By Mushfiqa Andalib
Young women, mostly City College students, crowd into a room in Shepard Hall to hear Kamila Shamsie’s talk about her novel, Home Fire, and what it means to be a Muslim and a person of color in a white society.
Shamsie’s book tackles the challenges of Pakistani Muslims living in Great Britain and tells the story of two sisters and a brother who goes to Pakistan to join ISIS. She spoke at “Beyond Identity” an event hosted by The Department of Women & Gender Studies and The Policies Of Sexual Violence Initiative in partnership with PEARL.
Shamsie discusses her experience with inequality in Pakistan, her inspiration behind Home Fire, gave advice to students and explains the social pressures in the Muslim community.
Shamsie says that while growing up in Pakistan, she experienced inequalities between men and women. “My cousin, who was pregnant, went to protest after protest. I felt this deep admiration which led me to have an interest regarding these issues,” she tells the audience. While living in Britain, she saw British people behaving ignorantly towards the Muslim community, which motivated her to write Home Fire. Shamsie says she experienced racism and noticed people in Great Britain look upon all Muslims with suspicion. Media outlets and newspapers categorized Muslims as dangerous, not helping the situation. She also states that it was hard to earn her citizenship because it was a long process with repetitive questions, while her non-Muslims acquaintances were able to get their citizenship in a shorter amount of time.
As a Bangladeshi-American Muslim, I identify with Shamsie. Growing up, I was asked questions related to being “oppressed,” “weird,” and a “terrorist.” In middle school, there was a student who disliked me and told me, “At least I’m not a terrorist and killed thousands of people on 9/11.” There have been encounters where my family and I were checked 5 times more than people who didn’t look Muslim by the TSA at the airport. They would take us to a separate room and ask the same questions. It made me feel as if I was a threat to society.
Other young Muslims relate to Shamsie as well and thank her for reminding them what it means to be a Muslim. The book helped people gain a new perspective and connect with the characters. Shamsie has also encountered people asking her opinions about what Muslims go through in countries all around the world. She says that she felt pressure to represent Muslims under circumstances that she wasn’t able to relate to, explaining that every country is different and people regardless of their religion have different experiences. She advises students to not feel pressured, as she did, and to use their platform to highlight issues they want the world to see.
Shamsie gives advice to those who want to pursue writing and share important social issues. “When writing a book always trust yourself, it is for them the people you are representing in your work,” says Shamsie. “Try to break that stereotypical mindset that people have about a group of people.” She advises paying attention to the little details that you find striking that other people may not be familiar with.
Lily, a student at Hunter College, tells Shamsie and the audience that she thinks minorities struggle to have their voices heard because they are not white. She explains that Home Fire gave her a new perspective about Muslim struggles and inspired her to speak out about the challenges her community faces. She aspires to be a writer.
“Everything you write, you learn more,” says Shamshie,
The discussion and the reaction from the audience makes me happy to see Muslims sharing their challenges and experiences so they can create more awareness. Her words will resonate with me for a long time.