This article, written by Nikoo Kafi and Jim McGoldrick, is from the April 2023 edition of Nink, the monthly newsletter of Novelists, Inc. (NINC). Nink, which is packed each month with informative articles for career novelists, is a benefit of NINC membership.
Like many children, I (Nikoo) was a voracious reader growing up, and my favorite books were those in which I could see myself. I was born in Iran. My parents were Muslim, but we also had family members who practiced Judaism, Christianity, and Bahá’í, and we had our share of atheists. We respected and embraced all beliefs. My initial awareness of a lack of representation in literature happened when I was attending college in the U.S., and later when Jim and I were raising our two sons, also voracious readers.
What happens when the books children read are full of people who look nothing like themselves, whose families look nothing like theirs, and whose stories—while they might be otherwise relatable—don’t include people they can identify with?
In 2012, Columbia University in New York hosted “The Muslim Protagonist: Write Your Own Story,” its first annual symposium for Muslim writers, scholars, and filmmakers. By then, as authors of more than 30 books, we were honored to be invited to speak and take part in a panel discussion in a packed auditorium.
For us, the symposium marked what we hoped was the beginning of a sea change in publishing. And since then, there have been many changes. Mainstream traditional publishers are featuring more and more titles by Muslim writers, with stories about characters whose heritage can include nations and cultures that are not necessarily “Western”’ or Judeo-Christian. Stereotypes and literary tropes that have existed for decades are being identified, if not challenged.
So, do these changes affect us as working novelists? Are these changes just elements of a temporary “wokeness” in America? Or do they indicate movement toward more permanent change, more permanent awareness, more permanent inclusiveness? Do the changes provide opportunities for storytellers? If so, how?
A little about our personal publishing journey. When Jim and I were offered our first contract in 1995 for a historical romance novel, the publisher insisted that we take on a Western-sounding, feminine pen name. For marketing purposes—based on the publisher’s perception of what would be acceptable to the American reading audience—Nikoo Kafi wouldn’t cut it. Nor would Nikoo Kafi and Jim McGoldrick. Nor Nikoo and Jim McGoldrick. Nikoo’s actual identity was completely erased in the printing of our first novel.
Fast forward a few years. Another publisher. Another pen name: Jan Coffey. Coffey is an anglicization of Nikoo’s family name. Anyway, we decided that we needed to push the envelope. When we wrote a submarine hijacking thriller, we decided to make the sub’s commander Iranian American. He was a loyal American, having dedicated his life to serving his country. We think Darius McCann may have been the first Muslim protagonist in American romantic suspense. The novel sold very well, and it was even on the extended New York Times list.
A couple of years later, we ran into real trouble with the same publisher when our female protagonist in another thriller—a Muslim Iraqi Kurd who had been erroneously held in a CIA black site for five years—was misrepresented on the cover art. We had suggested a woman with a shaved head wearing an orange prison jumpsuit. Instead, the cover showed a shapely, long-haired woman wearing an orange mini-skirt. When we met with the publishers at our agent’s office in New York, we explained our concerns. The cover was inappropriate for myriad reasons. Heads nodded all around the table. Needless to say, the cover went out unchanged, and that was the last contract we were offered by that publisher.
We’ve been hybrid authors for a number of years now, and one of the blessings of indie publishing is that we don’t need to perceive the world as New York publishers do. When a friend asked us to contribute a novella to a Regency collection where all the stories take place in the mansion of an aristocratic member of the British ton, we decided to make our protagonist an Iranian prince who wanted to experience “real” London life before he agrees to a required marriage of diplomacy. Happily, reader reception was unanimously positive. Times really seemed to be changing.
Numerous articles and podcasts by scholars and writers point out that the depiction of Muslims in print and film continues to be problematic.
To begin, many stories ignore the diversity of those who follow Islam. The majority of characters even vaguely identified as Muslim in film, television, and fiction are depicted as “Middle Eastern” and more or less Arab. The reality is very different. Arabs—who are spread all over Europe, Africa, and North America—constitute only 20% of the Muslim population worldwide. On the other hand, Muslims number over a billion and are of every ethnicity, skin tone, culture, and nationality. And yet, writers continue to do it. It’s like an American film in which a Dublin resident speaks with a Cockney accent, but it’s even more offensive.
