I’m very excited to welcome Muhammad Khan on the blog today to talk about his debut novel I Am Thunder. I absolutely adored the book so I wasn’t passing on the opportunity to interview the author about his inspirations and writing process as part of @TheMuslimShelf book club on Twitter.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Muhammad Khan is a maths teacher in a secondary school in Tooting and takes his inspiration from the children he teaches, as well as his own upbringing as a British-born Pakistani. He lives in South London and will be studying for a creative writing MA next year at Roehampton. You can follow him on Twitter @mkhanauthor.
ABOUT I AM THUNDER
Fifteen-year-old Muzna Saleem, who dreams of being a writer, struggles with controlling parents who only care about her studying to be a doctor. Forced to move to a new school in South London after her best friend is shamed in a scandal, Muzna realizes that the bullies will follow her wherever she goes. But deciding to stand and face them instead of fighting her instinct to disappear is harder than it looks when there’s prejudice everywhere you turn. Until the gorgeous and confident Arif shows an interest in her, encouraging Muzna to explore her freedom.
But Arif is hiding his own secrets and, along with his brother Jameel, he begins to influence Muzna with their extreme view of the world. As her new freedom starts to disappear, Muzna is forced to question everything around her and make a terrible choice – keep quiet and betray herself, or speak out and betray her heart?
Salaam, Muhammad! Thank you for joining us! The name Muzna means ‘the cloud that brings the rain.’ Was the meaning of her name significant? Did she inspire the title of the novel?
MK: The name was crucial. There is cloud imagery throughout the story, reflecting Muzna’s changing mood but also egging her on to becoming the person she is destined to be. The dynamic of a cloud was an interesting one to me because they can be delicate, bring gentle rain or a torrential downpour, and even, when pushed, unleash thunder and lightning.
In the book, Khadijah tells Muzna what her name means in Arabic. This is significant. It symbolises the mentor-mentee relationship they develop. Unlike many other characters in the story, Khadijah isn’t trying to force Muzna into a particular way of thinking. She’s trying to help her become her best self, whoever that might be.
I hope the title epitomises Muzna’s journey of self-discovery.
As a teacher and an author, how important was it for you to contribute to the dialogues about radicalisation?
MK: I felt it was extremely important. The number of referrals under Prevent is just too big to ignore. But that’s not the whole story. No child is born with hate in their heart. So what gets youth so disenfranchised that they might end up vulnerable to exploitation, radicalisation or grooming in the first place? What can we do as a conscientious multicultural society to make sure we’re supporting and valuing everyone?
I think the conversation around radicalisation was owned by everyone except Muslims. The irony is that the people it was actually affecting – teenagers – had loads of opinions that they were just too afraid to share. So I took my students’ opinions and frustrations and wrote them into my book, hoping to give them a platform to express themselves and open up the discussion to a wider audience.
How much research did you do in the process of writing the novel, and how much of it was as a result of your own experiences?
MK: I did a HUGE amount of research. The topic is just too sensitive to be lax about. I am a British Pakistani Muslim and I have worked as a secondary teacher both in the state sector and at a Muslim faith school. My mother wears the hijab, my sister the niqab – both of their own volition, I hasten to add! I have met hundreds of parents at parents’ evenings. I lost a relative to fundamentalism. At uni I was once targeted for radicalisation. I have undergone Prevent Strategy training. But most importantly, I had an incredibly positive working relationship with my students, where they felt safe to share anecdotes about their lives and tell me their worries. I drew from this well of resources. If any one of these advantages had been missing, I would not have been able to do justice to Muzna and her world.
I Am Thunder is set to resonate with many British-Muslim readers as one of the only UKYA books out there with a Muslim protagonist. Though we still have a long way to go regarding representation of POC authors and characters in UKYA, in what ways do you think publishing has changed since you were a teen? When was the first time you felt represented by a book?
MK: I hope so! I originally wrote the book for my own students who wanted to know why Muslims never got to be the hero. I felt especially bad for my hijabi students because they were being told by the media they were oppressed(?!) I can promise you these girls were just as vibrant and confident as the rest.
I think we’ve seen positive change in the industry in response to the call for more BAME and LGBT authors. It’s a promising start, but more needs to be done. Every voice deserves to be represented.
When I was a teen I devoured books by Minfong Ho and Rosa Guy. The books were really old but just seeing an Asian or a Black person on the cover of a book blew my mind! It reassured me that my life experiences mattered too. The author Hanaa Ali says “Nobody is going to tell your story better than you.” I wholeheartedly agree. There are so many cultural nuances that you won’t get right unless you are from the same background as your character.
I would love to know more about your writing process. After getting the initial idea for the novel, how did you develop that idea further into a chronological order of events that would eventually form I Am Thunder?
MK: So the basic plot came to me really quickly. I think I jotted it down on the back of an envelope. I then sat with some Muslim friends and got their input because I was unsure whether to proceed. They all felt it was a story that needed to be told. My intentions were to get people to understand what it feels like to have your faith hijacked by a small percentage of extremists who go on to grab all the headlines, what Islamophobia does to children, and how to protect your loved ones from radicalisation.
I then created a list of key scenes on a whiteboard that would support Muzna’s growth as a character and move her story forwards. But I Am Thunder is not just Muzna’s story. I also created Arif’s story and tried to weave the two together. I then created all the satellite characters – Latifah was particularly important to me. I wanted Black Muslim representation in my book because I hadn’t seen it before. In the end I had waaaay more stuff than I needed. My wonderful editor, Lucy Pearse, guided me through the entire book publishing process with infinite patience and brilliant suggestions. I will forever be grateful to her for finding a Muslim sensitivity reader. It gave me that extra reassurance that my work wouldn’t be misinterpreted.
Thank you so much for your time! We can’t wait to see what’s coming next!
MK: Thank you for all your brilliant questions and for your fabulous work promoting #ownvoices authors!