I’m the kind of person who looks for herself when she reads. I want so badly to find bits of myself in characters that I love. From Hermione Granger to Lizzy Bennet, I crave a connection to beloved characters, so much so that I force similarities. I try to become the characters instead of finding a natural connection, instead of finding something real.
And then I read Uzma Jalaluddin’s “Hana Khan Carries On.”
I’ve seen attempts at Muslim representation in art in the past and have almost always been wholeheartedly disappointed. Seeing the trope of “Muslim girls gone wild,” taking their hijabs off and straying from the religious morals, troubles me. In other cases, the characters face a great, dramatic internal conflict, where they agonize over whether or not they can be both a desi Muslim and an American student — something along those lines. I’ve never felt this pressure about maintaining both aspects of my identity. There are probably desi Muslim girls who do face these issues or who are in these situations; it’s just not how I’ve grown up. It’s not who I am. So where’s the representation for the kind of Muslim I am?
I’m a 21st century Pakistani-American girl who was born and raised in Michigan. I have a connection to my culture, but it feels strained at times, feeling more surface-level than anything else because of the Americanization I’ve been accustomed to all my life. I’m lucky enough to hold a stronger connection to my religion: Islam is a constant in my life. There are aspects of being a Muslim girl that are hard, I’ll be the first to admit. Being the only kid in school wearing long sleeves and pants instead of tank tops and shorts was rough — it can get really hot, really fast. I would fast in Ramadan, feeling my mouth water when I saw my friends snacking. But all of these things feel remarkably small in the grand scheme of things. So what if my life was a little different than my friends? I was lucky enough to have friends that accepted me and loved me the way that I was, regardless of cultural and religious differences. I have a family that loves and supports me. I work hard. I do well. I do good.
And yet, I still craved something. Understanding, maybe.
It’s taken 20 years, but I’ve found it.
“Hana Khan Carries On” is a retelling of the 1998 film “You’ve Got Mail,” following the Indian-Canadian hijabi Hana Khan as she works to accurately represent herself and her culture and her religion. She has a podcast — which is where the anonymous, online romance comes in — and she uses her platform to talk about herself and her life in a very unfiltered way. Similarly, she works to create a radio show that depicts people like her truthfully, without mindlessly subscribing to stereotypes. There’s a love story in the book too, of course, and while I did thoroughly enjoy the halal romcom feel of it all, Hana’s strength as a Muslim woman facing microaggressions in the workplace, working to understand her background and ultimately finding her voice mattered more to me than the admittedly very sweet romance. (I’m sorry, Aydin.)
I actually saw myself in Hana. Sure, she’s Indian-Canadian, and I’m Pakistani-American. She’s a hijabi, and I’m not. The details don’t matter. Her cultural and familial traditions are the same as mine. She has the same respect for her religion that I do. Her perspective on identity mirrors mine. Not to mention she’s a Swiftie, and so am I — and so is author Uzma Jalaluddin.
In an interview with The Michigan Daily, Jalaluddin explained that she wanted to write for people like herself. Muslim girls deserve to see themselves in books too. Just because we don’t date in the traditional sense or because our attire is more modest than others doesn’t mean that we should be excluded from the romcom genre altogether. And just because we have a different perspective on life, a different identity, doesn’t mean that we don’t want to be understood.
“I didn’t grow up with that (kind of representation),” Jalaluddin said. There were hardly any books about South Asians, when she was growing up in Toronto, and even fewer about Muslims. “The ones that were there were rife with really toxic stereotypes; most of the time they were written by white authors … peering into the experience of what it’s like to be a non-white person. I would read … them and get really angry.”
And she’s right. There exists this need to try to push all Muslim characters into this box of “bad” or “evil.” Even some of the stories that I love most do this. The film “Iron Man” comes to mind, where vaguely Muslim characters are the bad guys, torturing and tormenting the hero. And if the characters aren’t evil, they’re not represented as being “really Muslim,” like when those aforementioned hijabis decide to pursue relationships that aren’t exactly halal.
“What happens with this sort of ‘girls gone wild, let me whip off my hijab when the first white boy smiles at me’ type of narrative, what you’re seeing is what other people think about Muslim women versus what happens when you write about an experience that is your own,” Jalaluddin said. “I don’t think about my hijab; I just wear it. I’ve worn it for years. It’s part of my identity.”
That’s why her books, both “Ayesha at Last” and “Hana Khan”, have meant so much to me, why they’ve made me feel seen. She’s a member of the community that she’s writing about. She’s writing about people like her, people like me. She represents us truthfully.
“I think I just really wanted to write a funny, entertaining book about Muslims, because it always pissed me off that we got the sad stories, the victim stories, the arranged marriage, forced marriage, extremists running off to do violence somewhere else stories … Those aren’t the books I like to read. I love romance. I want to read romance books.”
I do too. I want to read about Muslim girls who love their families and pray five times a day and are able to find happiness through their own actions and decisions instead of through a perceived necessity to stray from their identity.
Admittedly, there are aspects of being a Muslim that are difficult as well, and “Hana Khan” represents those truthfully too. In the book, Hana, her cousin and Aydin are victims of a hate crime. As someone who lives in an incredibly diverse, accepting community, I’ve been fortunate to not have dealt with individualized acts of bigotry, although more expansive acts of policy have impacted me. Jalaluddin brought up the Muslim Ban, explaining that, even though she’s Canadian, she’s often affected by what’s happening in America. “I think a lot of people had this idea … about Canada being … a completely different place … no, hate happens here. It happens everywhere.”
Hana remains true to herself even when facing these challenges, never backing down from embracing her true self, even when it would be easier to do so. The best part about Hana’s character is that she’s very unapologetically herself, especially when it comes to her culture, religion and identity. She doesn’t push down her Muslim attributes, or even question them, when she’s in a difficult place. “We are all complete human beings,” Jalaluddin said. “We are nuanced; we have layers. (Hana) has a really strong sense of who she is … That’s one of the points of the book … It’s never, like, ‘Am I Muslim? I don’t know’ … Her identity issues are all outwards, not really inwards.”
In many ways, Hana looks at the world in the same way I do, which is why I identify so strongly with her, and why I appreciate her character so much. She doesn’t doubt her identity, but she does have doubts. That’s normal. It’s human. So many people will create Muslim characters with just one defining trait: their religion. But people have layers, like Jalaluddin said — even Muslims. I’m not just a Muslim — I’m also a young woman, I’m working towards a career, I have likes and dislikes. So does Hana. Her identity influences everything she does, but it does not solely define her.
Jalaluddin tells it all, shows it all — the good, the bad and everything in between — when it comes to being a Muslim in today’s day and age. That’s why artists like her, who work so hard to represent truthfully, need to be appreciated and supported. She mentioned that she’s working on her third book, set during an Islamic convention, and I cannot help but hope that prospective readers — Muslims and non-Muslims alike — will look to it, just like its predecessors, as an example of positive representation of people like me. “If you enjoy books about marginalized communities, and if you are worried about the lack of representation in these communities, it is your responsibility to support artists and buy their books.” She’s right — representation won’t happen, can’t happen, without public support. And we need representation because when people feel represented in art, their outlook on the world changes.
“I think I wrote it for myself and probably for me when I was younger,” Jalaluddin said. Considering that when she was younger, Jalaluddin hadn’t felt the representation she now creates for readers, that makes sense. But, honestly, I can’t help but feel like it was written for me.
Film Beat Editor Sabriya Imami can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.