Episode 40! A Suicide Bomber Sits in the Library: Conversation with Samira Ahmed, PART 1

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Welcome to episode 40 of our kidlitwomen* podcast! Usually, this podcast features an essay about an issue in the children's literature community (Monday) and a discussion about the essay (Wednesday). 

This week’s episode is different as well as more time-specific. In this 2-part interview Grace Lin talks with author Samira Ahmed about the controversy surrounding the sneak peak of the graphic novel, “A Suicide Bomber Sits in the Library,” by Jack Gantos and illustrated by Dave McKean. This is Part 1 of the interview, please come back on Wed to hear Part 2.

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On Oct. 26 AbramsKids tweeted a preview of their upcoming graphic novel, “A Suicide Bomber Sits in the Library” written by Jack Gantos and illustrated by Dave McKean. At that time, it seemed to receive a positive reaction, however in the last week or so the reaction has become mostly negative—causing quite a stir on twitter and other social media channels.  It was objected to so strongly that on Nov. 26th, the Asian Author Alliance (which, in full disclosure, Grace is a member of) released this open letter:

Dear Abrams,

As authors, illustrators, readers, teachers and publishing professionals we believe books can change lives. We believe in the importance of literacy. And we understand, deeply, the power of story. But we also know the irreparable harm that can be done when a book is littered with damaging stereotypes and falsehoods, rooted in bigotry and racism. It is out of this belief that found ourselves deeply disturbed by tweets from Abrams Kids promoting a “sneak peek” of A Suicide Bomber Sits in the Library, a graphic novel by Jack Gantos and Dave McKean.

This book depicts an illiterate child suicide bomber, apparently of vague Middle Eastern or South Asian descent, who is deterred from his terrorist “mission” when he sees other children reading in the library. According to text on the back of the book, the young suicide bomber has an “unquestionable duty to his beliefs”— as if it is his faith that compels him to be a terrorist, as if he must act in opposition to his faith to show humanity. The premise alone is steeped in Islamophobia and profound ignorance.

Further, though the text refers to the characters as boys, the illustrations of brown-skinned individuals with receding hairlines and dark circles under their squinting, villainous eyes are dehumanizing and do not seem in any way child-like. Is this how Abrams believes Muslim/Middle Eastern/Arab/Pakistani children should see themselves? Or, adults for that matter? Is this the mirror you hold up to them? Is this the window that you think creates empathy?

It appears that the short story that inspired this graphic novel came from, ostensibly, a countering violent extremism (CVE) anthology. CVE is acknowledged within affected communities as being ineffectual, at best—you can’t simply counter extremism with graphic novels or books. Illiteracy, alone, is not what leads to violence, the roots lie much deeper than that and touch on geo-politics, socio-economics, colonialism, and the reckless bombing of nations without regard to the actual human beings living there. The gross oversimplifications in the description and the sneak peek of this graphic novel are both wrongheaded and reckless.

The simple fact is that today, the biggest terrorist threat in the United States is white supremacy. In publishing A Suicide Bomber Sits in the Library, Abrams is willfully fear-mongering and spreading harmful stereotypes in a failed attempt to show the power of story.

This letter was signed by over 1000 people and more were adding their name daily when  Abrams released this statement:

ABRAMS has decided to withdraw publication of the adult graphic novel, A Suicide Bomber Sits in the Library, which was to be published on its Abrams ComicArts list in May 2019.

While the intention of the book was to help broaden a discussion about the power of literature to change lives for the better, we recognize the harm and offense felt by many at a time when stereotypes breed division, rather than discourse. Therefore, together with the book’s creators, we have chosen to withdraw its release.

This, of course, is an interesting turn of events. But is it one to be celebrated? Already, defenders of the book are decrying the judgement pre-publication and those who objected are still wondering what allowed such a problematic book to be greenlit in the 1st place.

