Episode 41! A Suicide Bomber Sits in the Library: Conversation with Samira Ahmed, PART 2
Welcome to episode 41 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 episodes are different than our regular podcast. Today, we are featuring Part 2 of the interview 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.. We advise you to listen to Part 1 of this interview (episode 40) before listening to this one or else you will be missing some valuable context!
This is Part 2 of the interview with Samira Ahmed.
On today's podcast you will hear:
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).
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.
Grace: Let's talk about the letter. Let's talk about the letter for a little bit. Why did you think it was important to have such a letter written? Such an open letter that so many people could sign.
Samira: Well, I mean, I think at Asian Author Alliance we were kind of talking to each other about it and saying, wow, this is so terrible, this is wrong. It's not the first time Abrams has done this. They recalled or they stopped before they were publishing this series of these little golden book the satirical series where they also had one of the covers showed a small girl who was maybe four years old or five years old wearing a hijab and giving a birthday present which was a ticking bomb to a little boy. There was a huge outcry because that wasn't the only ... It was a series and they were all like that. They were all either racist, misogynistic. They were horrible. It's not the first time Abrams has done this.
I mean, I think what we realized was look, publishing is overwhelming white right. 90% of the people pretty much. 86% of the people. I can't remember the exact percentage that has just come out who work in publishing are white, are probably not Muslim, are probably [cisinhat 00:28:54], the vast majority. They clearly needed to rethink the process that brought this graphic novel to almost publication. I mean, it was in Arc form already.
I think it was important for us to point out hey, can you just think about what you're doing here. Think about the terrible harm you're causing. Think about the stereotypes that you are perpetuating here. Think about the harm that you could potentially do. Here we are over 1,000 people signatures gathered in two days over Thanksgiving saying, please reconsider the process that got you here. That was a huge part of it. Literally, in that letter, no one wrote to them saying, you need to withdraw this from publication. I mean, I'm sure there were and I know there were individuals who also wrote to Abrams just individually. Even some of their own authors who reached out via their editors saying, “Hey, this book is really disturbing and is potentially harmful.” I think it's important for not just Abrams but for all publishers to consider that process.
I mean, there's all this talk about wanting diversity in our titles now and yet things have barely moved in that positive direction. Publishing is still overwhelmingly white. Think about the gatekeeping process that allows these to go through. I mean, for so many authors of color or authors from marginalized backgrounds we hear things like, well, we can't we already have a book like that. It could be a book nothing like what you are writing but it basically is just a code for saying, oh, well, we already have a book by a South Asian. That's happened to me. I got rejections based on we have a book by a South Asian Muslim. Imagine being rejected by saying, we have a book by a white guy who lives in Brooklyn and wears flannel shirts. I mean, imagine how that would never happen.
Grace: Well, it's a terrible thing because there can only be one kind of mentality and it's poisonous for minority authors as well because you kind of feel you're competing with instead of being able to support other minority authors it's like you're competing because there's only one spot for you.
Samira: Yes. It's terrible. I mean, honestly, it's really a classic tool of colonialism which is to say make them fight amongst themselves to be the chosen one. As long as there is infighting that will allow this power structure to continue because we're getting them the others who are not one of us to fight amongst themselves. That's another reason I think it was so great that Asian Author Alliance put this out because, obviously, the Asian Author Alliance is not just Muslims it's very broadly Asian and furthermore the over 1,000 people who sign that are not simply from that alliance. It's people all across the board from all different backgrounds. I think that was important for Abram to see also, which is hey, we're united on this front in believing that this book can harm our children and as authors, as librarians, as teachers, as publishing professionals, as readers we want to say to you don't harm our kids.
Grace: In the letter, the Asian Author Alliance notes that the book came from a countering, violent extremism anthology. I guess the acronyms CVE so what do you know about CVE? I've never heard of this before.
