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Ausma Zehanat Khan: If the devils of our imagination are let loose in politics, what can literature do? Add to ...

This last election cycle in the United States was an ugly one for all minorities, but as a Muslim woman on the brink of American citizenship, I had my own reasons to fear its impact. I am no stranger to being perceived as someone fundamentally different and alien, without the desirable values that civilized people hold in common – a phenomenon known as Othering.

As a writer who explores and interrogates my own reality through the vehicle of a Canadian Muslim detective solving crimes, I wonder if the work I’ve done in the past few years – the books I’ve written, the public talks I’ve given or my written commentary on issues that affect Muslim communities – have altered the lens at all. Have I succeeded in humanizing myself or my community to my readership or my public-speaking audience?

My largely older, nearly all-white audiences interact with me enthusiastically in person and online and I feel reassured, believing in our capacity to find a way to empathize with each other. They often inform me that I’m the only Muslim they’ve ever met. I feel the pressure of that keenly: a role of responsibility, of ambassadorship, a need to get it right because so much depends on my ability to deconstruct this perception of the dangerous, unwanted Other.

When the anti-Muslim election rhetoric amped up and unthinkable proposals became mainstreamed – banning all Muslims from the United States, proposing a religious test for refugees, sending American Muslims to internment camps – I committed myself to giving as many talks as possible before the election, in the hopes that the sight of an engaged and approachable Muslim woman might change minds or swing votes, or through the combined power of literature and advocacy speak to our common humanity. I supported the work of bright, articulate, immensely optimistic and often very funny community advocates such as Wajahat Ali, Dalia Mogahed and Linda Sarsour, knowing that in this process of rehumanizing ourselves, every one of our voices was needed.

Despite this work, and this civic engagement has been the work of years not months, I was blindsided by the election results. The Donald Trump presidency, with its contemptuous disregard for the civil rights of minorities, is now assured, in defiance of the common good. So as a writer, I ask myself: If the devils of our imagination are let loose in politics, what can literature do? What must it do? The Arab writer, Abdelrahman Munif, was asked what the purpose of the novel is and he responded: “The novel must be about something, it must flee certitudes, it must reread the status quo.” To his list, I add that it must insist on complexity and nuance, it should reflect a plurality of voices, no matter how challenging the task. Otherwise, the lens is skewed, exclusive, privileging some lives and experiences above others.

After the election results were in, I turned to an online community of writers who were repurposing the hashtag #ownvoices. Writers, agents and editors were calling for greater diversity in publishing, to speak to this electoral moment. Be heard. Self-represent. Refuse to be Otherized was the theme of this reawakening.

I was also heartened to find a strong community of YA authors sharing their own lessons. For all the trending topics of “Mourning in America,” “Not My President,” “Fight Like Hell” or “The Audacity of Hopelessness,” the YA community was urging each other on to redemptive acts of kindness. Tell our stories, teach the next generation of kids what it is to accept, respect and even admire difference. Teach them not to fear or suspect the Other. And for all the kids we knew, who had already experienced the phenomenon of being rejected or diminished or abased, YA authors of all stripes were urging each other to tell stories that reassure our kids, that humanize and empower them. If you don’t hear our stories in our own voices, what can you know about our humanity?

I was flooded with phone calls and messages after the election – the anxious Muslim parents of anxious Muslim children, some my own nephews and nieces, asking the question: What do we do now? And all over social media and in real life, our community organizers and activists were reflecting on next steps: How do we tell our children not to be afraid when we ourselves are so afraid, so discouraged, so disheartened?

What can we do about our Otherness, our mixed and mingled identities? My friend, the author Saladin Ahmed, wrote of wrestling with what to tell his black Arab children the morning after the election. My 19-year-old niece wrote an articulate Facebook post about her fears, but still needed reassurance that she’d humanized herself sufficiently. I came across a photograph of a school vandalized with Nazi graffiti; it promised to make America white again. It was my nephew’s school and I checked in to see how he was faring before I learned it was a case of mistaken identity: it was the college of that name, not the high school. No real consolation: What of the students who actually attend that college? Or my other nephew who switched schools partly because of relentless anti-Muslim racism? Was white America waking up to these questions and fears, answering their children’s questions about racism, deportation and internment?

As a writer, I am fully engaged in the process of humanization. My Canadian Muslim detective, Esa Khattak, is a flawed man but a good one, deeply inspired by the values of his faith. He faces suspicion, contempt and fear because of who he is, but he also has allies who see past the Otherizing demagoguery and bluster. They see him as a whole person, one they admire and respect. Such is the power of literature that my readers identify with Esa and root for him more than they do for any of my other characters.

In the era of Trump’s America, I wonder how long that will last.

Ausma Zehanat Khan is the author of The Language of Secrets, The Unquiet Dead and Among the Ruins, which will be published in February. She lives in Colorado.

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