In this episode, Grace Lin talks with author Samira Ahmed about the events that took place, what the premise of this book meant to Muslim, Brown and Asian community, and more. This is Part 1, please come back on Wednesday to hear Part 2.

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On today's podcast you will hear:

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Samira Ahmed was born in Bombay India and raised outside of Chicago, Illinois, She received her BA and MAT from the University of Chicago and went on to teach high school English in both the suburbs of Chicago and the New York City Public Schools. After she left the classroom, she worked in education non-profits, helping to create more than seventy small high schools in New York City and fought to secure billions of dollars in public school funding throughout New York State. Samira is now the New York Times bestselling author of Love, Hate, & Other Filters and the forthcoming,Internment (March 2019) and Mad, Bad, & Dangerous to Know (January 2020).

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Grace Lin, a NY Times bestselling author/ illustrator, won the Newbery Honor for Where the Mountain Meets the Moon and the Theodor Geisel Honor for Ling and Ting: Not Exactly the Same. Her most recent novel When the Sea Turned to Silver was a National Book Award Finalist. Grace is an occasional commentator for New England Public Radio and video essayist for PBS NewsHour (here & here), as well as the speaker of the popular TEDx talk, The Windows and Mirrors of Your Child’s Bookshelf.  Grace's new picture book,  A Big Mooncake for Little Star is now available. 

In this conversation, Samira cites a quote by Toni Morrison. Here is the quote in its entirety:

“The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.” -Toni Morrison

 TRANSCRIPT


Grace:                      Welcome, Samira. Hi, Samira.

Samira:                   Hi, Grace. How are you today?

Grace:                      Good. I'm so glad that you are willing and able to come onto this podcast on such short notice.

Samira:                   Oh, thanks for having me on. And luckily we're both morning people. Well, sort of morning people. I force myself to be that way, even though in my heart I don't want to be.

Grace:                      I think it's because we both have small kids. So, you were the first person to bring this book, A Suicide Bomber Sits in the Library, to my attention. What was your reaction when you first saw it?

Samira:                   I think kind of flabbergasted, gobsmacked would be a good initial reaction. Sort of like, "Is this, like from the Onion or is this real life?" Like, "What is happening?" I mean, I first just saw the illustrations just from the Abrams tweets and the fact that they came from Abrams' kids, I was like, "Is this supposed to be a child, because it kind of looks like racist propaganda 101?"

                                    And then I read some of the panels, I read some of the information that was on their website about it, the good recent Amazon descriptions, and then also someone I know had the art so I was able to read the back cover copy and a few other pages and I was shocked that a publishing company would do this.

                                    I mean, would decide that this was something that they should be tweeting out, talking about, let alone publishing. I was pretty surprised, but Abrams, this is not the first time they've done something like this that had Islamophobic content. So, I was shocked, but maybe not 100% surprised.

Grace:                      Can you tell me about the potential harm you see this book causing?

Samira:                   Well, yes, absolutely. Even just tweeting out those initial images that they did, which was multiple panels, it completely perpetuates Islamophobic, racist stereotypes. And it demonizes Islam. I mean, the back cover copy alone says that the boy has an unquestionable duty to his beliefs.

                                    This boy was the suicide bomber, who was never named in fact, and is just referred to as the suicide bomber in the panels that they showed, who has an unquestionable duty to his beliefs, as if suggesting that he is a terrorist because he is Muslim, that all Muslims have the potential to be terrorists, like Muslims are lurking around the corner, sitting in your libraries and other places because of their unquestionable duty to their beliefs.

                                    Just that sentence on their copy is so grossly Islamophobic. I mean, it's ridiculous. And then, the illustrations claim to show that the main character's supposed to be a boy. I mean, a boy is a child. Yet he's watching another read a book in a library, and yet both of them are these dark figures, receding hairlines, dark circles under their eyes.