Samira: Yes. Well, CVE is almost used exclusively in the Muslim community. That's why Muslims often or Muslims might be more aware of it than non-Muslims. Basically, it's sort of a counter-propaganda tool used by the government and also by the government aligning themselves with various non-profit organizations or NGOs. The idea is that there's propaganda put out by terrorist organizations to try to groom potential members to radicalize them right. This is supposed to be countering that. Yet it's generally proven ineffectual. The ACLU has sent multiple letters to the government saying this stuff doesn't work. What's more, it's put out in these forms it can be video games, comic books, graphic novels, stories. They are ... I think of it sort of as maybe people have seen those World War II movies where propaganda leaflets are dropped down from airplanes. The flyers fall all over this town. It's sort of like that except done via the internet or via comics. Where the idea is hey, we don't want you to do these bad things and look this is how we're gonna try to stop you.
I mean, this is ineffectual for a few reasons. One is that it's used widely within the Muslim American community in the United States. It actually runs against its purpose because what you're doing is you're taking these stereotypes ... In this case, of A Suicide Bomber Sits in the Library. What you're saying is hey, we're going to depict you as a stereotype, as a troupe, as not even a humanized character who gets a name and then we want you not to do bad things. I mean, so rather than ... It's really counterproductive because it's alienating to the vast majority of Muslims who have nothing to do with any terrorist organization.
Again, we've seen this year and in the past years, even the Department of Justice and various other governmental organizations have said the FBI have said that look, the biggest threat of terrorism right now in the United States is white supremacist. Yet they don't use CVE against ... They don't deploy that within white supremacist communities. Instead, its widely used against the Muslim American community in this country and it's creators are just so far removed from that actual community and that's what, for example, suicide bomber sits in the library is a perfect example of. I don't even know why Abrams is deciding that they should have called this from a CBE anthology and want to decimate basically propaganda. That was some choice that they made. I don't know what their internal decision-making process is but that's part of why we wrote this open letter which is to ask them to please think about it. These kind of things are just super alienating. They just perpetuate stereotypes. They have no real relationship to the community that they're trying to affect.
Moreover, I mean, there was a study put out by I think it was the Danish Institute of International Studies. I can't remember the exact name of it but one of the things they said was the biggest issue with CBE is there is no data to show that it works. The government has poured millions and millions of dollars into this and this started before ... This is going back a number of years. It's not just this current administration it happened under Obama too and Bush as well. They're pouring millions of dollars into something that's totally ineffective. If you're trying to use this in communities that are outside of the American Muslim community which by in large is not radicalized at all. Zero percent radicalization within almost.
If you're trying to use it in the Middle East I mean, it's just bares so many hallmarks of people who have no understanding of why people move towards violence. It's just a gross oversimplification. It doesn't take into consideration what would even want to make a person go down the avenue of being a suicide bomber which by the way is an infinitesimal number of human beings. It doesn't take into account hey, these centuries-long effects of colonialism of socioeconomics of geopolitics or the way borders have been created. What it means for the United States to go in and essentially carpet bomb your country into back to the iron age or whatever it is. Then expect you to be happy about it. I mean, it just it is I guess it's this classic [inaudible 00:38:02] mentality but I have no idea why Abrams would think hey, this is something that we should put out into Americans. This book is I assumed written by white people aimed at white people to feel good about themselves.
Grace: It's just because I had never heard of CBE before I just followed somebody's tweet thread. G. Willow Wilson who is a comic creator and I thought one of her tweets was so poignant to me. She said, “The absolute best thing you can do to prevent terrorism has nothing to do with art. The best thing you can do to prevent terrorism is to elect leaders who do not bomb countries into rubble leaving its youth with three career choices. Refugee, extremist or corpse.”
Samira: I mean, that's a wonderful and very poignant. Totally on point.
Grace: I thought that was really interesting because as creators and especially book people we all have this kind of idealism that books can change lives. What we do is so important. It is but maybe not the way we think.
Samira: Well, books can change lives and books have power and this is one of the things we wrote in our letter also. I mean, we basically started it as saying, hey, we believe books can change lives. We believe in the importance of literacy. To put this graphic novel out there and try to say that hey, this kid who was sitting as A Suicide Bomber in a Library was illiterate which by the way literacy and violence are not necessarily related at all. I guarantee you if you're looking at ... If you looked at the 911 terrorist they were all literate. I mean, many of them highly so because they'd been educated with degrees in western universities from western universities.
