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Samirah al-Abbas and other thoughts

 

So I’ll step away from social media for a while after this. We all need mental health breaks, especially in these difficult times, and I am no exception! Earlier, I decided to block some folks on Twitter (about half a dozen?) who were being rude and pushy trying to get me to respond to things / apologize for things I have addressed many times already over the years about how I represent various marginalized characters in my books. Typically, I am open to dialogue online. I get called out on stuff all the time. That’s fine. My writing is my responsibility. Without exception, however, these were points I either 1) don’t agree with and run counter to what I’ve heard from other readers from the groups being represented, 2) are out of context and misrepresented to make the details seem inflammatory, or 3) I have already addressed repeatedly and publicly in the past and, if I felt it appropriate, apologized for.

 

Normally, I just mute people who are bothering me. You have to be particularly rude and/or obscene in a persistent way to warrant a block. These folks crossed that line. On Twitter, I referred to this behavior as bullying. That’s not because I feel like a victim. I am a privileged white guy with plenty of money and power; I’m just fine. I call the behavior “bullying” because that’s what these people themselves were calling it. At least they were honest. A couple of them admitted they enjoyed bullying me to see if they could force me to write my books the way they preferred. They also admitted they were doing it on my mentions because they got more attention that way.

 

I don’t often block, but I do reserve the right to kick people out of my mentions who are being offensive, insulting or just consistently annoying. I also reserve the right not to respond to everyone online. What you think about my books should be decided by reading the books (or not). What I say after the fact can’t affect the text that has already been written and published, and every person who has a social media account does not have an automatic right to my personal attention. All of us, for our emotional health, need to be able to set the boundaries that we feel we need. This is me setting mine. This doesn’t just affect me, of course. It affects other readers, and other authors who are doing their best to write their truth and respect their readers and are looking at me to see how well/poorly I’m interacting with my readers. I don’t want to leave them hanging. I certainly don’t want anyone to think that the effort for ‘mainstream’ writers to be inclusive isn’t important or worth the risk of making mistakes. It is more critical now than ever. At the same time, we all have to find a balance that works for us between our personal space and our public interactions. As a major introvert with diagnosed social anxiety, my public space is always tightly circumscribed, and it is about to get more so online for a while!

 

Having said all that, I do think there’s an opportunity here to talk about how I research for representing certain characters. Since I was talking about Piper McLean in my previous post, I figured I would provide some insight into the development of another character of mine, Samirah al-Abbas, for those who are interested. This is not to excuse anything I’ve written or to retcon. This is just to share my process and behind-the-scenes thinking if you want it. If not, that’s fine, too! You can decide for yourself whether this makes sense to you.

 

Like many of my characters, Samirah was inspired by former students of mine. Over the course of my middle school teaching career, I worked with dozens of Muslim students and their families, representing the expanse of the Muslim world and both Shia and Sunni traditions. One of my most poignant memories about the September 11, 2001, attack of the World Trade Center was when a Muslima student burst into tears when she heard the news – not just because it was horrific, but also because she knew what it meant for her, her family, her faith. She had unwillingly become an ambassador to everyone she knew who, would have questions about how this attack happened and why the perpetrators called themselves “Muslim.” Her life had just become exponentially more difficult because of factors completely beyond her control. It was not right. It was not fair. And I wasn’t sure how to comfort or support her.

 

During the following years, I tried to be especially attuned to the needs of my Muslim students. I dealt with 9/11 the same way I deal with most things: by reading and learning more. When I taught world religions in social studies, I would talk to my Muslim students about Islam to make sure I was representing their experience correctly. They taught me quite a bit, which eventually contributed to my depiction of Samirah al-Abbas. As always, though, where I have made mistakes in my understanding, those mistakes are wholly on me.