                                    And I don't see how you can understand those illustrations as anything but dehumanizing. And the boys are barely differentiated. I mean, only by a red coat that the "suicide bomber boy" wears. It's really dehumanizing. I think, just from my initial reaction, those were just like these terrible things that were being perpetuated and shown in these illustrations and what they had released in terms of cover copy and the panels that they showed and their summary and synopsis of the book. So I think ...

Grace:                      So what kind of ... Oh, sorry.

Samira:                   No, go ahead. Sorry. No, go ahead.

Grace:                      I was going to say, what kind of an effect do you think this would have on a Muslim child and what kind of effect do you think this would have on a non-Muslim child?

Samira:                   Well, I mean, for Muslim kids in America, and I just want to be clear that Abrams' kids when they tweeted this out was clearly tweeting it to an American, English-speaking audience. They're an American publisher here, even though, I think Abrams is owned by a French publishing company. I'm not sure but I think that's correct.

                                    But in any case, so here we have an American Muslim kid just going to the library, going to school, and once again seeing themselves depicted in books only as a terrorist, a threat, someone who is not even fully human, like they don't even get a name. They're just a trope. As a former teacher, I can tell you how damaging it is for children to only see themselves in these really negative images.

                                    If you're always described as a thug, a gangster, a terrorist, a cockroach, as we see our President tweet out against immigrants. When you see these ideas or these images of you as the only thing that's out there in the media that you consume on TV, movies, books, comic books, graphic novels. I mean, this is so terribly damaging and it can internalize a kind of self-hate or a belief that you are not enough. Like, "I am not the normative. I am not a regular kid who can just have a regular life."

                                    Teenagers or kids have drama in their life naturally, but a Muslim kid who sees this will only see themselves depicted through the eyes of someone who essentially says, "I hate you." I mean, it's just really so sad to me that any Muslim kid would think this about themselves. They're just trying to be regular kids, going to school, have friends, apply to a college, and do everything else. And for kids ...

Grace:                      I guess ...

Samira:                   Oh, sorry. Go ahead.

Grace:                      No, no. Sorry. I keep interrupting you. I'm so sorry. I guess, I was just thinking, it makes me feel so sad to think about a Muslim kid or a brown kid, just a brown kid, being in the library, and a bunch of other kids, non-brown, reading this and looking at him, or somebody reading this in the library and how does that make him feel? How does it make people [crosstalk 00:07:51] feel?

Samira:                   Of course, he will always feel that people are pointing the finger at him, and I'm glad that you said it's also brown kids, because we've seen in real life how brown kids and adults are attacked for "looking Muslim." I mean, the Sikh community has taken a huge brunt of Islamophobia in America, despite not being Muslim. And so, it's just like the finger pointing, the shaming, the feeling like I have to hide a part of myself. The criminalizing of a child as they did in this book, it's really terrible.

                                    I mean, I was the only Muslim kid in not only my class, but my entire high school until my sister started, and she was a freshman and I was a senior. And I grew up in pretty much a small, white town, and literally anytime anything happened where a Muslim did anything besides being perfect, it was always on me. I somehow had to bear the responsibility for it, had to bear all the questions as to why it was happening.

                                    And yet the flip side, when there was the Oklahoma City bombing, say for example, committed by a white supremacist, a white man, all of the white population of the United States wasn't suddenly a suspect, wasn't considered to be a potential terrorist. And yet, when you're a marginalized individual coming from a marginalized community, rather, you somehow have to bear the responsibility for an individual's actions. Yet, if you're white, you never have to bear that onus.

Grace:                      Well, that ties into my next question, which is, this book is written by Newberry Winner Jack Gantos, and illustrated by Dave McKean who are really well-known and well-respected in the children's community for their work, but they're also both white men. Do you think this is especially harmful because it was created by two white men?

Samira:                   Well, I want to add to that that they're white non-Muslim men, because Muslims can be white, even though in larger media we're generally just depicted as brown or black, but I try to say this to people a lot, because they conflate the two. Islam isn't a race. It's a religion and it's just like Christianity where any race can be depicted as that.

