Last year, when book publisher Simon & Schuster announced the launch of Salaam Reads — a children’s book imprint that would put out Muslim-focused picture and chapter books — Mexican-American writer and poet Mark Gonzales’s “Yo Soy Muslim: A Father’s Letter To His Daughter” was among its first acquisitions.
The 32-page picture book by Gonzales would address his own real-life daughter, Sirat — depicted beautifully by the illustrator Mehrdokht Amini — whose existence bears many qualifiers: Muslim, Latino, Tunisian, and American. At the time of the announcement, then Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump had been making headlines for leading an increasingly successful campaign on a platform that was clearly engineered to exploit and stoke anti-Muslim and anti-Mexican sentiments. Salaam Reads suddenly felt particularly symbolic, and Gonzales’s contribution to its catalog felt especially significant. Gonzales started fielding questions from friends and journalists — was this book a response to the Trump era?
“I was like, ‘No,’” says Gonzales. “This was written before. [Trump’s] got more than enough press and publicity and has been given way more attention than he should be at this moment anyway. I refuse to let him be in the center of my daughter’s narrative.”
“Yo Soy Muslim,” published this week, is written in elegant verse, each phrase an affirmation intended for Gonzales’ daughter, as well as those like her: young Muslim children growing up in America. “Dear little one,” he writes. “…know you are wondrous, / A child of crescent moons, / a builder of mosques, / a descendant of brilliance, / an ancestor in training…”
The book’s title, which translates to “I am Muslim,” is inspired in part by an epic poem “Yo Soy Joaquin” written in 1969 by Chicano boxer, poet, and political activist Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales. The original poem, says the “Yo Soy Muslim” author, was a declaration of self for the Chicano community that said, “We’re not Hispanic, we’re not Spanish, we’re not immigrants… We’ve always been here, and we predate invasion and we have a culture, and a lineage, and a heritage that comes from that.”
Mark Gonzales’ book deploys a similar declaration, one intended for children growing up in a social context steeped in Islamophobia and xenophobia. “Yo soy Muslim,” reads his poem, “Our prayers were here / before any borders were.” In this way, his book is not a reaction to the Trump era, but a reclamation of identity. “How does one navigate a world in which you come out of the womb and you have an experience of love… around parents who give you love, but then you’re in a society that often sends you signals that maybe you aren’t loved here, and maybe you aren’t welcome here?” says Gonzales.
I was always around stories, but I never saw myself in the stories.
The U.S. certainly feels like hostile territory for the Muslims who reside here. In the past year, anti-Muslim incidents arose by 91%. Last June, a 17-year-old black Muslim girl was kidnapped and killed at the end of a night spent at a Virginia mosque; Muslim women wearing headscarves are particularly vulnerable to harassment and violence. The sitting president has actively pursued the implementation of a ban against people from Muslim-majority countries entering the country. Mosques around the U.S. have been subject to attacks and vandalism, including a Minnesota mosque that was targeted by an explosive device this past August. In this environment, to be visibly Muslim is a health hazard, a target on your back, and many Muslims feel compelled to keep their faith hidden. To declare, “Yo soy Muslim,” then, becomes an act fraught with political implications, which is why it was so important for Gonzales and his wife, Soraya Hosni, to include it in the book and to read it aloud with their daughter.
“One of the most powerful things was for us to say together, ‘Yo soy Muslim,’” says Hosni. “When you read it out loud, you have to repeat it, then it’s like an affirmation, ‘Yo soy Muslim.’ That was something that was so powerful for me to manifest in her life, and I realized it’s because we keep this religion … silent. There’s a very fine line between ‘religion is private’ and ‘religion is silence because you shouldn’t show that you’re Muslim.’”
This compulsion to keep your faith hidden — for fear of ostracism or the threat of harassment — is compounded by the fact that diverse depictions of Muslims are still difficult to find in popular culture and especially in children’s literature. While there are now efforts to diversify film, TV, and literature — efforts largely driven by profits — Gonzales grew up in a culture that never held up a mirror to his face. “I was always around stories, but I never saw myself in the stories,” he says. “It’s what I call the narrative of invisibility or a narrative of demonization.” In the former narrative, there is a lack of images of yourself. In the latter, the only images that exist of yourself are ones of antagonists — terrorists or bigots, oppressors and tyrants.
In her now-famous TED Talk, the Nigerian writer and novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie called this effect “the danger of a single story”: when you show a people “as one thing,” she said, you “flatten” their experiences and “rob them of their dignity.” Dominican-American writer Junot Diaz reiterated a similar idea in an address to students at Bergen Community College. “You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror,” he said. “There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.”
‘Where are you from?’ is often a passport question … You answer it and somehow the person who’s asking it feels they often have the right to veto your answer.
Certainly, Muslims have long been denied reflections of themselves in the media. Already, Gonzales sees his daughter empowered by the image of herself represented in the book. “We shared an excerpt at a gathering, and she went up on stage and was like, ‘My turn. My mic,’” he says. “That’s the power of being the center of your narrative.”
While “Yo Soy Muslim” is an overwhelmingly cheerful book, there are shadowy allusions to difficulties ahead, in both the poetry and the illustrations. In one section, he warns his daughter, “There are questions this world will ask / What are you / and / where are you from?” Sirat, his daughter, will certainly have different answers to that question. Her parents currently live in California, but Hosni and Gonzales also recently purchased an 8,000-square-foot block in Tunisia that they call “The New Medina,” a “purpose-driven” home for themselves and for the local community. It will include a co-working space, art gallery, and incubator space. The family will spend several months of the year there, in Sousse, Tunisia. For Sirat, those questions of lineage will be complicated to answer for someone looking for a single origin point.
“‘Where are you from?’ is often a passport question, and what’s interesting about that question is that you answer it and somehow the person who’s asking it feels they often have the right to veto your answer,” says Gonzales. “‘Where is home?’ is a great question, far more imaginative to me than “where are you from?’”
That latter question, after all, is one that interrogates identity, not personhood. But Gonzales has prepared an answer for his daughter, so she’ll be ready when the time comes:
Top image and share image courtesy of Simon & Schuster.