I mean, this whole book is just I mean, it's just a terrible oversimplification. Reading one book or just suddenly realizing that books exist which is apparently this kid who's the suicide bomber in the graphic novel never knew that books existed or never even knew that the concept of story. I mean, it's again, it's such this western concept that somehow the rest of us have no canon. There was no non-western literary canon. There's no centuries- long oral traditions that exist in societies outside of the west. I mean, it's just ... Sorry, go ahead.
Grace: No, no, no. I was just thinking maybe it's not so much that books are can or cannot change lives. It's the idea is that if we're saying that books are powerful enough to save lives, to help people then we also have to recognize that books are powerful enough to harm people and to really hurt a whole segment of the population.
Samira: I mean, that's something we address right away in the letter as well which is that we believe that books can have power. Art is powerful but at the same time, you have to understand that it's not always the power for good. I mean, when a book is littered with damaging stereotypes. When it comes from a place of bigotry or close-mindedness it obviously can do terrible damage. When we're putting books out for kids I think it's so important for us to consider that. We bear this huge responsibility. I mean, think about when you were a kid and if you remember something bad that someone said to you. Or, the first time you heard someone say something racist to you. Or, the first time a teacher might've said something mean to you. Those are things that are crystallized in our mind.
We remember that one incidence so much more than we remember 1,000 good interactions we might've had. I'm sure you can remember the first time someone called you a racist name but you might not remember all the time's somebody said something kind to you. That's the same way we think about with books. When a kid is presented this book as creators and especially in children's literature we have to think about this. What is the lasting impression that we're giving to this child? From the suicide bomber sits in the library the impression that we're leaving them is you're a terrorist who doesn't even get to have a name.
Grace: Yes. I mean, when you're talking about harmful books I still have nightmares about my first interaction with The Five Chinese Brothers. How afterwards the kids would tease me and say, “I bet we could blind you with dental floss.” You're right. That's not even half as bad as the suicide bomber books. I think you're right these books have an everlasting effect.
This book was published two years ago actually in an amnesty international anthology. The anthology was actually highly praised and touted as a teaching tool. I've seen some Facebook posts that were written before this uproar by highly respected librarians who had read The galley and loved the book and they were saying things like, suicide bomber sits in the library as a work of art. Or, Jack Gantos has created an amazing story of hate and redemption. What do you think of those reactions?
Samira: I mean, I'm guessing those were white librarians. That's my guess. Who were praising it and also I mean, I do think in ... Look, like I said before I do think libraries are the cornerstone of our democracy but we also have to ... We can't fantasize what the power of a library is to change an entire political policy in our country which is bombing countries that maybe didn't even bear responsibility for the attacks that we claim we're bombing them for. I mean, a library is not gonna be able to change that. I can see why ... Look, we do in a way romanticize the concept of literacy in books.
Again, I'm a writer so I believe in the power of art and I believe in the power of books. I believe in the incredible importance of our libraries. I also believe that all of those things can have a deleterious effect when they're used in a harmful way. When someone is praising you, of course, you wanna take that praise. What this book is saying is libraries are going to prevent people from being terrorists. I mean, like I said it's just such a gross oversimplification and I wish people would understand the nuance or the complexity that isn't addressed in this book at all.
Grace: What would you say to ... Say you were at a conference sitting next to a very well respected librarian who suddenly says, "Have you read this book A Suicide Bomber Sits in the Library? It was amazing. I'm gonna teach it in my class I think it's gonna change everyone's lives or something like that." What would you say?
Samira: I would say this idea that we believe that books build empathy I would ask them to consider if they have the ability to have any empathy for students of color, for Muslim kids in their classroom? To understand what it means to be presented a book by a white teacher by non-Muslim that is standing before you and saying, "Hey, look at this. This dehumanized kid this terrorist is sitting in a library. Look, I'm gonna give him a book and it's gonna change everything."