                                    So I'm just going to add that, two white non-Muslim men, because what this is so clearly saying to me is number one, they are not approaching this issue with any kind of sensitivity. I know they were all over social media and other places trying to defend this and say, "This is really about building empathy and the power of the book," but it's clearly coming from a place where people don't have empathy for the characters they're creating.

                                    I don't know what the vetting process was for this, if they had sensitivity readers, if they had even sensitivity "consultants," people that they talked to. But it is so clearly written by white people for white people, non-Muslim white people, that I don't see how they ... They literally created just a two-dimensional character, a child who doesn't even get a name and is only referred to as a suicide bomber.

                                    I don't see how you can claim that to be anything but perpetuating stereotypes. And in fact, Abrams later, and I guess we'll talk about this, later specifically says, "Yeah, these were stereotypes." I mean, it is really baffling to me how this process of acquisition or creation of this graphic novel even occurred or worked.

Grace:                      Yeah, I think that's really interesting. Okay, so the Asian Author Alliance banded together after this book was known, they banded together to write an open letter to Abrams. I posted the letter on my Twitter and Facebook page, and I received a little pushback on that, that the letter criticizes a book that has not yet been published. And someone on my Facebook page even wrote, "Has the authors of the letter read the text and seen the illustrations in their entirety? Is this judgment based solely upon what has been seen of the marketing materials? If so, it is completely irresponsible. According to any definitions and standards, such statements can only construed as contrary to the principles of intellectual freedom."

                                    So I want to make it clear that the pushback that I got was pretty infinitesimal in comparison to what so many others like yourself have received, but it was an interesting case study to me about what those who object to the letter believe. So what do you say to those who think it's unfair to judge this book before reading it in its entirety?

Samira:                   Yes, they are ascribing to the don't judge a book by its cover, and yet, we live in a free-market system where we judge things all the time. That's the reason Abrams put out this "sneak peek." They want you to judge it and they want you to buy it. I mean, that's what commercials are. To say that is incredibly disingenuous, I say. I mean, and it completely works again free-market principles.

                                    And further, I think that person wants me to curb my intellectual freedom or the freedom of all of these other, over a thousand individuals who signed this open letter. Of course we have a right to judge something by what a publisher puts out. We can read it. They put it out, they have all this information out there, and the idea is that they put it out there, because they're hoping people will judge it because they will like it and want to buy it.

                                    That's how everything in our consumer society works. To say that you have to consume all of the media or whatever it is, fully, the product, before you're allowed to judge it is kind of absurd. I mean, how many times have you seen 15 minutes of a movie if you're sitting down in front of the TV, and you're like, "Ah, this is terrible. I don't like it. I'm not going to watch any more of this."

                                    We constantly do this and furthermore, I think the idea is that people who see just some of these initial pages and panels, the synopsis, understand the premise and can read all the materials, the marketing materials that Abrams put out, who are already harmed just by seeing that or hurt, are then supposed to be put in the position to consume more of the product that makes them feel terrible about themselves?

                                    I mean, that's absurd. It comes from such an incredibly privileged point-of-view. I mean, I don't know who that person is that said that, but I'm guessing they're a white man and have never for their entire life had just a barrage of images, media stories coming at them about how they are terrible, how they are the other, how they are not enough. I mean, why would you want to inflict pain on someone by saying, "Hey, you know what? You don't have a right to judge this even though you are acting in accordance with how the market works in our country and you are irresponsible for judging it."

                                    I mean, that person is irresponsible for saying that, and is completely obtuse. I mean, I really get angry when people say that, because it's like, "Hey, this hurt you reading these few pages. I want you to be hurt more by it and you don't have a right to judge it unless apparently your wound is so deep that everyone can see the blood coming out of it." Honestly, I find that absurd.

