The first week of the Trump administration has been terrible news for anyone who believes in free speech and freedom of religion. It’s also been no surprise. Though President Trump is wildly erratic when introducing policy via Twitter, he is also systematically making good on many of his campaign promises: kick out the Muslims and intimidate people of color and the press into silence.
That is why I started Books Are Not a Luxury, a literary campaign to promote books by writers from groups targeted by this hateful rhetoric: writers of color, LGBTQIA writers, and writers with disabilities. Bookstores around the country are participating in the project, and I’ve been fortunate to publish Q&As with the authors and essays about the books written by fellow writers.
It’s the literary equivalent of “If you see something, say something.” As writers and readers, we can and should respond to the silencing of voices by shouting out their words.
This week, Books Are Not a Luxury is shouting about the terrifically smart and gripping domestic thriller In the Language of Miracles by Rajia Hassib. The novel follows the Al-Mehshawys, a Muslim couple who immigrates to the United States from Egypt; establishes a medical practice, home and family; and then watches it all fall apart after their son murders the girl next door. When the neighbors hold a public memorial service on the one-year anniversary of the murder, the existential threat faced by the Al-Mehshawys becomes unbearable. The writing is observant and beautiful, with each chapter a character study that slowly builds in suspense, depicting the family’s relationships in achingly astute ways.
I love this novel: the writing, the characters, and the subtle but incredible wisdom that Hassib demonstrates page after page. It’s a novel that everyone should read because it’s great and because it tells a story about contemporary America that we need to hear. And yet promoting this novel also makes me worry that I might not do justice to its brilliance.
As a high school and college student, books by not-white-men were often treated like cod liver oil or lima beans — something that was good for you but not pleasant to ingest. We still treat literature this way. For example, libraries and bookstores have African-American literature shelves, suggesting that the books found there are great if you want to learn about slavery or Jim Crowe or racial profiling. But if you want to read a great story, you head over to general fiction. In our urgent desire to promote books because their stories are important, we sometimes overlook their other qualities.
So, as a companion to In the Language of Miracles (a novel that is both important and thrilling), I want to recommend a novel that is important, yes, but also so exciting and fun that I found myself reading it the way I read adventure books as a kid. The novel is The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami.
It tells the story of one of the most famous and thrilling moments of American history: Pánfilo de Narváez’s disastrous expedition to Florida, which eventually made its way through the American Southwest (including Texas) and all the way to Mexico City. The events were first recorded by Álvar Núñez Caveza de Vaca, whose account is now required reading in many American literature classes. But that account gave only cursory mention to something essential: of the four men who survived the expedition, one was a Moorish slave — an African Muslim — named Mustafa al-Zamori, or Estebenico, as he was called by the Spaniards. Lalami has corrected that glaring omission in The Moor’s Account.
So, it’s an important book, a political book, a reminder that the foundational American narratives involve black and brown people and Muslims and, also, that those people’s voices have been silenced in America since before America was a word. It’s also a book about monsters, battles, shipwrecks, cannibals, and mutiny and a book that contains passages that capture the alien magnificence of the new world so vividly that I woke my wife up to read them to her.
It’s tempting to read books by not-white-guy writers through a political lens, and The Moor’s Account is savagely political. But it also reminds you why anyone reads in the first place. When people are silenced, we don’t just lose stories that we ought to know. We lose stories that cause us to flip ahead to see how long the next chapter is and then tell ourselves, “Well, if you don’t read it now, you’ll just lay awake in bed thinking about it.”
Diverse books are better books. Without In the Language of Miracles by Rajia Hassib and The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami, my understanding of my country would be poorer, dimmer, and less interesting.
Michael Noll is Program Director at the Writer’s League of Texas, editor of the blogs Read to Write Stories and Books Are Not a Luxury, and the author of The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction, forthcoming this fall from A Strange Object. His story, “The Tank Yard,” is included in The 2016 Best American Mysteries Stories.