On Muslim American fiction, secularism, and the burden of responsibility

I've been thinking about the peculiar burden of representation faced by Muslim American writers and artists in our post-9/11 moment. Two texts that attempt to defy the expectations that these writers face are Ali Eteraz's Native Believer (2016) and Ayad Akhtar's The Who and the What (2014).

I am perpetually confounded by the state of the Muslim American literary canon: it seems near impossible to find a Muslim American character who is simply unextraordinary. The canon is replete with violent, misogynist, and crude caricatures. I had so much hope for Native Believer: it begins with a protagonist who seems wholly unassuming. His relationship with his wife is endearing: when she’s stuck in the bathroom at their own party in need of a tampon, the narrator states, "but her issues are my issues too” in response to a guest who asks him if she’s dealing with a “women’s issue.” He wants more than anything to have children but they are unable (for reasons that complicate and shock over the course of the narrative). The prose is humorous and delightful.

But larger issues dramatically shift the storyline: the narrator's relationship with Islam, which was almost nonexistent before this particular moment, takes over when his boss fires him for not only owning a copy of the Koran but also placing the book higher than Nietzsche on the bookshelf, which the boss takes as a symbolic displacement of Western culture by Islamic extremism. In search of what it means to be a Muslim American (even while rejecting that identity), the narrator, known only as M. (but implied to be Muhammad) falls in with a young crowd called the Gay Commie Muzzies who are recklessly debauched, which shifts the notion of what it means to be a radical Muslim. He conducts an affair with an African American woman who, unlike many in the mid-twentieth century, converts to Islam in order to reject the burden of her parents' racial pride. He encounters a number of Muslim American State Department employees — of the sort who travel abroad to prove that Muslims are assimilated in the US. His search for Muslim Americans who can give him a sense of identity yields nothing but a diverse range of characters who feel crudely drawn. The narrator himself devolves into a vengeful monster by the end of the story. Disappointed as I am with the parade of vasty unlikeable caricatures, the author does illustrate the various ways in which it is possible to be a secular Muslim. I just wish the characterizations weren’t so extreme.

The Who and the What is an older work but raises some of the same questions as Eteraz with regard to the burden of portraying Muslims (secular or not). It is Ayad Akhtar's second play since the Pulitzer Prize-winning Disgraced. Like Disgraced, The Who and the What revolves around a debate about religion: a book about the Prophet Muhammad that is thought to be incendiary. Akhtar's works offer a fascinating lens into what it means to be a Muslim in America in the post-9/11 age: that includes a discussion of what it means to be a secular Muslim, which has yet to be a widely accepted notion by Muslims and non Muslims alike.

Now, Akhtar is the foremost voice in Muslim American drama today: in addition to garnering the Pulitzer, Disgraced was the most produced play in the 2015-2016 season, according to American Theatre. What kind of responsibility -- and, conversely, freedom -- comes with this distinction? This question is very unfairly posed to Muslim American artists of this age. It is also at the heart of The Who and the What: Zarina's book on the prophet -- a book that illuminates how his "contradictions only make him more human" -- is published at the expense of familial harmony. Some critics have wondered whether Akhtar published Disgraced at the expense of the Muslim American community, since his representations of the community are far from flattering. Which goes to say: how is literary or artistic production regulated in the hands of the Muslim American artist, especially in the post-9/11 era?

The Who and the What features an all-Muslim cast: the headstrong yet obedient Zarina, her sister Mahwish, who desperately wants to wed her longterm boyfriend (yet cannot do so until Zarina, her elder, is married), their father, Afzal, whose overcontrolling tendencies stem from the loss of the family matriarch, and Eli, a white Muslim convert that Afzal sets up with Zarina. The diversity of the cast illuminates all the different ways one can be Muslim. Unfortunately, it also presents caricatures that recall unfortunate stereotypes about controlling, misogynist, violent men. The play -- and his other works -- makes you wonder what on earth Akhtar, now vastly prominent as a playwright, is trying to do with his representations of Muslim American characters. But that question is one that unfairly burdens artists of color who are taken to be representatives of their communities. So how do we look past these base questions when examining the works of Muslim American writers? Akhtar has given us the opportunity to begin, at the very least.
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well i'm looking forward to when you start reading some of the other more domestic romance works... perhaps they will seem TOO unextraordinary? =)...

thanks so much for your reviews and insights here... these writers are both definitely agent provocateurs..