Aisha Abdel Gawad on Allowing Muslim Characters To Be Messy

Abdel Gawad spoke to Fann about her journey writing “Between Two Moons” and the ways in which she allows her characters to have complexity beyond stereotypes. 

Aisha Abdel Gawad on Allowing Muslim Characters To Be Messy

Fann’s “Fall Into Reading” series spotlights Muslim authors changing the game in children’s literature. Each week, we’ll sit down with a different author to discuss storytelling, representation and what it means to be Muslim in the world of publishing.

Aisha Abdel Gawad’s first novel, “Between Two Moons,” was published on June 6, 2023. Abdel Gawad is an award-winning writer, and has been published in American Short Fiction as well as the scholarly journal The Muslim World in a special issue on Anglophone Muslim women writers. She won a 2015 Pushcart Prize for her short story "Waking Luna.” Abdel Gawad worked at the Arab American Association of New York, a community organization serving the immigrant community in Brooklyn. "Between Two Moons" is based in Brooklyn, inspired by Abdel Gawad’s experience there serving the community. She spoke to Fann about her journey writing “Between Two Moons” and the ways in which she allows her characters to have complexity beyond stereotypes. 

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Fann Staff: What inspired you to become a writer?

Aisha Abdel Gawad: I've always been a writer — when I was little, even before I could write — … but it took me a little while to realize that you could be a writer as a profession. I don't know if it's [just the] immigrant mentality. I thought, “You do something practical to make money,” and that's true, you do, but it took until after I graduated from college [to realize that] the books that I read [were] written by professional writers [and that] it can be a career.

Fann Staff: “Between Two Moons” is your first novel. In your interview with Ms. Magazine, you said that it took a long journey to get it written and then published. What was it like going through that process? 

Aisha Abdel Gawad: It took me a long time for a few reasons. I was pretty young when I started — not that young people can't and don't write terrific first novels, but for me, I think I was really figuring out my voice as a writer. I was also processing my own coming of age as a young Muslim Arab American woman post-9/11. It's something that I wrote about as the main theme of the book, but I needed some time to reflect back on my own coming of age and really clarify to myself what it is that I [wanted] to say in this book.

Then, of course, there are the practical considerations because I work for a living [as] a high school teacher. [It’s] a pretty demanding job that I love very much, but not necessarily conducive to spending a lot of time writing, and then you add the fact that I'm also a mother into the equation. But I hope that the next book will not take me 11 years.

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Fann Staff: You said that you needed some distance from that coming of age process. Was there something that changed drastically for you in thinking about this particular theme?

Aisha Abdel Gawad: I was in ninth grade when 9/11 happened, so I'm old enough to remember a pretty distinct before and after of what it felt like to be Muslim. I think [that] before, a lot of Muslims — especially from Arab or South Asian backgrounds — [operated] under the fallacy of the model minority. That if we just worked hard and got nice, professional jobs and a good education, we could be loved. That's always been a dangerous and pernicious myth, and I think 9/11 destroyed that for a lot of Muslims, because all of a sudden, we were pretty explicitly hated and under suspicion.

I had to watch people, especially the older generation in my life, struggle with that transition. [As] a young person at the time, [I was able to] watch these various amorphous global wars spread right throughout my years. Then, especially when I was in college and right after graduating college in New York, [I felt] the surveillance of Muslims without being able to prove it. We were feeling that we were being watched but wondering, “Are we crazy or are we paranoid? Is it real?” It was a lot for me to string all that together into a cohesive narrative for myself.

Fann Staff: I know that for a lot of writers, especially in a fictional novel that explores real issues, there’s sometimes the challenge of portraying it in a way that feels real. Did you come up against that obstacle?

Aisha Abdel Gawad: There was a lot of trial and error and revision. I wanted to play with the reader a little bit. I wanted to make the reader feel certain in one page like, “Oh, this person! We shouldn't trust them. They're a threat. They're an enemy. They're not good.” And then maybe a couple of pages later, they start to double back and doubt themselves. I created some kinds of red herrings … and also played a little bit intentionally with ambiguity. That's a hard line to toe, because you don't want to be coy and annoying as if you’re dangling a mystery in front of the reader. But I did want to include some intentional ambiguity in the book, because part of what I'm exploring is how ambiguous and amorphous these categories really are. You're a terrorist in one context, but you're a freedom fighter in another context. Are you an informant, or are you a criminal? What do these categories mean? And I think that they shift with the political wins. It’s pretty difficult for Muslims in America to try to create any coherent definition for them.

Ultimately, my book celebrates the strength that [the characters'] faith gives them.

Fann Staff: This is such a universal sort of topic, feeling that paranoia. In my conversations with Muslim creators so far, I've had some interesting discussions about the idea of representation. There is sometimes another kind of paranoia where, when you're writing, you start to think about whether or not your work represents other people, or whether you have to represent other people. Did you come up against that while you were writing “Between Two Moons?” How did you navigate it?

Aisha Abdel Gawad: I think it's a really difficult task for creators of any sort of marginalized background. I definitely have wrestled with that. Of course, I want young Muslims and Arabs — or older Muslims and Arabs, for that matter — to read my work and feel represented. I want things to resonate with them. I want to be saying something that they've been feeling but haven't seen reflected back. I want all of that. But at the same time, as an artist, I can't be bound by it. It's possible that some Muslims who've heard about my book may not want to read it right because they hear, “Oh, I heard the characters curse. I heard some of these characters drink alcohol. Oh, I heard, there's some sex and there's some sexual violence. This is a bad representation of Muslims.” 