                                    I mean, Abrams is a corporation. It's a capitalist entity. They're putting out a product. They're asking us to judge it. They want us to judge it positively, obviously, and buy it and make them money. So to say that I can't judge a product that's being put before me is absurd. I mean, that's what every label does. I mean, we live in a capitalist society. We judge things all the time.

                                    I mean, librarians judge things all the time, too. They literally can't have every single book in their library. I mean, I think libraries are the cornerstone of our Democracy, but I also think that to act as if libraries exist somehow outside of the white, male, hegemonic structure that exists in the United States is to be completely naïve. The shelves in our libraries don't fully reflect American society and what we look like and libraries can't buy every single book that's published, so they make choices too.

                                    And, I have not yet met a librarian who has read every single book in their library. I mean, maybe there's some librarians out there who have, and if they have, I laud them and take my hats off to them, but they're making judgements, too. I mean, every librarian makes a judgment. A publisher might send you an ark, or they might send you promotional materials and you read of it what you can, but there is, what, 3,500 kids' books published a year, maybe more, I have not yet met anyone who can read that many books a year.

Grace:                      So what do you say to people who say this is a kind of censorship then?

Samira:                   Yeah, this isn't censorship at all. This is over a thousand individuals signing a letter to express their viewpoints. Nowhere in that letter did it actually call for the book to be pulled. Rather, it said to Abrams, "Hey we want you to understand what this kind of book can do." Like, what you are potentially putting out there and the damage that you could potentially be doing, the harm that you could cause kids, the danger that you're putting other Muslims in.

                                    Abrams again, like I said, they are a corporation. The free market is a system in which they're trying to make judgements as to what will make them money. And if Abrams thought they could, number one, come out of this looking like a rose, two, make money off of it and not have their reputation damaged in any way, they would still be publishing it. I mean, publishers make choices to publish controversial content all the time.

                                    I mean, this is why commentators on Fox News, talking heads, have books published all the time, despite potentially racist, sexist, misogynistic content. We all remember what happened with Milo's book. It was going to be published and it was only pulled because he made this pedophilic sympathetic comments, but meanwhile, he's made these horrendous comments his entire career.

                                    His career is based on that, and they still had gone through every gatekeeper to be published. So it's not as if publishers are somehow being censored by an open letter. An open letter is expressing point-of-view. Like these people who are claiming this, if you truly espouse belief in principles of intellectual freedom and the First Amendment, then why would you try to curb the First Amendment rights of all these people who are simply expressing an opinion.

                                    I mean, this is what the market will bear, and if you don't believe in the market and capitalism, the society that we live in, then I think you are ... I mean, if you don't realize that that's the system that we're living in, then I think you need to open your eyes. It's just that. I mean, to say that this is censorship is ridiculous. The Asian Author Alliance isn't a government entity. The thousand people who signed this are just private citizens making their opinion known, which as far as I'm concerned is an absolute right and is incredibly American.

Grace:                      I was trying to figure out what kind of analogy I could make for people to make them understand how horrendous this feels. I was thinking if the title was, There's a Chef in the Kitchen Cooking Dog, and then it was this caricature of an Asian person, of a Chinese man. See how terrible that is? Do you see the propaganda of that?

Samira:                   I mean, I kept thinking of it like, "Why didn't they publish something like The White Loan Shooter is Sitting in your School, and then that gunman is one of the white boys that's in your school and he's sitting in the back?" I mean, that would never get published, even though you're far likelier to get shot by a white man in the public setting, like in a mass shooting, than you are by someone of any other race or by any Muslim.

                                    It's funny, because I feel like, we're both from Asian backgrounds and we have had to deal with so many stereotypes, just for our entire lives in this country, and it's like we're put in the position of then having to come up with a way to make the majority understand what this would feel like, but they'll never understand what it feels like because they never grew up in the position of being forced to see themselves as the other.

                                    I mean, they'll never have to consume that much media that says they're bad, they're wrong, they're not enough, they're not American. They're not constantly being asked, "Where are you from?" They're not constantly being told, "This is the way American does it." They're not constantly having people come up to them speaking really loudly and slowly because they think that you don't understand English. You know what I mean?

