DiversifYA: Sumayyah Daud

SumayyahSumayyah Daud is a PhD-student, YA Highway-er, and author of BEGIN AGAIN (Dutton), out in the near future. She enjoys writing stories about selfish girls, violent girls, and witchy girls (not just those, but they’re what’s most current). Sumayyah is represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette at EMLA, and we’re absolutely delighted to have her here at DiversifYA today! Follow her on Twitter and on Tumblr.

1. How do you identify yourself?

I always tells this story of when I was six and my sisters and I were arguing about what our primary/most important identity was: Arab or Black? When we asked our dad (who is Black) he looked at us and said: You’re Muslim. And that’s sort of how I’ve always identified – my religious identity comes first (though maybe you wouldn’t know it from my sailor’s mouth) and my ethnic/racial identities come in not secondarily, but attached to that. They feed each other. So to sum up, I identity as a Muslim Black and Arab American (that is a mouthful).

2. What did it feel like growing up Muslim?

I was in Islamic school from the time I was in PreK all the way through the eighth grade (with the exception of the 2nd grade which — they tried to put me in ESL so that was an experiment that ended fairly quickly quickly, haha). But all that is to say, that in a lot of ways I was extremely lucky in that I grew up surrounded by kids and parents that looked like me, had the same experiences (either converted parents or immigrant parents or both). The area in Maryland and DC where I grew up is fairly heavily Muslim so there are Hijabis and bearded dudes everywhere. Being Muslim TM was not really a question or dilemma or anything for me until 9/11 happened and even then people weren’t as fascinated by it until I went to college. And then being Muslim was not so much a problem for me as it was for the people I went to classes with (not always, not every one of them. But ask me why I didn’t get a second degree in women’s studies, haha).

3. What are the biggest challenges? Conversely, what are the quirks/perks?

Really the biggest challenge is two fold: people always want to save me, and people approach me with a lot of very Firmly Held Beliefs re: my life and deep secret longings. I once had to tell someone ‘being Muslim doesn’t mean we can’t like robots’ (we gave the world algebra, do you really think we are not gonna get on the robotics train?). I wear hijab and I’m fairly quiet so I can always tell when people are shocked that my English is better than theirs (or that I speak English? Despite having been born in this country). And of course there are the thinly veiled ‘so does your dad/husband/uncle/shadowy authority figure make you wear the hijab’ statements. Perks! The Muslim community has its faults, but its nice to know that I’ve got a community, which is literal life’s blood for a lot of us, that is not geographically limited. I could drop almost anywhere into the world and find a mosque and see women who dress like me and get a fundamental part of my experience. And I know that maybe seems silly, but feeling alienated is so detrimental to your mental health, especially on the scale I think a lot of people of color end up feeling because of how very white most cultural discourse is. So knowing that’s there always is a pretty great comfort. Also my hijab combined with chronic resting bitch face usually gets people to leave me alone. 😉

4. What do you wish people knew about being Muslim?

Mmmm. First that we’re people with a lot of agency. Especially as a Muslim woman this is something I wish people understood, or took the time to think about. Honestly, whatever problems you think I encounter as a Muslim woman in my community or from outside of my community, I already know about them. I’m well educated and thoughtful, and so are a lot of Muslim women and we don’t need anybody to come in and try to fix our problems (people trying to fix our problems is how you have that whole mess in the Middle East). And following that, being Muslim doesn’t automatically exclude any number of identities or experiences. “Well she can’t because she’s Muslim” is a thing I hear a lot and I wish I didn’t because it’s so limiting and so very, very wrong.

5. What are the biggest cliches/stereotypes you’ve seen?

Oh man. Do you have five hundred million years. Muslim girl falls in love with white boy; said white boy saves her. (Muslim girls fall in love with white boys all the time, a good chunk of those white boys are also Muslim. Muslim girls are not saved by white boys. Sorry. Thanks.) Muslim girl conflicted about the hijab, leaves family behind for New Modern Life. (Lots of Muslim girls are conflicted about hijab. Lots of Muslim girls also like the hijab. The hijab is not automatically Not Modern.) Muslim girl fleeing the Taliban. (I’ve got to tell you, as a Muslim woman living in the United States the NSA and CIA terrify me a hell of a lot more than the Taliban.) Muslim Girl in Arranged Marriage. (Listen. This is straight up one of my favorite tropes. But Americans want to act like a) Muslim girls have no agency. And b) like they understand how arranged marriages outside of the Western world work [yo, Western arranged marriages are a nightmare. I see why you fear them. But also thanks for your totalizing world view].) Tragic Muslim Girl in Burka. (Do I need to elaborate?)

BONUS: What is your advice for writers writing diverse characters?

My number one piece of advice for writing diverse characters, I think, is to be humble. Accept you will make mistakes, accept not every one can always help you (for a lot of reasons, foremost being that it is not always a burden people want to take on), accept you are not always going to get it right. And when people tell you you’ve done wrong accept that perhaps how a member from that group feels outweighs the intentions you started with when you wrote your Very Diverse Book. And then go back and try to do better.

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