If we want more tolerance, children need to read stories of world views outside of their own

I wrote a children’s book about inspiring Muslim women to challenge stereotypes and be part of the movement that allows marginalised groups to take back their own narrative

American History textbooks call African slaves immigrants

Being Muslim, being a woman and being a person of colour is no easy feat. Not only are you weighed down by other people’s stereotypes, but we live in a world where people seem to believe that they can author our stories without our consent.

The media, our literature, these newfound Twitter warriors and even politicians all play a part of how we understand the world. The tropes of the angry black woman, the oppressed Muslim woman, and the woman who gets told to watch her tone despite being an expert in her field are all by-products of an environment that’s been constructed by everybody other than those people themselves.

This way of seeing the world and understanding our place in it is an accepted norm. But what these story-makers are rarely held accountable for is the damage they do to our identities and, even more so, to the identities of the generations that come after us. They sharpen a divide that separates real, breathing, living people and what’s automatically assumed about them. At the crux of it all is why storytelling is so important because, believe it or not, that’s where it all begins.

Humans are social beings and, naturally, we all fall for a good story. But why are we still finding that some narratives take precedence over others?

Growing up, I fell in love with the likes of Harry Potter, I grieved with Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, and I stumbled into Mr Tumnus’ home in the eternal winter of Narnia. But in retrospect, I want to know where my stories were. Where were my people in these books that I held so dear to me? Where was that little Asian girl I desperately needed to identify with so I could have some sense of belonging in a country that wasn’t my own? In fact, where is she now?

Being a part of “generation 1.5” – those who immigrated to a new country before or during their teenage years – means that you don’t really belong “back home” and you don’t really belong here either. Real talk is when you know that south Asians, the Windrush generation and their likes have been here since the 1940s, helping to fill labour shortages to rebuild a country deeply scarred by war.

Surely, by now, there should be more mainstream stories that don’t make children of colour feel like outsiders. Surely people have caught on to the fact that white kids reading about their Bame counterparts will help cultivate a mindset that celebrates culture and diversity. If we want cohesion and acceptance in society, we need children to grow up absorbing stories of world views outside of their own.

However, there is hope and the tide is turning. Programmes like Penguin Random House’s inclusive WriteNow scheme, its imprint #Merky Books, competitions like Generation Lockdown Writes, and indie publishers like Knights Of and Jacaranda Books, are all helping to change the publishing landscape. They’re actively working to break down the ivory towers that prevent world-class Bame graduates from accessing the arts sector.

Until the launch of WriteNow – a scheme that aims to find, nurture and publish new writers from under-represented communities – in 2016, I genuinely believed that being an author was outside my realm of possibility. The thought had never even occurred to me – that’s how disconnected I was from it. It was a direct consequence of not seeing myself in the books I read.

Two years later, having secured a place on WriteNow, and after a series of workshops and new direction, I found myself paired up with an editor in one of the world’s top publishing houses. It wasn’t luck: it was the hard worker I had in me, the talent I didn’t even know was there and the access to opportunities that, until recently, I wasn’t even aware were available.

Fast-forward another couple of years and my life, my world view, and what I genuinely believe I am capable of has completely changed. In a few weeks, my debut book Amazing Muslims Who Changed the World will be published. I want it to challenge stereotypes, inspire people and be part of the movement that allows marginalised groups to take back their own narrative.

It’s dedicated to all the children I’ve ever taught and the child I once was. I want a whole wealth of readers to open up these stories and fall fast into fights of Khawlah Bint Al-Azwar (RA), a fierce woman who fought in battle under command of the most celebrated Muslim military commander in the early days of Islam. Then they’ll tell you how strong Muslim women really are.

The same readers will listen to the lives of Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X and Ayuba Suleiman Diallo and their social activism and influence that still echo to this very day. Then they’ll tell you how strong black men have to be.

And the best part of it is that they can see themselves, educate themselves and empower themselves. I want them to believe that they really do come from greatness, that they are capable of greatness, and that they are greater than the stereotypes that they must challenge.

Burhana Islam is a secondary school teacher and author of ‘Amazing Muslims Who Changed the World’, which will be released by Puffin in hardback on 16 July 2020

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in