We need more diverse books, especially within Islamic rep stories. So I was so excited to receive an arc of this 352 page YA/Teen Black Muslim authored and featured OWN voice story. I was prepared for rawness and grit and insight and all the feels. Sadly to say, it is not that. It is surface level plot points that are unexplored, disjointed, emotionless, and overshadowed by poor writing, contradictory details, and errors. Admittedly I saw an early copy and there is hope that the spelling errors, continuity mistakes and numerous contradictions can be fixed, but I highly doubt the narrative, character arcs, and holes, will or can be rewritten. It is such a shame, because every time I was ready to put the book aside and claim I could not finish it, a powerful beautiful paragraph or sentence would pull me in and give me hope that the book would turn around and be what its own blurb claimed the book set out to do: “shatter assumptions” and “share truth.” In full disclosure, this book centers the intersection of being Black and Muslim, an experience I do not share firsthand nor claim to know in all of its multitudes and complexities.
Sabriya, Zakat, Farah: three Black female Muslim 17-year-olds in different parts of America, with different passions, different life experiences, and different dreams, take one alternating chapter at a time to tell their stories with occasional blog posts scattered between. A terrorist attack in the in the D.C. metro, lots of serendipitous technology events, and a need to find community and the girls come together to create a blog that gathers followers and haters alike in the summer before their senior year.
Sabriya “Bri” is a ballet dance, and often one of two black ballerinas in class. The book opens with her preparing for the summer intensive audition process when news of the nearby metro attack makes time stand still. Her mom cannot be reached, and multiple people are killed and many more injured. Bri and her younger sister Nuri identify like their father, as Muslim, but their mother is not. It doesn’t seem to be much of an issue, except in that Bri’s mother often cannot relate to experiences her daughter is going through. Bri asks Allah swt to keep her mom safe, but throughout the entirety of the book it does not mention her praying salat or actively showing she is Muslim aside from wearing an Allah swt necklace and her sorting through her desire to prove to others she is a Muslim versus eventually being content to be enough for her own self. She does at one point refuse to cook bacon, but she does have a love interest, and Islam reads more of a label to her, than a practiced way of life. Bri journals as a way to let off steam, and her younger sister Nuri encourages her to move to an app to blog. Reluctantly Bri agrees, after being reassured that she can keep it private, she names her journal/blog ‘You Truly Assumed’ and accidentally sets it to public.
With the city reeling, the family commits to volunteering every day to provide food to those directly affected. Bri is placed in a group with her father’s new boss and Hayat, a Muslim boy that she thought was a popular showoff, but is quickly falling for. The micro aggressions from her father’s boss, who is also the volunteer group leader elevate, and the more she learns about him and his connection with an alt right group, the more she writes about in her journal. By the time she realizes that it has all gone public, she decides based on the comments that she should keep it up, recruit more contributors, and get someone on board that is tech savvy.
Farah Rose lives in California with her mom. Even though she knows who her father is, she has never had a relationship with him. When her mom decides that this summer she should go to Boston to meet him and get away from the tensions following the DC attacks, she reluctantly agrees. With a passion for tech, Tommy, her father persuades her by registering her for an intro computer science college course and a chance to meet her siblings. Farah is nervous to leave her boyfriend, and worries about being a summer babysitter, but out of love to her mother, agrees to go. When she learns about the blog, she joins to help with the tech side.
Once in Boston she struggles to connect with her father and his wife, but is immediately drawn to the children. Her story provides some insight into the concept of privilege within black communities. Her father and his family are not Muslim, nor did they seem to know that she was. Presumably the only reason it even comes up is when they serve bacon at breakfast and she mentions she is Muslim and a pescaterian Farah meets a lesbian Muslim girl in her college class and learns that there has a been a hate crime and taken the life of her new friend’s friend. Farah offers to help with the vigil and her commitment to the blog increases as hate crimes, and Islamophobes seem to be on the rise.
Zakat “Kat” seems to present the more “conservative” Muslim. She lives in an idyllic town and attends an all girls Islamic school. There is also an all boys Islamic school and they are big rivals of the public high school. Kat loves art and often takes art classes in the Islamic school with music pumping through the halls, unfortunately her parents don’t want her majoring in art at school. They were the victims of predatory college loans and want her to be more pragmatic in her chose of school and direction of study. She is more sheltered and even has to go behind her parents’ backs to be a part of You Truly Assumed. She shares her sketches and comics and art work and loves knowing that people are connecting with her work and messages.
When her quaint town becomes the victim of hate crimes, she has to decide if she is going to step up and use her voice, or blend in as she has always done. Zakat prays regularly, often at the gender neutral mosque behind a female identifying imam, wears hijab, and deals with jealousy as her best friend becomes friends with a girl who years earlier bullied Kat.
The three girls’ stories intertwine as they become friends, share their own personal lives with one another, and thus the reader, and create a space to be seen and heard through the blog.