I mean, I had this teacher after my book Love, Hate, and Other Filters came out, which addresses this homophobia, I had a teacher in Iowa a white man who emailed me and he said, "I actually have a number of refugee kids in my class and some of them are Muslim. It wasn't until I read a scene in your book where there's an act of domestic terrorism that occurs and before they pinpoint the suspect the main character." A Muslim girl, in my book, Mia, is saying to herself God, I hope it's not Muslim. I hope this person isn't Muslim. How terrible she felt. She felt horrible that this happened and that people died which is something that we all feel right. Then she had this other burden of saying, God please don't let it be a Muslim who did this.
That teacher said to me, "I never thought about what it would be like to be in the classroom and hear this and to be a Muslim kid or to be a brown kid." Or, you could also add to be a black student and seeing any of these acts of violence against the black community and hearing about that and being the one in the classroom who then has to hear those victims be demonized. I was shocked because I was thinking how did you never think about that before. Your the teacher that's part of your job. Okay, this guy was at least willing to say to me hey, I never did that thank you. I never realized this thank you for letting me realize this or helping me realize it.
What I would ask these teachers and librarians is please open your mind to realize these situations that you are creating in your classroom. I mean, I said I think we were recently on a panel at MTT together and I gave this other little anecdotes where I ... When I go to schools I sometimes share my experiences with this homophobia. When you're called names by racists they're not pleasant names. A lot of times it contains swear words. I usually always ask the school permission-
Samira: A lot of times, it contains swear words, and I usually, with the school's permission ... I mean, I say to them, "I have this story I'm going to tell. There's a swear word in it," and almost every school is like, "Yeah, it's fine. Obviously, you're relating an Islamophobic incident. We don't expect it to be all rainbows and glitter and sunshine." But, one school said, "No, we would like you not to do that," and I just said to them, "I bet you teach Huck Finn, though, don't you?", and they did.
So, what they're saying is that a book is in their curriculum, is in canon probably for decades in their school which uses the N-word 50 times, but me here, an individual, speaking about my own experience as a child where I was called some racist names by a white male adult, that's a bridge too far. Meanwhile, in your classroom, this white teacher is going to be standing in front of these kids, and it was a school with a pretty diverse student population, and it's going to teach a book that is saying the N-word 50 times without considering what that can do to kids who are hearing it. I mean, I guess I could share those stories.
Grace: Yes. Abrams released a statement that they'll be pulling the book. In their statement, they said, "We recognize the harm and offense felt by many at a time when stereotypes breed division rather than discourse." How do you feel about that statement?
Samira: I mean, I think that statement is just almost comical in its stupidity. I mean, I'm sorry. This is very harsh to say, but to claim that there was ever a time where stereotypes led to [inaudible 00:49:46] discourse is absolutely absurd. I don't know where in history we've thought, "Hey, you know what we should do? Let's just publish books with damaging stereotypes," which they're claiming, "Hey, we're publishing a book with stereotypes in here because we want to promote positive discourse," again, completely taking out the idea that Muslims exist and are actually human beings, that brown kids exist and are actually human beings. We're going to use you as a tool so that white people can have a conversation and feel good about ourselves. That's what that's saying to me.
I don't know when in human history they thought we've had a successful discourse based on stereotypes. Stereotypes are used in racist propaganda. They've been used in every war. They have been used forever, and they're used as a tool of oppression, as a tool of othering, as a tool of violence. I don't know when they've been used to promote positive discourse. That is just so grossly irresponsible for Abrams to even put out there. Furthermore, for them ... This is clearly not even an apology.
What they're saying is, they recognize the harm and offense felt by other people. They recognize that people are offended. They don't recognize that they're the ones who are being offensive. They take no responsibility for publishing this book, choosing to publish a book that contains stereotypes even while they say, "Yes, we know we were publishing a book that contains stereotypes maybe that would offend you." I [crosstalk 00:51:16] incensed about it.
Grace: Do you find it telling that Abrams is now saying that this is an adult graphic novel, even though the preview was treated by their children's division?
Samira: Yeah, I thought that was interesting. All the sneak peak, the Tweets, etc. were all put out by Abrams Kids and then in their, I think it was like a three-sentence or four-sentence explanation of why they were pulling the book, they suddenly referred to it as an adult graphic novel. Well, number one, that doesn't make it better. Somehow, do you think having racist stereotypes in an adult graphic novel is somehow okay? No, it's not. Number two, it's totally disingenuous. I mean, they know who Tweeted it out. They know why people were in an uproar based on what they put out in social media.
