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CBID Conversations: The Burden and Opportunity of Muslim-American Representation

2 MINUTE READ | April 27, 2022

CBID Conversations: The Burden and Opportunity of Muslim-American Representation

April marks the start of Ramadan, and as part of our ‘DIG In’ speaker series, we recently welcomed YA novelist Sheba Karim to share her perspective as a Muslim who grew up in rural New York, and how she came to unapologetically write stories about South Asians and Muslims as lead characters.

Sheba focuses on those lead characters because they are what she wished she had as a young reader, even stating, “I didn't even realize that it was possible for someone like me to exist in the world of literature.” Her first book, Skunk Girl, was the first YA novel to feature a Pakistani-American/Muslim American protagonist. When it came out in 2007, 94 percent of books across children’s lit—from picture books to YA—were written by white authors, she said, adding that since then, great progress has been made towards diversity, and publishing diverse voices. In 2021, 35 percent of children's lit books published were written by writers of color.

Sheba began with the challenge, “How do you categorize the entirety of someone’s personal experience?” She continued on to share that while growing up, her ethnicity and religion were the two things that stood out to other people the most. “When you’re constantly asked that question, ‘where are you from,’ you start to internalize that and define yourself as others are defining you,” she said.

In her talk, Sheba shared data that illustrated how Muslims are the most ethnically diverse faith community in America, and because of that, there can be no "one" Muslim-American experience, book, or movie. However, Muslim writers often bear the burden of representation because there is still relatively little Muslim content in media and literature.

When asked what allies can do to support progress in the industry, she recommended opening up to different kinds of stories by buying books and watching movies and television shows by diverse creators. “The more we consume, the more we show that there is an audience for it and it’s not risky to have this diverse content,” Sheba said. She also encouraged expanding efforts to other industries by creating an environment where you can question your biases and assumptions.

To support Sheba’s larger objective to make diverse voices more accessible to young readers, PMG Gives Back is donating 100 copies of The Marvelous Mirza Girls to Girls of the Crescent, an organization founded by two high school students who aim to distribute books with Muslim main characters to schools and libraries. Additionally, through our employee resource groups, our team members shared books that, either in their youth or later in life, helped affirm their self-identity, and PMG will purchase and donate copies of those books to schools and libraries as well. 

These books include: 

The Alvin Ho Series by LeUyen Pham and Lenore Look

Little Bear Needs Glasses by Bernd Penners with illustrations by Christine Faust

Just Ask!: Be Different, Be Brave, Be You by Sonia Sotomayor with illustrations by Rafael López

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Posted by David Gong