WHY I LIKE IT:
The book honestly reads sloppy. I don’t know why it seems the growing trend is to not properly edit these Islamic OWN voice YA novels, but this is another book that indicates a troubling trend. I love that these voices are emerging, but it sadly feels that editors are nervous or afraid to question things and demand better. The book is so much telling and so little showing. I don’t want to be told that the blog posts are powerful, and moving, I want to read them and feel moved. I don’t want to read that you had to understand that you had to stop proving your religiosity to others and just live for yourself, I want to see the incidents and reflection that brought on that growth. I don’t want to be told that you are becoming friends with the other two bloggers, I want to see that they understand you when no one else does. The whole premise of the book is to connect with the reader, but the emotion isn’t in the pages, so there is nothing to connect with unfortunately. Saying there is a terrorist attack, saying that hate crimes are occurring, does not bring forth an investment to the story if details, context, and cathartic releases are not also included.
There are some basics errors. Wudu is described in the wrong order, Zakat talks of living in Georgia in a fictitious town, but the landmarks and colleges are all accurate until she mentions looking out over Lake Erie. I Google mapped it, there is no Lake Erie in Georgia (just the Great Lakes one on the Canada US border), it is only mentioned once, so presumably an oversight, not a fictitious landmark. There are some spelling errors and grammar errors as extra words enter a few sentences (3%), dinner replace the word diner. At one point it mentions the girls meeting on a Zoom call, and then the next line refers to it as a Skype call (54%). The plushness of the Georgia mosque is often commented on, but they have to put down their prayer rugs to pray, this is pre covid, so a little off.
The book contradicts itself at 11% saying that they can drive to North Carolina or New York for auditions, while the rest of the chapter is convincing Bri to volunteer because they cannot. One of the reasons Farah left California was because of the tensions, but Boston is closer to the place of the attacks and also a large diverse bustling city. When Farah is wanting to talk to Tommy and his wife about the vigil, she walks in to a room and comments on who is there, in the next line, it mentions that it isn’t a good time to have the conversation since Jess is not there. Jess was just mentioned as being there and the conversation does end up taking place (84%). When Bri has a blow up with her dad’s boss, Hayat is worried that she hasn’t been delivering meals all week as a result, later in the chapter it mentions that the conversation happened yesterday (77%). When Bri introduces her friend to Hayat she doesn’t mention that the two girls know his little sister very well, and it seemed unnecessarily awkward. Zakat stares off in to space and imagines a sketch and remarks that she has never shared a sketch before and it is something she wants to explore. This is 81% of the way in to the book, she has been sharing her sketches on the blog since she joined.
In terms of Islamic representation, Zakat’s mosque has one entrance and doesn’t divide based on gender, there is a female imam, the steps of wudu are in the wrong order, the girls all seem to focus on their “Islamic” necklaces or rings as if they are such an integral part of the religion. The girls never pause or hesitate to have boyfriends, kiss them, bring them around their Muslim family. Even Zakat who reads really naive and young and goes to an all girls Islamic school decides that a logical event is to have a mixed gender party with music and none of the parents have an issue. It is even held in a Muslim girl’s basement. There are very few salams or mashaAllahs or inshaAllahs, or bismillahs in the book. There is music, dancing and dating. Not naive to say that Muslims don’t participate in all these activities, but to not offer any pause, reflection, or clarification, in a book trying to show the life of some one who identifies as Muslim is a little puzzling. At the beginning it mentions that Black Muslims are “othered” in Islamic gatherings, and I really wish this thread would have been a larger part of the book. To see where the larger community is racist and lacking, to see where the engagements occur and where they fall short is a very unique lived experience that the book seemed to tease, but ultimately abandoned completely.
Plot points were not fully developed, a book of secrets was not built up or stressed and then became a huge issue without sufficient understanding as to why offered. The hate crime in Boston that took the life of a young black Muslim girl was also not given enough weight in the story, or how she helped organize the galvanizing vigil. The blog aspect was just not believable, so much happening by happenstance and then the material not being shown. Show us the comics, the sketches, the passages. Let us read the comments and show us your texts back and forth to see your friendship growing. I loved the parts about Bri and her dad’s boss, about Farah’s father’s family and her interacting, the parts that mentioned Juneteenth and bean pie. I wanted more immersion in to these characters lives. To know their back stories and their struggles. I wanted to feel like I was seeing something that for too long has not been given the space to be authentic and real, but ultimately I finished the book just glad it was over and I no longer needed to exhaust myself trying to imagine the book that it could have been.
Domestic terrorism, hate crimes, death. Relationships mentioned, straight and queer. Transgendered and ungendered masjids, female imams. Boyfriends both Muslim and non Muslim. Mixed parties, dancing, music, art with faces, lying, cursing.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I don’t think there is enough content to discuss in a book club setting, neither to relate to nor open ones’ eyes to. I would like to discuss the book if any one has read it, if I am simply so ignorant of the Black Muslim female experience that I don’t get the book, I am happy to learn and listen and change, inshaAllah.