In social media, they have a children's book author being lauded by them via their children's book imprint. To them to come out and say, "Oh, all of you were wrong," this is basically like trying to put shade on those of us who were saying, "Hey, this book contains damaging stereotypes that could hurt kids." Well, you have a graphic novel where the characters are children, and you have an author who's a children's book author, a prize-winning children's book author, your social media arm of the children's book imprint marketing this book, and then you somehow are throwing shade on the people who are saying, "Well, this shouldn't be a children's book."
Well, it shouldn't be a book at all, probably, in the first place, what they should have considered in their gate-keeping process, but I just see that as a total deflection. Again, this isn't the first time they've done that, and the statement that they put out over the Thanksgiving weekend so that it would apparently get buried, they put out on their Tumbler. They didn't even put out the whole statement on their Twitter. When I initially saw it, I didn't see it on their website either. They just pulled the material from their website.
Grace: Yeah, the Tweets disappeared and everything.
Samira: Yeah, so no surprise there. I mean, it's just a total cop-out. It's not even close to an actual apology, and it doesn't seem to show them taking responsibility or even being reflective of their decision-making process. The illustrator was all over Twitter defending it just the day before. One of the things that he was defending was that, in fact, the kid wasn't illiterate, even though the back copy and everything else they put out say that he was illiterate. I don't know what's happening internally over there, but they really need to just rethink everything, I think.
Grace: What would you want Abrams, or any publisher, to do to make sure something like this doesn't happen again? What would you want them to do in the short-term? What would you want them to do in the long-term?
Samira: The Asian Author Alliance has asked them basically to examine their process. I mean, this doesn't actually have to be a years-long process for them to do so. They need to think about how this got past the first editor, the acquisition's round, how no one said anything internally, raised any red flags or, if internally someone did raise red flags, why were those ignored? That doesn't have to be a month-long process. That's something that they could examine pretty readily.
I think, longer-term, obviously, this shows why publishers and all imprints really need to diversify their staff. Again, we're talking about publishing being 86% white in the executive level. It's the same as these librarians and teachers who are saying this is such a beautiful work of art, etc. They have a right to their opinion, but if they are only coming to it from their own experience, they're never going to see the potential harm a book can do.
Grace: So, what do you think educators and gate-keepers should do to make sure this doesn't happen again?
Samira: I think they need to put themselves in sort of an uncomfortable position. I talk about this a lot when I go to speak, which is ask yourself some uncomfortable questions which is like, how am I perpetuating a system which is holding brown and black children down? How am I perpetuating a system that is othering so many kids in my class, if not in my class, then in the larger American society? I mean, most of our teachers are white. I mean, even this question of teaching Huck Finn, so many schools have banned The Hate U Give because it contains the F-word 50 times.
Huck Finn, which contains the N-word 50 times, the worst word of the English language, like the most horrific word in the English language, that's really taught everywhere. Go back and examine those processes that allowed you to do that and think about everything that you bring into your classroom. Think about what it means to be the white teacher in your class teaching children of color, children from marginalized backgrounds, and what it means for those words to be coming out of your mouth. Your curriculum is ... You have power over your curriculum. Consider how you can use your power and privilege to dismantle a system which is built on bigotry and racism.
Grace: To continue, how do you think other book creators, like authors, can do to help make sure this kind of thing doesn't happen again?
Samira: I mean, I think that's part of the reason why we wrote this letter was to ask Abrams to consider their process, but I think it also will open the eyes of authors out there who ... I mean, I think if you're an author of color, you're already thinking about this stuff so much because you don't want to ... We have to basically be perfect, and it's such a terrible burden. It's that burden we were talking about again because, if you're not ... Everybody ... There's so few books put out with salvation Muslim characters.
At the same time, I want my characters to be flawed because they're human, yet I know the pain you can feel when you think, "Well, this character isn't exactly like me," and you want that mirror so much. I got letters from people who are in their 20s and 30s saying, this is the first time I've seen myself in a book at all. Thank you for doing this. I think authors of color consider these things a lot.
