I love the written word in all of its forms.
As a child, some of my earliest memories are of sounding the words off a toothpaste pack, and trying to read the words fast enough before they disappear off a TV screen or whatever car I am riding in zoomed past billboards.
Early childhood, I think I mostly read schoolbooks. Yet even those short ‘comprehension’ passages opened to me, a world beyond what I knew. I could read about people places I’d never been, doing things I had never done. I could glimpse facets of the unfamiliar, of times gone past and people other than my own. It filled my little soul with something I was too young to define.
My dad fostered this habit of mine, and as I grew older, he would bring me the most obscure books from whatever country he visited. Reading became a way we could share his life, his painful absences from mine, on those trips.
High school was six years of re-making whatever sense you thought you had of life. A veritable, sometimes literal, jungle filled with 500-600 preteens and teenagers in a honest-to-God ‘survival of the fittest’ battle. I survived. Barely. With, among other things, the aid of books and the many unlikely book-friendships built along the way. Those of us who read found ourselves across all lines – of seniority, popularity, or any of the many “-ity”s that boarding school cliques were founded upon. We borrowed, lent, stole and sometimes wrote our own stories in lined notebooks, invariably with foreign named characters and American high school plots.
It was in this jungle that I took my first foray into writing, fiction and non-fiction alike. Between winning essay writing competitions, and penning cringe-worthy ‘notebook stories’ that my fellow inmates seemed to like reading, my brain convinced me that I could write. It was here that fiction took over my leisure reading, relegating non-fiction to the urgh! Otherwise known as ‘studying’.
University, with a pure science major, would afford me little time, mental capacity or even enough functioning eyesight for leisure reading/fiction. Those ginormous textbooks and the sheer volume of material we were expected to wade through ensured your brain soon started to rewire the connection between reading and ‘pleasure’, forming new pathways that grew tentacles to ‘pressure’, ‘stress’, ‘work’, or if unheeded, ‘failure’.
In addition, I allowed myself to be persuaded that fiction was frivolous time wasting at best, and that I, for reading and writing fiction, was somehow less.
I would spend the better part of the next decade-and-half attempting to avoid works of fiction. What little leisure reading I did consisted mainly of Islaamic texts, biographies and books on history.
I do not decry those years. Those books provided me with a much different perspective of the world than is obtained through fiction. I strongly believe the books I read in this phase prepared me for a much more discerning taste when I was finally to move on in my reading journey. I became a lot more eclectic than in the days when I mostly read fiction. Till date, I account among my best books Zarabozoo’s commentary on AnNawawi’s forty ahadith, History of Islam and Roots.
When I waddled back into fiction, at a particularly trying period, I was reminded of what I had let myself forget. That reading is not just something that I do, but a part of who I am. And that fiction, specifically, has always been one of my life’s greatest sources of joy.
That stories connect. Beyond the different lines that we collectively draw to divide our shared humanity, stories bring us together. Much like myself and the unlikely friendships formed in the jungle of my youth, or my African-in-Diaspora son identifying so strongly with the book character who lost his family in the sea during the world war, books open us to the commonality of our existence. Because stories, more than any epistle of non-fiction ever can, documents and transmits our journey as humanity on this surface we claim as home.
That stories endure. More than the prejudices that we foster and feed, they tell the truth of a person/people in a time; good or bad; and that reality can be judged by those who come after. For these stories, in book form if we are lucky, live longer than us and our petty misconceptions and harsh judgements.
These days, I embrace my love of reading, and of fiction, unashamedly. I do not apologize for it. For some Muslims who consider it trivial, to each her own. And those for whom non-fiction is the only worthwhile reading, I say follow your passion. I read where I find value – and that might be knowledge and research, but it might also just be fun and escape, or just for the sheer joy of holding a totally unexplored world in my hands.
Ultimately, the onus is on every individual to do that which she deems best.
For me, in recent times, this is increasingly coming to mean using my love of reading and writing stories to change the narratives about Muslims that abound in literature, where they even exist. And not just the outrightly fictitious negative ones like terrorism and honour-killings, but also the passively misleading ones that promote integrating and compromising the religion to blend in with the mainstream.
I aim to write stories that I have often longed to read; those that will outlive me; meaningful stories about Muslims who are living their lives – in the Deen – the best way they can.
Let’s find out together if I am any good at it…