularly controversial . . . but there is always the risk that people in your life will see bits of you, bits of themselves.

    I think you know how I feel about truth. Art demands it. When an artist/creator starts down a slippery slope of shrinking back from truth, I think it dooms a work to complacency and mediocrity. I may not LIKE to be confronted by themes of (take your pick): incest, violence, addiction, faith, domestic violence . . . and even the less controversial ideas contained with honest and raw portrayals of marriage (Blue Valentine, the film, comes to mind), but I think the best of art does go there--and the bravest of art makes us face the darkness in our own midst and the truths we'd prefer not to examine.

  2. Erica, I do know you are a force for truth--it permeates all of your posts. And you have paid a price for it, although maybe not really. Maybe they did.

    I had a little back and forth with Alexander Chee on his blog once about a similar issue. Someone (elsewhere) said they were tired of all of the issues of women's oppression in literature, that they wanted less victims, that they were so tired of all of the victimhood.

    My first reaction was to say fine, but those things happen, and that maybe we need to talk about them until every last survivor has had the chance to tel her story. Chee pointed out that there is a danger of minority literature becoming a "literature of complaint"--and that we need to tell our "regular" stories, too. That we need to have the full picture of our communities, religions, ethnic or gender or sexual orientation groups as well.

    I totally agree with that. I think my book does that. For the most part. There are no abused Muslim women in my book. No sensational honor killings. But at the same time, there are lesser manifestations of sexism or homophobia in many communities, including mine. And I go there.

    Thanks for your comment and for visiting, Erica.

  3. I have to admit, to an extent I'm one of those guys too who feel that "minority literature becoming a literature of complaint". But I don't feel that these stories don't deserve to be told. I was deeply touched by The Kite Runner. I only feel disgusted when some of the writers out there use subjects like sexual abuse and domestic violence just to sell more books. There writing should be more than just describing these acts. They should include what leads upto that, what is wrong that provides shelter to such acts in our modern age and what change we should strive for. Writing a 4 chapter of a woman getting abused, only to kick ass in the next five is bull and I'll call it that. I don't mind her kicking ass. But they should keep it real when they take on such subjects. Its not something you can use to juice up your story.

    I'm confident that you'll do a fine job in highlighting whats important and do justice to the subject. I know that coz its a subject very close to you. You live for it. Looking forward to your book.

  4. Aniket, I completely agree. You cannot use issues of oppression to sell a book or just to make a story "juicier," to use your word.

    I think the goal, ideally, should be for such issues to turn up in multicultural literature in relative proportion to their frequency in mainstream lit. That they shouldn't comprise the entire body of work. I saw relative because I do believe that minority communities have experienced more bigotry and harm than majority communities. Literature can change hearts and minds, and people should tell the stories that do so. But they should also tell all of their other stories as well.

    The other challenge is for the majority community to view "bad acts" in multicultural art/literature the same way they do when they view mainstream art. Is it easier for the average American to watch The Accused and not think all men are gang rapists than it is to watch "Mooz-lum" and not think that Islam condones violence against children?

    I hope not. I hope there is a filter there for both. But I'd be lying if I said I didn't worry about it.

  5. Great comment from Aniket. I think that's where the James Freys of the world get seduced by fame.

    I was pondering your post last night again . . . and as the daughter of a Russian . . . I feel like he embodies the "stereotypical" Russian. It oozes from him. And so . . . I think when then writing a Russian character, say . . . do you say "I won't write to the stereotype"--even when it's sitting right THERE in your face in full stereotypical glory? So it becomes, I think, about craft and nuance, and back story and using the stereotypes in ways that are fresh, acknowledging yeah . . . it's there.

  6. Yes, Erica, it is like pimping victimization. (Frey).

    Your latest comment triggers what may someday be another post--WHO gets to craft the character that may embody some stereotypes. Who gets to tell about abuses in the community. Do you get to write fiction about such things only if you are a member of the group? Do you have to belong to a community/ethnicity to speak of such things, to fictionalize their "truth?"

  7. it can't be that easy to balance between showing bad and good characters of a certain nation/religious group/community when there's a definite negative air (of media) around that group. if the author goes all negative - it's another pro-group voice in the mainstream. it's propaganda, as you said, and no one wants to read that, either.
    if the book is all positive then the author might get accused of being partial...or writing propaganda...

    at the same time no one likes people who sit on the fence....

    a very thoughtful blogpost here!

  8. oh, and the time and difficulty i had choosing the name of the boy in that short story for Jason's contest.
    i wanted a male name that means 'light'.
    i surfed the internet.
    i found tonnes of Hebrew names.
    i said no.
    i found Indian names. i discarded them because i thought those would have been misleading as to the setting and time of my story.
    i found an Arabic one. i liked it a lot. i discarded it because... i thought it might provoke unwanted directions in the reader's head.
    so i chose a Japanese one.

    go figure.

  9. SzelsoFa, I think you nail the balancing act perfectly. And in all of it, we are trying to be true to story.

    I sort of love that you put that much effort into finding the name. It's a detail that can be very powerful. And now I have to go back to see what the name was. :)

    Thanks for visiting!