I have in my next book, Internment, I have a very short scene in there with a couple of girls who wear a hijab. I have a few scenes with a couple of girls who wear a hijab, and I don't wear a hijab. I am Muslim, but I still went and gave those sections to be read by people who do wear a hijab to see if I was sort of doing anything that was harmful. Was I perpetuating any stereotypes in these scenes, etc., and that's like within my own community. When we have white authors writing books like this, just do the same work that authors of color are doing.
Grace: I think it's also, going back to the CVE thing and when I was reading the Tweet thread by G. Willow Wilson, she wrote, "I would urge creators, especially minority creators, because they will come to you first for credibility purposes, to research any government or non-profit project with CVE overtones thoroughly before saying yes. Who is the audience? Can you speak to the subject with integrity, etc."
Grace: I think what, in some ways, she's saying to all authors is, remember that your intention does not mean the impact, and I think that is something that a lot of authors forget.
Samira: Oh, yeah. I think, obviously, Abrams forgot it, too, because in this graphic novel, too, it's like, "Well, our intentions were good." , intention doesn't negate impact. In fact, impact is more important than intention because maybe your intentions are good but, nevertheless, you're having a damaging impact on your audience or your readers or the kids who are consuming this media. I think when G. Willow Wilson, that thread was an excellent thread, so I definitely urge everyone to read it because she so succinctly and accurately examined and explained CVE.
It's true that if you're approached about writing something, and that's why she mentioned CVE overtones, you're rarely told, "Hey, this is a CVE anthology. This is a CVE graphic novel," but you have to consider what purpose it's going to be used. How are you going to be used as a tool? You really have to think about that because, again, part of the sort of hedge of [inaudible 01:00:45] structure, part of classic Colonial and tools of oppression are to use people from those backgrounds as shields.
Kirkus does this all the time. Any time they have a review that comes off ... I shouldn't just say Kirkus. Many other organizations [inaudible 01:01:07], too. They might have a review that comes off as misogynistic or homophobic or racist or Islamophobic. They'll say, "Well, we had one, a sensitivity reader from that background" or, "We had one reviewer from that background who reviewed it." They're using those people as tools to shield them from what they put out there. I'm sure Abrams might say the same for this book. "Well, we had ... This was vetted."
Grace: Yes, by sensitivity readers, by all these things.
Samira: Yes. I think we've seen that a couple of times with some recent ... I know this is just from some recent books with Asian-American characters written by sometimes not Asian-Americans. I've seen publishers or imprints say, "Well, we had Asian sensitivity readers" or, "We had a Muslim sensitivity reader" or, "We had this." Well, that's just... One person doesn't represent all, number one. Number two, that still doesn't excuse you from not considering what the impact of your so-called good intentions were, and that's so much the case with this graphic novel.
Grace: Exactly. I don't know Jack Gantos very well. I've only met him once or twice. I don't know Dave Keane, but they seem like very nice people, but I think this is an example of where their intentions may have been really good, but the impact seems very harmful.
Samira: I don't know them either. From their various statements, they seem to really want to talk about building empathy and about the power of art and literature to change lives, but I wish they would've just considered the flip side of the power of art in literature to damage lives, too.
Grace: When we were at NCTE, you listed some challenges that you wished the audience to take. Do you think you could share those now? I think that would be a really nice way to kind of sum up the podcast.
Samira: Sure. NCTE is, just for people who don't know, it's like the annual conference for teachers of English literature, so there's tons of ELA teachers there and that kind of thing. I presented them with three challenges. The first challenge is to question the cultural hegemony, question cultural hegemony. What is the default? What is considered the normative? When you're always considering white the default. To you, normative is white, then think about you're othering other kids. Think about that question I asked about thug versus Huck Finn. Why is Huck Finn using the N-word? The normative, that's a part of our curriculum, but how he kept using the F-word is somehow so terrible.
