The Anxieties of Writing as a Muslim-Palestinian-American

“I am a mismatched mess of blue.” 

I haven’t written a new blog post in quite some time. When I wrote this reflection on my writing, inspired by my Eid-Al-Fitr outfit in May 2020, I quickly realized it’s too long for an Instagram post or Twitter thread. You can see this outfit on my Instagram @/haneenoriqat.

I have been struggling for the past few months with whether to share this raw and honest reflection or not. Sharing the challenges I’ve faced throughout my writing journey is incredibly difficult for me. It’s not easy, speaking as an introvert and a person who is very careful with her privacy, especially with the way that social media triggers both imposter syndrome and evil eye. But this reflection and the anxieties surrounding it have been building in my head. Looking at my picture on Instagram (@/haneenoriqat), you’re unable to see this. I hope this post will also be a comfort to others that are struggling with similar experiences. I have been trying to work through my anxieties surrounding my manuscripts and I chose to finally put it down in writing. I decided I’d share because I wish that when I started writing 20+ years ago, more seriously 10+ years ago, that what I’m about to share was more transparent. Instead, I felt alone. I was alone. The majority of the time, I still am alone. So, BismiAllah…

I struggled with what to wear this past Eid-Al-Fitr, because I was completely unprepared to celebrate during a pandemic. As my younger sisters rushed to help me put this new outfit together right before Fajr on Eid morning, I was certain it would be my least favorite Eid outfit. I have been struggling with my health and my anxiety was, is, at an all-time high concerning my future goals, accomplishments, my entire journey. Eid morning, I put on my outfit and… smiled. I realized that I matched the main character of the manuscript that made me believe I could one day become a published author. 

I started drafting my unapologetic Muslim love story over 10+ years ago, years after the storyline began developing in my head and I had scenes written on random items. I wanted a halal story, a diverse Muslim story for young readers, one that young Haneen could relate to and desperately wished she could see sitting on bookstore shelves among other contemporary novels. One that didn’t resemble my own life growing up, but one that Muslims of all ages could still love and enjoy.

Many moons ago, 6+ years ago, I dove headfirst into the querying trenches. I knew the struggles I’d face in the book world, but not to the extent that I did face. Nevertheless, I was determined to change it. At the time, I vowed to query at least 100 agents. I was crushed when my novel was rejected, after numerous full requests, over and over again. This past New Year’s Eve, I gathered the courage to share my experience about my querying journey on all my social media accounts (I hope you’ll go back and read it). 

In my NYE reflection, I shared that I was torn by responses to full manuscript requests claiming they already had something “similar” on their list or coming out in publishing, as if any part of my background is a monolith. Even if 6+ years ago they did have a Muslim-American love story (specifically with a Palestinian-American main character) on their list, to think that it was enough in the sea of white publishing was unfathomable to me. I struggled with feedback from those who were either too scared to touch my “diverse” story or danced around stereotypes of Muslims and Arabs instead of how to strengthen my storytelling and writing.

Along with writing as a Muslim-American, I am also very aware of the risks and backlash I face while writing as a Palestinian-American. Even when Muslims are presumably supported in publishing, even when it’s performative support, bringing Palestine into the mix brings on more layers of struggle and obstacles. I grew up in a world where my existence is resistance. I grew up in a country where standing up against occupation and apartheid, recognizing the indigenous stolen land that I live on, is seen as radical. This has been even more relevant lately as we witness those who are claiming to stand for the Black Lives Matter movement and Black, Indigenous, People of Color voices in publishing. How does this relate to Palestinian voices, you ask? If you understand the BLM movement, then you should also know that BLM has always stood in solidarity for Palestinian liberation. If you understood the history behind the illegal occupation of Palestine, you’d also understand how strongly these two movements stand in solidarity with one another. It’s hypocritical to be selective in who deserves human rights. You can’t be selective in standing up against systematic and institutionalized oppression.

