Writing and identity

People have expectations about what you can and should write about on the basis of your identity. As a Muslim man, I am supposed only to tell Muslim stories, and male Muslim stories at that. Ah, but as a convert, they must be convert tales. And white convert tales. And English white convert tales too. What a narrow world our identity provides us in the end. And who wants to read such tales? Few, if any.

I refuse to be pigeonholed by my identity; to have it define the stories I may tell. The challenge of penning fiction is to wander into unknown worlds, to empathise with characters you have nothing in common with. There is a prominent white character in my novel Satya, but I share little in common with him: his social background and upbringing is nothing like mine. The same is true of Muslim characters, though we share the same faith.

As I always say, I shall forever be grateful for the pen for bringing me this far from home. Though completely unintended, my investment in those imagined lives carried me along a path towards an unexpected destination. Writing should carry us beyond ourselves.

I like what Elif Shafak has to say about this in her TED lecture:

“But we should also see how the world of identity politics affects the way stories are being circulated, read and reviewed. Many authors feel this pressure, but non-Western authors feel it more heavily.

If you’re a woman writer from the Muslim world, like me, then you are expected to write the stories of Muslim women and, preferably, the unhappy stories of unhappy Muslim women.

You’re expected to write informative, poignant and characteristic stories and leave the experimental and avant-garde to your Western colleagues.”

I agree there can be a problem with people setting themselves up as an authority on the lives of others, but I hope and pray that all people may be able to tell interesting tales about interesting lives, regardless of who they are and what they believe. My next novel, Lead us not is the tale of a white Christian teacher. I hope I will be allowed to tell it.

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