Number two was to disrupt the exclusionary status quo. There is danger in the single story. We talked about that a little bit in this podcast. Think about the books that you're using in your classroom to address issues of racism and bigotry or misogyny. Think about where they're coming from. In the case of Huck Finn, again, I'm going to use this as an example because it's just taught so widely. This book is used, or To Kill a Mockingbird is often used as the only text to have a conversation about racism.
Think about why that is and how terrible that is and why you're not having any authors of color. Why are there no black authors in those books you're using to address these same issues? You're continuing teaching these, and you're perpetuating the status quo, and you are excluding so many great texts and writers who could maybe better address these issues.
Finally, my last challenge, and I think this is a great challenge for anyone, is don't be a bystander. Be an upstander, which means, "Yeah, you're going to have to put yourself in an uncomfortable position because you, as a person who has privilege and power, need to use your power to better your classroom, to better your library, to better the world or the situation you're in. That's the purpose of having power. That's what the incredible privilege of that power will give you is to speak up in a situation where kids are being harmed.
Asian Author Alliance put this out because we felt like, "Hey, you know what? We have the ability to maybe garner a little attention, to maybe get some signatures on this, to maybe raise awareness about what this can do." Not all of us are Muslim. Not all of us are what the kids in this graphic novel are, which is depicted in sort of vaguely Middle Eastern or South Asian or whatever. Nevertheless, we have a place from where we can speak, and we're going to use the power that we have to speak, and I really urge teachers and librarians and writers to use that power. Maybe it's going to make you uncomfortable, but imagine the discomfort that our kids of color, our kids from LGBQT backgrounds live with every day.
Grace: Yes, I agree. That's kind of what keeps me going even though, like I said, I get jealous of my colleagues who get to do more on the fringes.
Samira: Absolutely. You want them to come out of the fringes. That's what being an upstander is. Step out of the fringes and use your power and privilege to dismantle privilege.
Grace: Definitely. Okay, I have the last two questions of the podcast. These are the last two questions that I ask everybody who comes on, so they won't be related to what we've been talking about. The first question that I always ask is just, what are you working on now that you'd like the audience to know about?
Samira: Well, my next book is coming out in March 2019, and it's called Internment. That book is set in sort of a near-future America. We call it Fifteen Minutes into the Future where there's an authoritarian president who enacts, what I call, exclusionary laws which are seeking to strip away rights from Muslim American citizens.
As part of that, an extension of that, he creates the first internment camps for Muslim Americans, and that's obviously based on real-life historical things that have happened in America because we had internment camps during World War 2 for Japanese Americans, and we have internment camps now for refugee children. We say it's that Fifteen Minutes in the Future, but that future is basically here.
Grace: I was going to say, the fifteen minutes, I think we're maybe like five minutes in the future.
Samira: I know, I know. When I first wrote it, the idea came to me in 2015 when I think I wrote the first chapter in January 2016. Yes, we're moving ever closer to that future. I would prefer if this could be squarely in the category of dystopia that could never happen. Unfortunately, that's not the case. That's coming out March 2019.
Grace: Great! The last question is, like I said the question I ask everybody who comes on, and this is, what is your biggest publishing dream? We ask this question with the idea that we don't want to be ashamed of our ambition. So many of us are ashamed to say what we really want, and we want to kind of break that ...
Samira: Especially if you're an Asian woman, right? It's like having ... We're not supposed to express our ambitions too loudly, I guess. I would love two things. I would love my books, especially my next book, Internment, to be published in dozens of languages. I would like this book to be in every country that sells books because I think that there's a lot of places that will not publish my books because of Islamophobia. I literally know this because publishers, four language publishers, have basically said this because it's hard for them sometimes to see Muslims as sympathic characters, and I would love for this book to be everywhere.
I'd like to be one of the Muslims that wins the National Book Award. There's really ... I don't know if there's ever been one for a young adult, for a children's novel. I'll say that. I just thought of that now, so I will put that out there. Just ask me to like [crosstalk 01:09:46].
Grace: No, I think that's awesome! I think you should. I hope you do. I will root for you for next year.
Samira: Thanks so much, Grace.
Grace: Thank you so much for coming on. I really appreciate it.
Samira: Take care. Thanks so much for having this great conversation.