 

What did I read for research? I have read five different English interpretations of the Qur’an. (I understand the message is inseparable from the original Arabic, so it cannot be considered ‘translated’). I have read the entirety of the Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim hadith collections. I’ve read three biographies of Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him) and well over a dozen books about the history of Islam and modern Islam. I took a six-week course in Arabic. (I was not very good at it, but I found it fascinating). I fasted the month of Ramadan in solidarity with my students. I even memorized some of the surahs in Arabic because I found the poetry beautiful. (They’re a little rusty now, I’ll admit, but I can still recite al-Fātihah from memory.) I also read some anti-Islamic screeds written in the aftermath of 9/11 so I would understand what those commenters were saying about the religion, and indirectly, about my students. I get mad when people attack my students.

 

When preparing to write Samirah’s background, I drew on all of this, but also read many stories on Iraqi traditions and customs in particular and the experiences of immigrant families who came to the U.S. I figured out how Samirah’s history would intertwine with the Norse world through the medieval writer Ahmad ibn Fadhlan, her distant ancestor and one of the first outsiders to describe the Vikings in writing.  I knew Samirah would be a ferocious brave fighter who always stood for what was right. She would be an excellent student who had dreams of being an aviator. She would have a complicated personal situation to wrestle with, in that she’s a practicing Muslim who finds out Valhalla is a real place. Odin and Thor and Loki are still around. How do you reconcile that with your faith? Not only that, but her mom had a romance with Loki, who is her dad. Yikes.

 

Thankfully, the feedback from Muslim readers over the years to Samirah al-Abbas has been overwhelmingly positive. I have gotten so many letters and messages online from young fans, talking about how much it meant to them to see a hijabi character portrayed in a positive light in a ‘mainstream’ novel.

 

Some readers had questions, sure! The big mistake I will totally own, and which I have apologized for many times, was my statement that during the fasting hours of Ramadan, bathing (i.e. total immersion in water) was to be avoided. This was advice I had read on a Shia website when I myself was preparing to fast Ramadan. It is advice I followed for the entire month. Whoops! The intent behind that advice, as I understood it, was that if you totally immersed yourself during daylight hours, you might inadvertently get some water between your lips and invalidate your fast. But, as I have since learned, that was simply one teacher’s personal opinion, not a widespread practice. We have corrected this detail (which involved the deletion of one line) in future editions, but as I mentioned in my last post, you will still find it in copies since the vast majority of books are from the first printing.

 

Another question was about Samirah’s wearing of the hijab. To some readers, she seemed cavalier about when she would take it off and how she would wear it. It’s not my place to be prescriptive about proper hijab-wearing. As any Muslim knows, the custom and practice varies greatly from one country to another, and from one individual to another. I can, however, describe what I have seen in the U.S., and Samirah’s wearing of the hijab reflects the practice of some of my own students, so it seemed to be within the realm of reason for a third-generation Iraqi-American Muslima. Samirah would wear hijab most of the time — in public, at school, at mosque. She would probably but not always wear it in Valhalla, as she views this as her home, and the fallen warriors as her own kin. This is described in the Magnus Chase books. I also admit I just loved the idea of a Muslima whose hijab is a magic item that can camouflage her in times of need.

 

As for her betrothal to Amir Fadhlan, only recently have I gotten any questions about this. My understanding from my readings, and from what I have been told by Muslims I know, is that arranged marriages are still quite common in many Muslim countries (not just Muslim countries, of course) and that these matches are sometimes negotiated by the families when the bride-to-be and groom-to-be are quite young. Prior to writing Magnus Chase, one of the complaints I often heard or read from Muslims is how Westerners tend to judge this custom and look down on it because it does not accord with Western ideas. Of course, arranged marriages carry the potential for abuse, especially if there is an age differential or the woman is not consulted. Child marriages are a huge problem. The arrangement of betrothals years in advance of the marriage, however, is an ancient custom in many cultures, and those people I know who were married in this way have shared with me how glad they were to have done it and how they believe the practice is unfairly villainized. My idea with Samirah was to flip the stereotype of the terrible abusive arranged match on its head, and show how it was possible that two people who actually love each other dearly might find happiness through this traditional custom when they have families that listen to their concerns and honor their wishes, and want them to be happy. Amir and Samirah are very distant cousins, yes. This, too, is hardly unusual in many cultures. They will not actually marry until they are both adults. But they have been betrothed since childhood, and respect and love each other. If that were not the case, my sense is that Samirah would only have to say something to her grandparents, and the match would be cancelled. Again, most of the comments I have received from Muslim readers have been to thank me for presenting traditional customs in a positive rather than a negative light, not judging them by Western standards. In no way do I condone child marriage, and that (to my mind) is not anywhere implied in the Magnus Chase books.