And, yet, I see this all the time in publishing when it comes to BIPOC stories. A few months ago, an announcement for a new book on Birthright gutted me. I didn’t even know how to react as I saw a flood of support come in for the author, agent, and editor at the time. I wasn’t surprised, but I was on alert once again taking into consideration who to stay away from and not work with when I was ready to query again. This week, there has been a shift that shocked me. Evidence was shared by a Palestinian writer who respectfully reached out to the author, agent, and editor expressing concerns and asking for them to address the representation in the book. Their silence has been a clear indicator of what I feared, another book that will glorify and romanticize the reality on the ground, 72 years of illegal occupation and ethnic cleansing. This week, I’m witnessing book Twitter – from bloggers to authors to agents – speak out about how problematic this book is and especially if it doesn’t at least acknowledge the plight and political reality of the Palestinian people. For me personally, this comes a week after my cousin was shot and killed by an IDF soldier at an Israeli checkpoint that stands between two Palestinian cities. I’ve also witnessed the Palestinian occupation firsthand. Reading the reactions against this book and the support for Palestinians in the book community, I sat there crying.

This all brought up memories of the same struggles I faced in my MFA program from instructors and peers alike. During my MFA program, I experienced both instructors who were published authors and workshop peers claim my stories didn’t sound “authentic” or “believable” when it came to Muslim experiences, especially when I wrote stories of joy and steered away from stereotypes. This sentiment was even sharper when I shared my non-fiction writing and I realized that it was especially the micro and macro aggressions, xenophobia, and Islamophobia that was threaded through my stories, the same way that these experiences exist throughout my own life, that weren’t accepted by the white instructors and grad school peers. I had experienced this through my literature/writing minor when I was in undergrad at UCSD, professors giving me high marks but making sure I explicitly understood that I would never be successful if I continued to write non-white stories. I received xenophobic feedback on my writing from instructors and workshop peers every time I sent in a non-white centered story. In fact, the first time I finally owned my BIPOC story in public was when I sent in one as a short story when applying to MFA programs. I had more hope for my MFA program, which crushed me. When asked, I always express that the best thing that came out of my program was the lifelong writer friends I gained. I still struggle to move past these experiences.

Back to my querying process. After many more drafts with the manuscript that I queried, I made the heartbreaking decision to shelve my story. 

“Friends” insisted that halal Muslim stories, let alone halal stories, would never be accepted, not in the West and certainly not in the states. For a moment, I thought, maybe I needed to find a way to make my story more relatable… But, that made me angry. Relatable to who? 

As a voracious reader and bibliophile, if I, a hyphenated American – a Palestinian-Muslim-American, hijab wearing daughter of first-generation immigrants – found ways to relate to the endless variety of white characters in the sea of white centered books because we can all relate on a human level, then I know for a fact that my story can be relatable. If it’s not relatable, then it’s not the right story for everyone and that’s okay. Not every book is the right story for my reading palate. Some may just be educational or eye-opening to readers. I want to write without the expectation by publishing that white readers need to center themselves in my stories. Not relating to a story due to cultural, religious, etc. differences does not make a story less worthy or successful. My stories are more than just for these types of readers. I want my story to be a gift to those who share any part of my identity as a marginalized person and crave to see themselves in books. A gift to myself. 

That’s why I pursued my passion for writing. I want to continue writing stories about my marginalized background that younger Haneen only dreamt of reading and seeing on book shelves, across bookstores. I want a story with more than just trauma and grief surrounding Muslim characters. I want a story filled with joy and love. I want a relatable story that’s filled with all of this, because that’s what I’ve experienced being born and raised as a Muslim-American in the states. I want good representation. I want to be proud of the work I put out into the world. 

Today, I have come to peace with acknowledging that the draft of my manuscript from many moons ago will never see the light of day. I have always worked on several manuscripts at once, but that work in progress was the closest to my heart. The story has changed and evolved into something new. Something I hope to be stronger.

Today, while I feel less alone with my hopes and dreams as a Muslim writer, especially knowing that stories representing Muslims across background and levels of religiosity and even Muslim love stories now exist, my imposter syndrome is on another level. But, it’s also more than just imposter syndrome. It’s the way that publishing treats Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) stories. The way our stories are pitted against each other, instead of amplifying and supporting all types of variations of our stories. We are more than just our trauma and pain. I dream of a world where publishing doesn’t keep expecting BIPOC to hurt themselves, drawing blood to spill over pages to sell our stories before we can write what we want. Stories full of joy and love as we navigate the trauma in our lives.

AlhamduliAllah, the publishing world has been slowly changing as more marginalized voices are supported and amplified, but we still have a long way to go. 

