ISNA 54 Convention 2017

I’m at ISNA 54 in Chicago, where I spoke about the power of fiction to challenge stereotypes and broaden people’s horizons, and in particular to influence the American view of Islam and Muslims – and where of course I promoted my novel, Pieces of a Dream. Umm Zakiyyah, a popular author, was originally scheduled to be my co-speaker but could not attend. At the last minute I found two other published authors to share the stage.

Najiyah Maxfied (author of Sophia’s Journal) is enthusiastic and knowledgeable about writing and publishing.

Summieh Stephanie Flower (author of Eye of the Heart) comes across at first as sleepy, until you realize that she has done more in one lifetime than most people would do in two, and that her apparent state of relaxation is a mixture of sauve and world-weariness.

About 100 people attended, which I felt was a solid turnout.

A young attendee in the front row turned out to be an author herself. So we invited her to share the stage for the Q&A. Her name was Ayah. Raven haired and a bit Muslim punkish in appearance, only a slight tremor in her voice betrayed her apparent confidence. She had some pointed things to say about overcoming inner doubts and actually writing (“Take a long walk… there has always been a relationship between writing and physicality.”)

I brought twenty copies of Pieces of a Dream and only sold seven, which is better than nothing but still disappointing.

One of the audience members asked what we authors are doing to promote our books. Sitting there on the stage, I had a brainstorm: I need an agent who specializes in Muslim fiction! Someone who knows where to promote and sell my novel, how to make it available in countries like Pakistan and Malaysia (where I’ve had inquiries from interested readers) and how to get it carried by Islamic bookstores. I don’t actually think that any such person currently exists. Hello, if you are reading this, there is a seriously unfilled niche in the writers’ agent field.

I brought my daughter along because I thought she’d enjoy seeing one of these big conventions and visiting Chicago for the first time. I’ve seen flashes of interest or enthusiasm on her part, and there are rare moments when she laughs at one of my jokes, but for the most part she’s been overwhelmingly negative,

In spite of all this, I cannot say I made a mistake bringing her. She is my child and I love her. The only choices I have are to continue to try to engage with her and care for her, or to abandon my efforts and leave her to her inner demons. The right choice is obvious.

I spotted a friend named Sarah on the up escalator of my hotel as I was on the down, descending from the mezzanine. I met Sarah in 2013. At one point it seemed something serious might develop between us. In the end it did not work out, and we stopped communicating.

We sat in the lobby and chatted for a few minutes. She is a beautiful and intelligent woman and I wish her well.

Tomorrow Salma and I will check out of the hotel and meet up with my cousin, who lives here in Chicago. We’ll spend a day sight-seeing or just visiting family, and fly back to California Monday afternoon.

I will have a talk with Salma in the morning. I will explain to her that life is imperfect. Nothing ever turns out exactly as we expect. All worldly experiences, however new or interesting, are flawed. And at times life is a slog. But every day we choose whether to approach the world with wonder, or with aggravation. Salma became annoyed with me this evening and said, “Why do you have to look at everything?” I think it’s because I realize that every person has their own story, their own inner or outer battle, and every inanimate object has a history. I could say more, but I will let one of the characters from my upcoming novel, The Repeaters, do the talking for me. Here’s an excerpt in which one immortal speaks to another:


Baca lowered the mandible and smiled. “This is a flute,” he said. “And the sound is called music.” He made a sweeping gesture with his hand. “Tengu, my brother. All of this – the river and all that swim in it, from fish and frogs to crocodiles and hippos; the acacias and willows, every blade of grass, every ant and bee, the birds, mountains, stars in the sky, sun, moon, you and me – it either means everything, or it means nothing. Your heart and mine, our eternal spirits, they are damnable curses, or they are miracles. One or the other must be true. Choose, Tengu. Which will you believe? Your choice will determine your fate from now to the end of the world, perhaps. Will you suffer through life after life? Will you exist and endure? Or will you experience joy, seek truth, feel love, and yes, feel heartbreak as well, but what of it? Life is beauty and loss, but you have been given a reprieve from the ultimate loss. Life is a sweet ache and a shadowed glory. What will you make of it?”

Baca stood. Throwing his arms wide, tipping his head back, he howled. The sound echoed off the nearby cliff and bounced back, as if a tribe of ancient ghosts had emerged from the stone of the canyon in response. Goro leaped to his feet and joined in, uttering a drawn out, plaintive howl that might have been the sound of the Maker fashioning the world, the sound of every suffering soul since then, the sound of the hunt and the kill, or the sound of brotherhood and friendship that transcended the grave.

Tengu wanted to howl as well – for his lost sister Otoni-ti, for Anga’s broken body, for Asha alone and half crushed in a crevice of stone, for the innocents he’d staked and speared as the Mad King, for every pointless life he’d lived – and for all the times he’d cried out to the Maker for an answer. He tried in fact to howl, but his broken body would produce no more than a low moan.

“We have been given this gift,” Baca continued. “A boon from the Great One. Or a trust, if you will. A test of character, to decide the fate of all men and women. That is what I believe. But no matter what you choose to believe, either it all means nothing, or it all means something. Choose.”

Leave a Reply