 

Finally, recently someone on Twitter decided to screenshot a passage out-of-context from Ship of the Deadwhere Magnus hears Samirah use the phrase “Allahu Akbar,” and the only context he has ever heard it in before was in news reports when some Western reporter would be talking about a terrorist attack. Here is the passage in full:

 

Samirah: “My dad may have power over me because he’s my dad. But he’s not the biggest power. Allahu akbar.”

 

I knew that term, but I’d never heard Sam use it before. I’ll admit it gave me an instinctive jolt in the gut. The news media loved to talk about how terrorists would say that right before they did something horrible and blew people up. I wasn’t going to mention that to Sam. I imagined she was painfully aware.

 

She couldn’t walk the streets of Boston in her hijab most days without somebody screaming at her to go home, and (if she was in a bad mood) she’d scream back, “I’m from Dorchester!”

 

“Yeah,” I said. “That means God is great, right?”

 

Sam shook her head. “That’s a slightly inaccurate translation. It means God is greater.”

 

“Than what?”

 

“Everything. The whole point of saying it is to remind yourself that God is greater than whatever you are facing—your fears, your problems, your thirst, your hunger, your anger.

 

  1. 337-338

 

To me, this is Samirah educating Magnus, and through him the readers, about what this phrase actually means and the religious significance it carries. I think the expression is beautiful and profound. However, like a lot of Americans, Magnus has grown up only hearing about it in a negative context from the news. For him to think: “I had never heard that phrase, and it carried absolutely no negative connotations!” would be silly and unrealistic. This is a teachable moment between two characters, two friends who respect each other despite how different they are. Magnus learns something beautiful and true about Samirah’s religion, and hopefully so do the readers. If that strikes you as Islamophobic in its full context, or if Samirah seems like a hurtful stereotype . . . all I can say is I strongly disagree.

 

However, as I shared above, my whole intent in writing Samirah was to honor the young Muslims I have known and taught over the years. I never want someone to feel hurt by a character I write.

 

If you are of a marginalized group I have written about, and you have read the books in question, and you feel hurt by the depictions, I absolutely apologize. My only request would be that you judge what I have written by actually reading what I wrote, in context, and not by what you’ve heard secondhand on social media. Like I’ve said on Twitter, nobody is unproblematic because no one is perfect. That most definitely includes me. I have tried my best to listen and to learn, but “my best” will not be good enough for everyone. I also have limits to my patience, and many more people want my personal attention than I can give or want to give. What you do with that information is up to you!

 

For now, for the first time twenty years, by my own choice, I have no books under contract with any publisher. It is a marvelous feeling of freedom. No doubt, I will write more books, but I will do so in my own time and my own way. I will also be working hard to bring you guys a great television adaptation of Percy Jackson. I have been blessed to have so many wonderful readers, and I hope we can make a show you are proud of.

 

I plan to take a break from social media, though. I may post the occasional promotional update when my publisher asks, and I will certainly keep posting notices about the wonderful #ownvoices authors of our imprint Rick Riordan Presents, but I will not be checking mentions or reading/responding to questions for the foreseeable future. I’ll see you all on the other side, or not! Take care of yourselves and I hope you find many wonderful books that make you feel represented and seen! Whoever those authors are, support them and promote them!

 

Rick Riordan