Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow on Black Muslim Representation in Books and Taking Pride in Public Prayer

"There are so many aspects of Muslimness [about which] you can write a story. It's really, really challenging to let that go and to erase those different voices. When I write, I try to remember to write for little me. "

Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow holds her picture book "Abdul's Story"

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.

Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow is the children’s and middle grade author of "Mommy’s Khimar," "Your Name is a Song," and "Abdul’s Story," among others. She made her publishing debut with “Mommy’s Khimar,” which was published under the Simon & Schuster imprint Salaam Reads. Her most recent book, “Salat in Secret,” is about a 7-year-old boy who wants to find a place to pray in the afternoons at his school but struggles with his confidence in being an observant Muslim. Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow spoke to Fann about the inspiration behind “Salat in Secret” and her career as a writer coming from a Black, Muslim and working-class background.

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

When I saw the lack of books that had Black boys — that had Muslim kids, or Black Muslim kids — I wanted to see if I could put my own work in those spaces.

Fann Staff: What inspired you to become a writer?

Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow: I think that's always been in me. I knew since I was a little girl that I wanted to write books, but it was something I just denied for a while. Then I came back to it, you know, writing poetry, always doing some kind of writing. I got into children's book writing because I had my own young children. I found that I loved picture books and that they were really an art form [with] beautiful pieces of writing. I love the way the writing interacts with the artwork.

I was teaching at the secondary level, and I always loved middle grade and YA, but I also found that I could use picture books to broach difficult topics with my students … When I saw the lack of books that had Black boys — that had Muslim kids, or Black Muslim kids — I wanted to see if I could put my own work in those spaces. That inspired me to start [once] I saw that. [Then I realized], ‘Oh, you know, I actually love this. Maybe I could do this and actually start writing them on my own.’

Fann Staff: What was the publishing process like for your debut “Mommy’s Khimar?” What was it like seeing the reaction to it?

Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow: My publishing process for “Mommy's Khimar” was not typical at all. What happened was I started to write, but I pushed off my dream because I just didn't think it was realistic. I was writing these picture books and learning about them, but I wasn't even pursuing the submission process. I think I would have put off submitting my work for a long time had it not been for a good friend being contacted by the publishers at Salaam Reads, who eventually published “Mommy’s Khimar;” they publish a lot of Muslim character books at Simon & Schuster. An editor [there] was seeking out authors and specifically Black Muslim authors. My friend basically threw me in front of this person … and said, ‘Jamilah, go submit your stuff to this editor.’ It wasn't like the first time I pitched her my stuff that it got picked up immediately, but it was picked up pretty quickly. 

That is not very typical. I submitted it to [the editor] first, then she sent it back to me to be revised, then I submitted a revision and it was accepted, and within months, I was a published author.

The typical process actually happened [for me] after “Mommy's Khimar” [had been published]. I’d had a book deal but was like, ‘How do you query and get published?’ I had to figure it out after-the-fact.

Fann Staff: I've been speaking to several authors who've had experiences with Salaam Reads and the growing institutional interest in Muslim authors and writers within the publishing industry. How have you seen that evolve over your time as an author? The beginning of your career was also facilitated by Salaam Reads. How do you see the shift towards publishers actively seeking out more Muslim stories and more Black Muslim stories?

Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow:  The bookshelves look different for sure. There are some options [now]. When I first started trying to do this in 2015, I wasn't seeing a lot of Black Muslim–authored books. We have Hena Khan who was doing a lot of [Muslim children’s publishing], as well as Rukhsana Khan, and they continue to publish. I didn't see Black Muslim authors in the traditionally published space, but there were a lot of self-published [books]. Na'ima B. Robert was there, but she is not African American; she's from the U.K., with a South African background. She is of an African immigrant identity, but not African American Muslim. I wasn't seeing a lot of that in the traditionally published space, or really at all. It's still hugely lacking. 

Now, it's evolving to where publishers want different kinds of stories. In the beginning, for Muslim authors, it was okay to just do a khimar story, or a hijab story, like, 'This is a hijab, these are our foods and these are our practices.' They’re still continuing. I'm still writing those.

But it's [also] become a little bit more expansive — I can tell a story where the characters happen to be Muslim, and it's not really just about them being Muslim. We can delve into some things that are a little a little deeper and not so much on the surface. When I think about “Salat in Secret,” I feel like exploring the idea of observant Muslims being nervous about their prayer is a little bit deeper, even if it is very focused on Muslim identity and what that means. It allows me to go to a place that you know only Muslims talk about. You know, I've never really seen that put out in public space.

We’re also able to have stories like “Grounded” [a book co-written with Aisha Saeed, S.K. Ali and Huda Al-Marashi] where the kids just happen to be Muslim but [the story] really isn't about being Muslim, although Muslim identity is very much in it. [While] I wouldn’t say it's fully there, I think there's more acceptance of a wider variety of Muslim stories. 