As I edit this novel and reflect on characters and the storylines I’ve lived with since the early 2000s, I’m reminded of how much I love my characters and why I wrote this story… But, every time I sit down to write, my anxiety pulls me away and I’m filled with dread. I admitted to my friends the fear I have of reading books with Muslim characters because it triggers trauma of past experiences of growing up while Muslim in the West for me. While I write, I avoid these books. In fact, I even admitted that I waited until I had new solid drafts for my current story before picking up any of the latest Muslim-authored stories in the genres that I write. It may sound absurd because I believe that writing and reading go hand in hand. I did this because I had a larger fear.

When reading these books, it’s easy to recognize the threads that tie together certain Muslim experiences. Recently, the more I read and I see snippets of others’ stories, I’m both elated that I can relate to them and yet I’m also filled with this dread that authors of color will be told that there’s already a similar storyline out there. Silencing the fact that our experiences are not a monolith and that each one of us has a different view and voice behind our experiences. I also worry about how far I have to go with including trauma – storylines that touch upon micro and macro aggressions, xenophobia, and Islamophobia – for my work to be accepted.

I start to ask myself, what if my voice isn’t original enough?! If I write about similar subjects, despite how different the storyline or characters are, do I need to change my story because so-and-so author already wrote about it or mentioned it? Even if mine is original, will they say that my story has already been told? Forget that the same variation of stories has been told over and over by white authors. What if mine doesn’t stand out among stories of my own identity and background? While white authors have been accepted and even cheered on when writing BIPOC characters, my fear is split between writing the story I want to read and making it right by my own communities. What if I fail in representing my own identity and communities?

At one point, for one manuscript I was working on, I began to notice that I included enough storylines to write several novels. I had to stop and ask myself if I subconsciously worried that if I managed to publish one book, would that be all that I was allowed to publish so I crammed as much as I could into one story? All these anxieties and fears, outside of the actual writing process, is exhausting: mentally and emotionally draining, which in turn harms us physically.

All I want to do is write without worrying about these burdens I feel like I must carry with my writing.

I’m recognizing that writing my truths weigh more than what others deem as “original”, and my experiences are both relatable and unique. More than anything, there will NEVER BE ENOUGH stories written by, about, and for BIPOC! That our stories are allowed to be filled with trauma AND joy and love or only one over the other! Joy is resistance. Publishing BIPOC is radical. Whatever we choose, OUR VOICES AS BIPOC AUTHORS MATTER AND ARE NEEDED. We must support each other, cheer each other on, and motivate each other with both love and knowledge by pulling the curtain back when it comes to writing and publishing. Knowledge is power.

Not too long ago, a new friend responded to an anxiety driven post on my Twitter feed with these wise words, “When it comes to imposter syndrome, I say everyone has their own unique voice and it’s not something anyone can replicate. You are your own original.” 

These past few months, I worked hard to create a new writing space for myself at home. I’ll post a picture of my writing space on Instagram soon. I took my friend’s words and added them to this space so that I’d never forget: I AM MY OWN ORIGINAL, WITH MY OWN UNIQUE VOICE THAT CAN’T BE REPLICATED. 

All this to say, that on Eid morning, I remembered one line from my novel that has never changed. One written in the early 2000s. A heartfelt scene between my two main characters, with one dressed in “a mismatched mess of blue”. 

I don’t expect my imposter syndrome or my anxiety to go away, not with the way that social media drives our lives. It’s a new challenge that has become a large part of my life. But I am taking steps to fight back and take control of my narrative, to create the space I need mentally, emotionally, and physically for my creative outlet. In a few days, I have the intention to take a complete hiatus from social media. It’s my birthday gift to myself. My sisters will take control of my account passwords while I write and until I feel ready to return. 

I know that the querying trenches will be different this time, for better or for worse, when I’m ready again. I’m simply not giving up. My passion and love for my stories is a part of who I am. One day, I pray I will find a literary agent who believes in my work, an editor who’s excited to publish my novels, a team that’s proud to work on it, and readers excited to see themselves in the story. One day, I’ll walk into a bookstore and be able to pull my book off the shelves and admire the cover that will feature a real-life photo of a Muslim couple. One day, Ameen! 

I continue to remind myself of one of my favorite ayaat (verses) in the Quran: 

إِنَّ مَعَ اُلْعُسْرِ يُسْرًا  

“Indeed, with hardship will be ease.” 

Quran, Surat Ash-Sharh, [94:6] 

The journey is long. 

Until then, I’m writing. 

[For those who read through the entire post, wow. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.]

A future Muslim-Palestinian-American author,

Haneen Oriqat

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