literature, an explanation




characters and their ‘difference’ is seen to be crucial, because lack of understanding leads to racist incidents. Robert Swindells’ Smash! (1997) begins with Stephen Crowley and Ashraf Khan as friends, but soon racism drives them apart. And while the British Asians never call white people names directly in Swindells’ novel (even when they are shouted at with racial slurs), Stephen can still assume that Ashraf and the other ‘Asian lads have suddenly decided to get stroppy. It makes you wonder whether they’ve been got at by those whatsits

– fundamentalists’ (36). British Asians

are no longer just mysterious, but they have the potential to be threatening.

Following the 9/11 attacks in America and the 7/7

attacks in London, ‘fundamentalist’ would become ‘terrorist’ with increasing frequency.

The 2017 Bookseller Children’s Conference included a number of presentations that indicate that publishers are becoming more receptive to the idea that they should make greater efforts to include stories by authors from the communities they depict – or what is often termed ‘own voices’ literature. Yet the pervasive British media narrative of South Asians, and particularly South Asian men, as threatening provides a particular challenge for South Asian writers. How to acknowledge this narrative without bolstering it?

Zanib Mian’s The Muslims (2017) is a first-person middle-grade book

with a handwriting font, illustrations and typographic

experimentation reminiscent of Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Narrator Omar and his family are rounded characters, with their individual eccentricities and a warmth that even manages to win over Mrs Rogers, their neighbour whom they hear talking about ‘The Muslims’ next door. Mian skillfully offers a depiction of a Muslim family who are aware of the suspicion and hostility that they are often subjected to but are not defined by it. There is assuredness in the narrative that ‘The Muslims’ belong here, and a lightness of touch that is perhaps most likely to be found in own voices writing. For example, when Omar is told by Daniel, a classmate, to go back home he quizzes his cousin Reza about life in Pakistan, ‘Well, the pizza is yuck and you can hardly understand what people are saying.’ For attempting to fast during Ramadan, Omar hopes to be rewarded by Allah with a Ferrari Italia.

Muhammed Khan’s I Am Thunder (2018) is a YA novel told from the perspective of Muzna Saleem, who is thirteen at the beginning of the book. Many reviews of the book have focused on Muzna’s encounter with Islamic extremism, and indeed Khan comments in a note at the front of the book that he himself has lost a relative to religious extremism’. At the beginning of the story, Muzna is aware of the potential tensions of being Muslim in Britain, but takes them in good humour ‘Four years ago the academy had been funded by the National Lottery to be renovated and updated. I was going to a school that gambling had paid for. Maybe they’d have extra classes to teach me how to be a croupier.’ (61)

Khan portrays a girl who openly discusses her own identity and has both struggles and insights throughout the story. Muzna’s parents appear to see themselves as primarily Pakistani. Muzna sees Pakistan as a place she’ll be sent to if she misbehaves. Yet the hostility she experiences for being brown and Muslim alienates her from feeling fully British. In interview Khan commented, ‘There was a time when I sought refuge in Islam as an escape from both Pakistani and British cultures.’ And in the book, Khan appears to emphasise the power of narrative in the process of young people making sense of their relationship to the world. Muzna is more desi than Disney in a society where, as her friend Salma puts it, nobody wants to read, ‘Hare Krishna and the Prisoner of Afghanistan’ p4 Muzna is aware of negative media coverage of Muslims and has ambitions to write ‘books about people like me...Representation is incredibly important’. Whilst this might sound like the author’s voice coming through, any accusation that Khan is portraying radicalisation as an inevitable consequence of racism, Islamophobia and marginalisation would

be very misplaced. When Muzna is told by Jameel who intends to involve her in terrorism that ‘Writers of fiction are among the worst of people’ (208) we become acutely aware that we are reading a work of fiction. We look forward to future work from Mian and Khan and hope that the burden of representation that often befalls Muslim and South Asian writers is soon shared with many others.

The Muslims, Zanib Mian, Sweet Apple Publishers, 978-0993564420, £8.99 pbk

I Am Thunder, Muhammad Khan, Macmillan Children’s Books, 978-1509874057, £7.99 pbk

Karen Sands-O’Connor is professor of English at SUNY Buffalo State in New York. She has, as Leverhulme Visiting Professor at Newcastle University, worked with Seven Stories, the National Centre for the Children’s Book, and has recently published Children’s Publishing and Black Britain 1965- 2015 (Palgrave Macmillan 2017).

Darren Chetty is a teacher, doctoral researcher and writer with research interests in education, philosophy, racism, children’s literature and hip hop culture. He is a contributor to The Good Immigrant, edited by Nikesh Shukla and published by Unbound, and tweets at @rapclassroom

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