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Fann Staff: You mentioned that we're not quite there yet in terms of acceptance for expansive Muslim stories. Especially with this current trend of book banning, how do you feel about writing right now with that context in mind?

Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow: It's a little uncomfortable. People tend to talk about book bannings, but they don't know what it’s like. They’re kind of watching as an outsider. They see it as ‘this is good for the author,’ [thinking] that it puts their books out there and that people are going to buy [them] more. I've heard that [people think] that it's a badge of honor when a book has gotten banned. But what isn’t recognized is that this doesn't actually really promote the books of the average author. If you are someone huge, like Angie Thomas or Jason Reynolds, and your books get banned, that's going to really push your book [sales]. People are going to line up,get fired up, buy many copies of your books and distribute them — which they should. It's not like I'm taking anything away from that. [But] your typical, everyday author on the shelf, who has a fan base but not a huge one … that stuff goes under the radar. I've had a couple of books banned. I don't know if I've had more, but I know of two. That stuff slides on the radar, and all it really means is that my books will not be sold or used in those counties or school systems. That just means I'm losing out on money. 

“Mommy's Khimar” was, for example, one of the books that has been banned. It's really hurtful in a way that I didn't expect it to be. When I think about “Mommy’s Khimar,” it’s a very soft and gentle book. There's no gratuitous violence or sex; it’s just a book about a little girl having a fun day.

Then the question becomes, ‘Why are you banning it?’ You're banning me. You’re banning people like me. Because that's really what I'm representing [in my books], me and my identity. So that can feel hurtful because [I wonder] what [they] are saying about people who wear khimars. 

‘Are you trying to ban our existence? Do you not want your kids to know that we exist in the world?’ That's kind of what it [feels like]. It doesn't really help me in any way, it doesn't push my profile. It's just, ‘Oh, the book got banned!’ And why? Why is “Your Name is a Song” banned? It's a book about celebrating names. What are you saying here when you're banning that book?

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Fann Staff: It's definitely very sinister in that erasure that is happening, and I appreciate you sharing that. You mentioned before the way in which writing picture books is an art, and the way in which the words complement the art and the art complements the words. Could you tell me a little bit about the process and navigating writing a picture book in collaboration with an illustrator?

Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow: I have to say, there isn't that much collaboration, which is kind of cool. In a traditional space, you're going to write your words. I might have a few art notes regarding when the words don't really express what's happening in the moment, so the artists would need to know that. Once we pick an illustrator, [they] might do a few initial sketches of characters and I can give feedback. But what we then do as authors is step away from the process and let the artists feel like this is their book. You want them to take ownership. You don’t want to dictate to the artists. You want their artistry and whatever brilliance they want to bring to the book. 

I've heard writers talk about getting out of the hair of the artist and letting them just do their thing. There are different points in time during the process where I get to give feedback, but it's never directly to the artist. It's typically through mediating voices — the art director or the editor — communicating to the artists. I get to give meaningful feedback, but I try not to unless I see something that I think really distorts what I meant. This is the [artist’s] book, and this is their interpretation of the book, and so far that has worked really well. Artists take the time to do their research to really think out the book. [They] surprise me with really powerful artistry. And that's how the collaboration works. It's sort of a backing off and letting them take over and then seeing what they do with your words. It's really a cool process to see what they can do, how they're inspired by [your] words to create something.

Fann Staff: I wanted to ask you specifically about “Salat in Secret.” You mentioned that this is what Muslims talk about amongst themselves, as opposed to something that everybody knows, which is what I thought, too. We've been struggling to find spaces to pray in school forever. Could you talk to me a little bit about that conception of the idea for “Salat in Secret?”

Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow: I do like to try to pick out the story that everyone's talking about, that could be [relatable to] everyone in the community but that no one [has] actually put into a book. That always makes for an interesting book.

[Struggling to find a place to pray] has always been a part of my life, too. Praying in the library, or under the stairwell. When I was at New York University, everyone went under this stairwell. There's a huge backstory to this book. The inspiration really [came when] my father passed away. It [had been] a couple of weeks after he had passed, two years ago [now], and I was having all these great memories of him. One of the things I remember about him is that he was such an unapologetic Muslim. I also remember working on ice cream trucks with him. He did all kinds of jobs like that; he was a cab driver, and he worked on ice cream trucks, and he was a chauffeur, and he delivered packages. Often with those jobs, they made it easy for him to park and go to a masjid if he needed to, but he also sometimes prayed in public. Sometimes I was with him when I was working with him on the ice cream truck and we prayed in public, and I always felt kind of embarrassed about praying in public. This story came out of me thinking about that, but it also came out of the fact that around that time, my youngest child was turning 7, and I was thinking about getting him a prayer rug for his birthday, and I remember thinking, ‘Oh, my dad would love that! He would love to see that.’