Grace:                      Yeah, and I guess it's like a very constant wound that always gets picked at or poked every time something like this comes up.

Samira:                   Yeah, absolutely. In terms of Muslims, the people who bear the worst kind of Islamophobia are black women Muslim hijabis. I imagine what they go through an it is just so much worse than what I go experience. I mean, what I experience feels terrible, so I can't even imagine how bad it is for them, where they have multiple intersectionalities and each of those is attacked. I don't know.

                                    People do ask me to come up with this comparison and I just am like, "There's no comparison that I can make that will make you, a white person, understand this, because you've never been in a situation where you're the only one." How many times have you been in a room or invited to a professional setting or wherever where you're the only Asian in there?

Grace:                      Yes, all the time.

Samira:                   And then any time something even remotely Asian comes up, everyone looks at you and you could be like, "Well, that's about India and I'm not that." Or anything about racism comes up or bigotry, and then suddenly everyone looks at you for all of the answers or you get blamed for whatever happens. That never happens if you're a white person. The white people that don't even bear the responsibility of Donald Trump when they were the ones who elected him, you know?

Grace:                      I think it's interesting, because I think as minorities we've all had to learn, especially in the last two years, how to talk about race, because everybody looks to us now. It's an interesting ...

Grace:                      Everybody looks to us now. It's an interesting burden that I've tried to use as a badge of honor but it's also a burden.

Samira:                   It's tiring and exhausting. Imagine all the other things that we could be doing instead. I mean, I think I forget the exact quote but Toni Morrison said something about how part of the sort of purpose of racism is to distract you from doing other things. Of course, she said it much more elegantly. If you can find that quote maybe you can put it in the notes to the episode. It's so true because when we're busy writing this letter and getting these signatures and constantly fighting it takes away room from you just to live. Just it takes away your freedom.

Grace:                      I know. We're recording this on Thanksgiving weekend and I'm rushing to put this out so it publishes tomorrow which is Monday. I'm just thinking about how much work we are doing to get this issue out there. To get this talked about. Then I also think of so many of my colleagues who I'm jealous.

Samira:                   They're just chilling out. They're probably some probably aren't even awake yet because it's really early in the morning or they're just having their second cup of coffee which I would love to have my second cup of coffee also. I think look, in some ways, it's so frustrating and exhausting and yet what's the other option for us to sort of throw our hands up and do nothing and pretend it doesn't exist. I mean, that doesn't mean that we should constantly be forced to be put in this position and I would love if white allies would step up. So many of them did in signing this letter. When I saw on Twitter the reaction to this it wasn't just from Muslims. It wasn't just from brown people. There were a lot of white librarians who are stepping up on Twitter and saying, “Whoa, I can't imagine having this book in my library or in my classroom.” There were a lot of teachers and librarians who were not Muslim and not brown who also spoke up about this. I was glad to see that they did. Those white allies-

Grace:                      It was very heartening to see so much support for the letter.

Samira:                   Yes. I know. We got over 1,000 signatures in just two days. I mean, that's the same thing ... It came we over at Asian Author Alliance on our Facebook page we were like, hey, we got to put together something to do this. It was literally right before Thanksgiving. I mean, I would just be happy to-

Grace:                      Make cookies.

Samira:                   Chill out or make cookies or just watch TV. A bunch of us were even texting each other about this on Thanksgiving day. We're with our families, it's a holiday we have the day off. It's one of the few days in America where virtually everyone in your family has it off where you can be together and yet we still have to do this. At the same time, I felt well, all of us are doing this because we had no choice.

Grace:                      Agreed.

Samira:                   That's what Abrams did. That's the situation they put us in. Yes, well, that could be a whole other episode.

 PLEASE COME BACK ON WED FOR PART 2 OF THIS INTERVIEW

GRACE LIN