The disregard for difference is found in a great deal of the published fiction and films currently produced. This situation appears to be due to what the scholar Edward Said called “Orientalism,” a Western construct in which we lump Arabs, Muslims, South Asians, and more into one monolithic “Other.” Western nations have been doing this since the mid-19th century, and we continue to do it.
In a CNN article on Islamophobia, Mirna Alsharif enumerates nine tropes that consistently show up in depictions of Muslims. We mention only a few of Alsharif’s points here, but how often do we see writers create characters in which they demonstrate an ignorance of Islam or a disregard for cultural differences?
Some of these depictions include the misguided notions that Islam encourages the oppression of women. That Muslims are inherently violent. That the Quran demands intolerance toward other religions. That Muslims don’t respect Jesus’s teachings. That Islam is a political ideology, not a religion. That Muslims are using nonviolent “stealth jihad” with the goal of implementing Sharia. That Islam is medieval, foreign, and at odds with Western society.
Of course, these tropes, according to Alsharif, “mirror stereotypes and claims made about other minority groups throughout American history like Jews, Japanese Americans, and Catholics.” But since 9/11, this particular “group” of Others has been consistently identified in American media and literature as dangerous.
Being aware of wrong-headed and commonly used tropes identified by Alsharif is certainly useful to any of us who include these characters in our stories.
We would not want to ignore any advances that American publishing has made in producing authentic voices. YA books, in particular, are increasingly finding their way onto bookshelves, and they often serve to illustrate the diversity of Muslim protagonists. However, some reviewers question whether authors (particularly first-time authors) feel a certain pressure to frame their stories and characters in ways that are comfortable to the (still mainly) white editors in major publishing houses.
In a recent episode of the podcast Muslim Matters, host Zainab bint Younus discusses this topic with Canadian writer Hanain B. Together, they identify a number of novels written by Muslim writers and highly touted by publishers and readers. In these novels, some of the same tropes identified above subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) find their way into the narrative. The commentators call out stories where a line is drawn “between the ‘good Muslim’ characters (usually liberal and not overtly practicing) and the ‘bad Muslims’ (any/all religiously conservative Muslims, whether they are characters in the novel or not).” They identify novels that support the position that the binary opposites trope seems to appeal to the Western audience (and publisher). In addition, toxic masculinity is used as a stereotypical “Muslim marker” in stories where the author presents a “not-too-religious girl [who] falls for a white boy, then inserts the conservative Muslim man” as the antagonist, reinforcing a negative stereotype.
In other stories, if a Muslim man wants to reconnect with his religious or cultural origins, it is a red flag that he will be antagonistic to the female protagonist. Finally, in a retelling of a Pride and Prejudice story—a novel they found largely positive—at the conclusion, the Darcy character must cast off South Asian Islamic cultural behaviors to demonstrate his worthiness to the female protagonist (and the reader). Bint Younus and Hanain B see all of these things as evidence of the authors’ perceived need to cater to the “white gaze” of acquiring editors.
So, where does this leave us?
As authors, we want to tell stories that entertain and (perhaps) educate. Very few of us (publishers included) would consciously wish to misrepresent any ethnic, racial, or religious group. In our opinion, awareness of erroneous stereotypes and tropes is a must. One positive step that many authors and publishers are taking involves the increasing use of authenticity/sensitivity readers. These editorial services provide observations on our stories that do not amount to censorship. Instead, they offer conscious and unbiased observations for the author to consider before moving toward publication.
As always, change starts with each of us.
May McGoldrick, Nik James, and Jan Coffey are pseudonyms for USA Today bestselling authors Nikoo Kafi and Jim McGoldrick. Together, they have crafted over 50 fast-paced, conflict-filled historical, contemporary, and Western novels, as well as two works of nonfiction.