So the story came together with the idea of a little boy getting a salat rug on his birthday, and his father's an ice cream truck driver and the little boy really wants to pray all of his five prayers. But he watches his dad who's really observant [when the little boy] is kind of shy about that. That all came together to form this story in my head. The father character in the book is really modeled after my own father.

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Fann Staff: That sounds like such a lovely story and connection you have to the book. I also wanted to ask about “Grounded.” What was it like writing with three other authors for a book? 

Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow: It was a lot. First, it was a lot of fun. It was [also] a lot of communication. That was the thing that needed to happen. That was a little different from the typical writing process — [we were] constantly talking. We needed to meet to talk about chapters with each other to make sure it felt seamless. There was a lot of talking about our ideas and giving feedback and just coming up with silly ideas together. We have a lot of inside jokes about airports that are not funny to anyone else. It took a while because of that communication, but at the same time it was faster in a way, because every time I was writing a chapter, three other people were writing chapters. I think part of what worked is that we all knew each other in some way.

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We had all worked previously on "Once Upon an Eid" — it’s an anthology, so it’s a very different process — but we had some connections that way. We had our own individual friendships; we came together. 

Fann Staff: I wanted to ask you about your two contributions to “Once Upon an Eid” as well, which I thought were so powerful. Could you tell me a little bit about the story you wrote, with the girl who's trying to fit in with one side of her family? It sounds like it was a really personal story for you, as well as the poem you contributed, which was so beautiful in the way it honored your ancestors and the long history of African American Muslims in this country. Could you tell me about the process and conception of those two pieces?

Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow: The short story “Perfect,” which featured Hawa going to visit her family who are Mandingo and are from Guinea, is actually based on an aspect of my identity I don't get to write about a lot. I have felt uncomfortable in some ways writing a lot about being Mandingo because I'm African American and half Guinean immigrant and I grew up in the U.S. I don't speak Mandingo. I don't even really speak French, and so I don't really have a good feel for that side of my culture, but I do remember going in different Ramadans and Eids to the Bronx, where I have a lot of family from my African side of the family. I always felt out of the loop, not really fitting in, so that was my [chance] to explore that aspect of my identity. I actually want to write more stories that go into that. Sometimes when you have different identities, [you] feel displaced from those identities. [It’s hard] to feel confident in writing about them, and so that was my chance to do it. It’s [this idea] of not feeling like the perfect African girl. [Hawa’s] cousin Fanta is not based on anybody in my family, but I could see myself feeling like that, competing with someone like I could fit in with them and just not feeling good enough to be fit in my culture. When I wrote that, it was only going to be that one short story that I was going to do.

When we got the proofs of the stories and I was reading through them, I recognized there were [only] two other Black Muslim stories told, but because we're so expansive, Black Muslim [as an identity can] mean a lot. There was a story about a girl in a convert family, and Ashley Franklin had written that one. There was another story as well, but I saw [those two] and I said, ‘Oh, no, we’ve forgotten a very important community.’ My father was a convert to Islam and he converted in the 1970s. There's a line of African Americans converting back in those times. There were also people who were enslaved and brought here. That is a tradition that is very important to me, too. I grew up as an African American Muslim, and not seeing representation of what it is to like to grow up with that identity really bothered me. I asked Aisha Saeed and S.K. Ali, who were editing the anthology, [if I could] add something to this, because I couldn’t feel comfortable with this being a representation of Eid in a North American context [without] the story of these people in here.

So I wrote this poem. I wanted to depict the different kinds of history, and what it feels like to be of [African American Muslim] heritage today, and what it must have felt like even growing up back then, just pioneering and establishing. And I was also imagining what it felt like to be someone who was enslaved, and what that must have felt like to be aware of Eid and wonder what would be happening to your descendants. That was an emotional poem to write. It's very important to my heart. And so I got to represent both aspects of my identity in “Once Upon an Eid,” which was cool because I so rarely get to do that.

I'm not responsible for the story of a whole people. I'm responsible for my story. I'm telling my story. But when there's such a lack, you do feel that responsibility ... It's a hard thing, because we have to let go of that. We're never going to be authentic enough. We're never going to know enough. 

Fann Staff: You've spoken a little bit about how it is to be a Black Muslim author, and wanting to represent those aspects of your identity. Whenever you're a creator from a marginalized community, it often can feel like, ‘Oh, this needs to represent everyone’ when you're creating. Do you feel that? If so, how do you navigate it? 

Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow: I do, and I have to constantly push that aside because I think that it's important for [me] to remember that I'm not responsible for the story of a whole people. I'm responsible for my story. I'm telling my story. But when there's such a lack, you do feel that responsibility. I grew up primarily as an African American Muslim — within the African American Muslim context, being able to go into those kinds of masjids — but I still often feel like [what I write] is not authentic or that I'm not doing it justice. Like I said, I've been shy to talk about my African immigrant identity because I always feel I don't really know what I'm talking about. It's a hard thing, because we have to let go of that. We're never going to be authentic enough. We're never going to know enough. 

It's a [process of] letting go. It’s the same thing with Muslim identity. There are so many different kinds of Muslims. There are so many aspects of Muslimness [about which] you can write a story. It's really, really challenging to let that go and to erase those different voices. When I write, I try to remember to write for little me. When you're drafting, you have to really zero in on that person and what she would want in a story — what she would appreciate in and enjoy about a story — and then start. That way, you don't feel so encumbered by being authentic enough. I have to remember [that] a lot of people tell stories about my background who are not even from my background. They don't have any qualms about [this stuff]. It makes me feel ashamed, as someone who is West African, to feel like I can't write the story when so many people have written stories about Africans [that are not accurate]. Africans always have the single story. African kids in stories are always rural. Not everyone in Africa lives in a rural situation, but all stories are rural. They're always about poverty. The kids are always talking to animals, for some reason, or are so in tune with nature and rocks.

It's the single story that, let’s be frank, white people get to tell about Africans all the time. We just sit back and accept it as if, ‘Oh, that's fine! That's authentic. Oh, [it’s] such a beautiful story about the little girl who was talking to the bird and walking around with no shoes.’ There's a story about a girl who was pretending a rock was her doll. She's so poor she has to use a rock as a doll. That is always our story, our single story. 

Fann Staff: You said that you write for little you now, but was there a character or story growing up that little you really identified with? 

Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow: This book called "The Shimmershine Queens" by Camille Yarbrough was so important for me. I had it for many years, and then I got a new copy just recently because the old one fell apart. It was tattered. I really loved it as a fourth grader. I was a voracious reader, and I read a lot of Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary, which were great and I love their stuff. But I had never really seen Black girls in an inner city setting, and this is what “The Shimmershine Queens” was about. I completely connected with it; I just read it so much. I read and reread, and I kept it for many years, and I didn't really even understand why I was keeping it. I even would write stories about white girls and living in the suburbs. But this was important to me, because I felt at home in this book. So this character, little Angie with her friend Michelle, was learning to celebrate her identity as a Black girl. It's a really important book for me. It's not a huge, well-known book or anything like that. But for me, it’s that book. 

Just seeing the breadth of what we're able to put out into the world now is really exciting to me.

Fann Staff: Who are some Muslim authors right now, or historically, that inspire you?

Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow: Ashley Franklin, for sure. It's hard because I have so many that I love: S.K. Ali, and Aisha Saeed and Hena Khan because she's been a pioneer. She’s been doing her thing for a while. I'm really inspired by the work that Autumn Allen is now putting out. People like Reem Faruqi, and, oh, Sabaa Tahir! I just love what we're all putting out. You also have Huda Fahmy, and I'm missing a lot of people, I know I am. Just seeing the breadth of what we're able to put out into the world now is really exciting to me.

Fann Staff: You've spoken about coming from a working class background and your hesitation in becoming a writer. What is your advice for fellow writers who come from working class backgrounds to make that jump?

Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow: It's very hard; it's not just about dreaming. It's about knowing that you need to pay the bills, and [knowing] you need practical ways to pay and make money. I think the big thing is to make connections early on, to get to know people, because that has helped me a lot in my career: knowing people in the industry, and knowing those people that share opportunities. You find out different things, like fellowships and things like that, that give you the ability to get your ‘in.’ I think if you are someone who's from that kind of background, the biggest thing you need to do is immediately start making connections. And it can be really tricky because you're going to run into a lot of people who are very wealthy — who are very privileged — and they're not going to share the same experiences. But you'll find your people.

Sign up for everything that you can sign up for that's free and low cost. Get your foot in there. Get to know people and form a community, because those communities will link you with people who can help put you in places that you need to be in. Take advantage of your local libraries and things that are free and accessible to you. I was very self-taught in the beginning, because I just couldn't afford classes and things like that. The children's section of the free library became my university. Going to some place like Barnes & Noble, where you can just stack a bunch of books on a table and read them without really buying anything [is also a great way to study]. Sorry, Barnes & Noble, but I support you now! 

That was my classroom. You need to be very resourceful, and [people from a working class background] are resourceful. You need to just apply that to this. You are resourceful when you come from that kind of background. Being resourceful, taking advantage of what’s free, being in the know, being connected to people who are in the know and who will give you opportunities — that's how you make your way in, while you work that day job until you can finally break free and break out.

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