This post continues my look at the portrayal of Muslim women in young adult fiction.
Marina Budhos is not a Muslim. She is not an immigrant. But the daughter of an Indo-Guyanese father and a Jewish-American mother, Budhos has had a strong interest in the stories of immigrant teenagers. Her book Ask Me No Questions: A Novel, published in 2006 by Atheneum, explores the story of Nadira, a 14-year-old Muslim girl who is an undocumented immigrant from Bangladesh.
The book is one in the recent trend of female Muslim characters as sympathetic protagonists, especially ones outside the Orientalist fantasy of what Muslim women and their families are like.
Nadira Hossein is 14 years old and the biggest problem of her life is that she and her family are in the United States illegally; the government has caught on, and they face possible deportation. The plot of the book is driven by politics, but it is clear that Nadira’s family faces increased problems because they are Muslim and from a Muslim country.
Budhos wrote the book not as a “problem novel,” she said in an interview on the podcast If You’re Just Joining Us, but instead as a work of “psychological depth.” Budhos sought to explore the different types of invisibility, including emotional invisibility that Nadira faces, not just as an undocumented immigrant, a Bangladeshi, or a Muslim but also as a younger sister outshone by her sister, Aisha.
Budhos’s characters are Muslim, but she is not. According to this transcript, her grandfather converted his Indian family to Christianity, and there’s no indication that Budhos is anything other than Christian and/or Jewish. This may be undesirable to some Muslim readers, but as a writer Budhos does not paint Islam with an Orientalist or negative tone. In describing the religious Ali-Uncle, Budhos writes, “Ma says Ali-Uncle is like a guardian angel. He watches over others and makes sure we are safe from harm” (33). In the podcast interview, Budhos noted that writing about a Bangladeshi family was not a stretch for her, being familiar with South Asia and having lived in neighboring West Bengal, but she checked with a Bangladeshi friend to confirm the cultural authenticity of the book.
The child of an immigrant father but herself American-born, Budhos has frequently written about immigrants. Her books include the nonfiction Remix: Conversations with Immigrants Teenagers (1999) and novels about the intersection of cultures. It is easy to fall into standard molds of what immigrants are like, but Budhos manages to avoid this. One of the archetypes of am immigrant family is conservative parents who battle with their children over limits. I’m not saying this doesn’t happen in immigrant or even non-immigrant families, but that’s not what this book is about. The mold-breaking characters are best shown in this passage:
“The first time Aisha came home crying from grade school because the kids were making fun of her head scarf, Ma said firmly, ‘Don’t wear it then.’ Ma got a lot of flak from her friends for that and for other choices she made with Aisha, like letting her go on an overnight trip to Washington, D.C. ‘Let them peck like old chickens,’ Abba laughed. ‘We know who we are.’” (109)
Nadira’s parents seem relatively liberal with how they raise their daughter (in another example, her father shocks his friends by taking his daughter, then younger, to a public swimming pool to teach her to swim). At the same time, it does not feel like they are acting “Americanized.” The Bangladeshi component of Nadira’s culture is never forgotten. Rather, it seems that the idea “We know who we are” is ingrained in her parents. It’s refreshing to see characters who neither conform to stereotype of conservative, strict immigrants or that of immigrants who throw away their cultural identity to become American. And for the record, although no one is noted as wearing hijab, it is clear that Nadira, Aisha, and her mother do not.
One of the unfortunate aspects of the book is its cover. The original artwork (see first photo) shows the eye of a girl peering out through a quadrilateral-shaped opening in a blackness that fills the rest of the cover. Although it may have been intended to reflect the invisibility Nadira feels, it more easily resembles a niqab — a contradiction to the anti-Orientalist content of the book. Luckily, a newer edition of the book (shown left) shows a teenage girl with shoulder-length hair, dressed in a bluish-gray shirt.
It’s interesting how Budhos and her characters play off stereotypes of immigrant Muslim families. Nadira’s sister, Aisha, uses her “old-fashioned” parents who “don’t want [her] going out so much” as an excuse to quit the debate team. Nadira is horrified by “this big fat lie” (109). But the success of the lie points to the prevalence of this image of Asian families. In another example, Budhos contrasts the image of Muslim girls with the reality of Nadira and her sister. One of Aisha’s teachers says, “I’ve seen this happen before with the Muslim kids. I push those girls—they’re so bright. Then one day they come in with a head scarf, and they say their marriage has been arranged and they’re not going to college after all. Everything down the tubes, just like that” (112). This is not the story for Nadira and her sister. The biggest threats to their college education are their questionable immigration status and their lack of money to pay the high tuition costs. Never does sexism hold them back from education.
Throughout the book are strong female characters. Aisha is introduced already on the second page as confident and ambitious, with parents who are clearly proud of her:
“Aisha always knew that she wanted to a doctor going to Harvard Medical School. Even back in Dhaka she could ace her science and math exams, and when Abba was in Saudi Arabia working as a driver, he used to tape her reports to the windshield and boast about his daughter back home who could outdo all the boys.”
But Aisha isn’t the only strong female. Cousin Taslima is independent-minded and assertive. Even Nadira’s mother is noted for her “quick temper and high, wicked laugh” when Nadira’s father first falls in love with her. While the men are held in jail by the Immigration National Services, the women of the family run the household. This is not a book of quiet, submissive women who shuffle to meet their husband’s demands. Of course, defined gender roles exist, and some of the women and men are reprimanded for not following or enforcing them: “Daughters are not daughters, and wives don’t act like wives.” Patriarchy is inescapable, as it is in American culture. But women stand out as driving forces in the story. Although the men stand as heads of household, while they are detained it is the wives and daughters who must act to save their families.
Although this is Budhos’s first young adult book, she succeeds in the genre. Budhos uses clear, poetic prose that makes for a compelling read. The use of present tense and reference to current events (Homeland Security, Patriot Act, Code Orange) keep the story urgent, and at 159 pages in length the book never grows tiresome. Perhaps it’s because of Budhos’s choice to not dumb down her vocabulary or sentence structure for young adults, but narrator Nadira’s words hold a maturity beyond her 14 years:
“You have a family, and you go around thinking it’s always one way. Ever since I could remember, Aisha was the star we pinned our future on. It’s as if Ma and Abba were still in Bangladesh riding in a flat bottomed boat in the night, and Aisha was the magic girl who lived above the dark tree branches and lit the way, leading us down the complicated bends. Now all the stars are no more than rubber stickers pasted on a ceiling; they’ve come unfastened and they’re whirling around one another, not sure which will settle where.” (137)
Appropriately chosen by the American Library Association as one of the best books for young adults, Ask Me No Questions is a novel worth reading purely for literary merit. But it’s also notable for its inclusion of sympathetic Muslim characters who do not adhere to stereotypes.
Ask Me No Questions is not an “Islamic book.” Before anything, Nadira is defined by her immigration status, not her religion. She notes that her parents do not pray every day, like their friend Uncle-Ali. They fast and observe Ramadan and other holidays. Some Muslims may not consider this Muslim enough and thus wonder if the book really is about American Muslims. It’s certainly not as overtly Muslim as Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah, which centers around the character’s Muslimness. However, Nadira and her family identify as Muslim, are viewed by the U.S. government as Muslim, and should be considered Muslim characters, even though they do not pray five times a day. I hope that this does not lessen their credibility as representatives of Islam but instead shows that diversity exists within the Muslim identity.