That's something that I just had to be okay with, that some people weren't going to give it a shot. And I think that if they did give it a shot, they would see that, yes, I have some characters who are complicated, who are flawed and are struggling with things in real time. But ultimately, my book celebrates the strength that [the characters'] faith gives them. It's not a story about characters who are trying to rebel from their oppressive religion. It is, in fact, a story about characters who find refuge in their religion.

Fann Staff: You talked a little bit about the idea that if you prove that you are good, people will accept you. Is that something that you wanted to specifically explore in the novel, showing that some of these characters still feel that way?

Aisha Abdel Gawad: I think we see it in a couple of different ways. In the book, the older generation — the parents and the grandparents and the uncles and the aunties — are still stuck in a mentality where they think it's possible to prove themselves as worthy Americans. “Only we can show that we're not dangerous, if only we can show that we're good.” The younger characters in the book are fed up with that. For them, there's no proving or winning — [we cannot prove] that we're good, that we're moderate, that we're whatever the American State or the wider American public wants us to be. 

In terms of the Muslim community and being “good Muslims,” I really wanted to show teenagers being ordinary teenagers. Of course, not all Muslim teenagers drink or date; I'm not trying to represent everyone. But I wanted to allow them the freedom to be adolescents, and adolescence is a messy time. I really wanted to let them be messy and still be Muslim, and to be able to be [in the process of] growing up and questioning themselves just like any other teenager does.

I think being surrounded by teenage girls every day for my teaching career helps me remember what it feels like to be a teenage girl.

Fann Staff: As a high school English teacher. I'm sure you've seen a lot of teenagers and their journeys up close. Was there something that you took from your teaching experience into writing this novel and these characters?

Aisha Abdel Gawad: Not one specific thing. I teach in a pretty different context [at] a fairly affluent private school in Connecticut, all girls. I'm writing about more working class brown kids in Brooklyn. It's a fairly different population. But teenage girls are teenage girls, right? There are a lot of universal themes, and I think being surrounded by teenage girls every day for my teaching career helps me remember what it feels like to be a teenage girl.

One thing I really love about them is they are so honest with their emotions. I think they kind of cycle between two extremes. There are times when teenage girls like to hurl their emotions out for the world, and they wear it on their sleeves, and they just hope that someone is going to catch what they're giving. Oftentimes, the world does not respond kindly, and then they withdraw and build barriers. That's a cycle that I wanted to reflect in these two twin girls that sometimes they're like, “Look at me, world! Here I am, love me,” and then the world doesn't love them. Then you see them retreat and heal. That's a dance that I see a lot in my students.

Fann Staff: What is your most hated trope about Muslims in the media?

Aisha Abdel Gawad:  Oh my gosh! So many, so many. Number one is that there is something unique about Islam or about Islamic cultures that oppresses women, especially because it's not untrue, but it's as if it doesn't apply to white Christian culture in the United States, for example. It shows up in different ways, but it’s still similar, so that comparison really tires me. In a similar vein, [I’m really annoyed by] the expectation that Muslim men — in particular, Muslim fathers — are going to be aggressive, domineering, unfeeling, perhaps even violent. That's another one that gets old for me pretty fast.

Fann Staff: Who is a current Muslim author or creator whose work you're inspired by? 

Aisha Abdul Gawad: It's been really exciting to see how many more diverse representations of Muslims are out there. In terms of authors, I really love Kamila Shamsie, a British Pakistani writer. She’s done some really tremendous work. There are a lot of cool young poets right now — Yemeni American poet Threa Almontaser, whose work I'm really getting into; Solmaz Sharif, who's an Iranian American poet; Fatimah Asghar, Safia Elhillo … And then, of course, I feel like we're having a real moment in TV, too. I'm still not over shows like “Ramy” (2019 – ) and “Mo” (2022 – ); that they exist and people watch them. I think we're in a very exciting moment.

I really wanted to let [my characters] be messy and still be Muslim.

Fann Staff: You mentioned “Ramy” and “Mo,” but when you were growing up, was there a moment where you read something or saw a character and thought “that’s me?”

Aisha Abdel Gawad: Yes, definitely. I think it took a while until I read anything by Arabs or Muslims. I don't think anything was taught to me in high school, or younger, by Arabs or Muslims. I was given that by family members, but in school I don't think that came until I was in college. My mom is the first person who gave me Ahdaf Soueif’s books. She's an Egyptian writer who writes primarily in English. And I remember that being a real moment like, “Oh my gosh! An Egyptian woman writer!” And of course, there are so many [writers] who are wonderful, but that was a door opening for me.

Fann Staff: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers?

Aisha Abdel Gawad: Yes, lots. Especially if you're from a marginalized background, or if you're Muslim, it can almost feel like a derogatory label to be a Muslim writer, like that's all you do. You might be good, but only for a Muslim writer, right? That's something that I’ve definitely struggled with. And I think that lots of creators have struggled with that, so much so that sometimes I think they intentionally write a book that isn't about Muslims so [they] can prove that [they’re] a writer, not just a Muslim writer.

I would say to let that go. It can be a real limitation and a mental roadblock. Embrace the fact that you can write from your own unique perspective and still be universal, and trust that your readers out there will read you as universal and not pigeonhole you as just a writer for Muslims.

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