I fell in love with fantasy when I started reading the Harry Potter series as a kid.
A fourth-grade classmate brought Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fireto school for our teacher to read aloud. She only read one or two chapters, but it interested me enough that I got my mother to buy me Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
Chamber of Secrets was a wonderful reading experience. My mind became filled with flying cars and broomsticks, Hogwarts castle, and mythical creatures. Sparks flew from the wands of Rowling’s witches and wizards flew into my imagination, where they bounced around and created a craving for more fantasy fiction.
While waiting for the next Harry Potter book, I wanted to read stories of epic adventures, gods and mortals, with well-written female protagonists like Hermione Granger. I consumed novels from the Dragonlance series, books on mythology, and female-lead books like the Song of The Lioness series. However, I read very little fantasy fiction with people of color in it.
In fact, I can remember only one moment when the existence of people of color in fantasy didn’t feel strange to me. I was reading Lirael by Garth Nix, a book that is part of a trilogy. I saw a description of the book’s protagonist, Lirael, that said her white skin “burnt” when outside and that she had long, straight hair. I looked at the cover and thought that she looked a little like my mother, who is Vietnamese. Even though she seemed racially ambiguous, I thought she could have been Asian.
Still, when it came to fantasy fiction, I didn’t think characters of color could exist. I had been taught through reading itself that the realm of fantasy was only for white men and women, and I’d never thought to look for anything else.
Once, I bought a fantasy trilogy with characters of color without realizing it. The Farsala Trilogy by Hilari Bell featured a setting and characters that were inspired by Persian folklore—but years of reading fantasy with white characters had taught me to read them as white.
By the time I found a fantasy with a protagonist of color whom I was able to recognize as such, I was in college. I was browsing the adult section of my local library at random when I found The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin. I decided to check out the book when I turned it over and saw the author was a black woman. It had never occurred to me that a black woman could write fantasy novels with characters who looked like black people.
This book blew my mind just as much as reading the Harry Potter series had. Instead of seeing a white cast of characters, I saw more brown than white. Not only was there a brown woman of color protagonist with curly hair, but also a fantastic mythology involving two brown-skinned gods and one white one. The plot involving these characters and more added even more color. I imagined the gods dressed in silver, yellow, and black and their universe as a limitless rainbow of planets and stars.
While The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was part of a trilogy, I didn’t read the other books until much later. I believed that fantasy authors of color were a rarity… I gradually forgot about the book.
It took me getting tired of seeing the same old faces and plots in fantasy to start searching for alternatives. I did online searches and gradually found fantasy books with black and Asian characters and authors.
It occurred to me that there were probably other people who, like me, didn’t know these books existed. Since I had a personal blog where I was already reviewing books, I started reviewing books with authors and characters of color. Soon, I was focusing on black speculative fiction, especially after I discovered independent black authors on the web. These authors would show me that not only was it possible for people of color to exist in fantasy fiction, but also they didn’t need society’s permission to do so.
A few years after I discovered black indie fantasy authors, I learned that this same lesson applied to black indie comic creators and artists. The first fantasy webcomic I read by a black creator was Agents of the Realmby Mildred Louis. Agents of the Realm sparked an appreciation for comic artists and creators of color that I hadn’t felt since I read Japanese manga.
After I discovered more fantasy webcomics with people of color characters and creators, I became fully immersed in comics, both mainstream and indie. The titles that made the most impact were Ms. Marvel by G. Willow Wilson and The Legend of Bold Riley by Leia Weathington. These comics made me see American comics in a new light by showing me how diverse creators can create diverse stories and characters that appeal to me. They also inspired me to spread the word about comics as a freelance writer—and they helped me understand what the fantasy genre meant to me.
Fantasy gave me a wild imagination, entertainment, and a sharper mind. It showed me that magic could exist in this world, another world, and in myself.
I fight for diversity in the fantasy genre because I didn’t know I could exist in a fantasy world or make my own until I was an adult.
Even though their sparks seem small, marginalized readers and authors have as much magic as everyone else. The more magic we acknowledge, the more fantasy will ignite reality.
I stopped being a writer; today I have the words to tell you why.
I don’t write because I’m being watched. I turn off the words; I numb the feelings; I avoid the associations; I distract the thinking; I step away from the situation. I am here to document the ways in which I have chosen silence over action.
The first time I went to Friday prayers after moving to Chicago, no one said salaamto me. I thought, “Is this how a Desi gets treated in a predominately Arab masjid?” I remembered Dad telling me about the young, connectionless men at his masjid. He said, “They keep coming and going out of nowhere – they must be spies. No one talks to them.”
He asked me, when I told him about volunteering at an Islamic nonprofit, where their charitable donations went. He said these organizations get in trouble for sending their money abroad and their members get labeled terrorist sympathizers.
I text my sisters that I have a thing to tell them that’s not bad but I feel weird telling them on the phone so remind me to tell you when we all next meet (days, weeks, months?) so whoever the FBI has assigned to read this group text won’t find out (can’t I have some secrets, FBI agent?).
Before we got married, Neema seriously asked me if I was an FBI agent. “You’re perfect,” he said. Too perfect, he didn’t say.
You could say we’re paranoid; but we’ll say we’re up-to-date on our news and have learned our histories. Connection is risk.
I decided to practice radical empathy after Michael Brown was shot. I did not and do not have a hard time feeling empathy for protesters, for rioters, for the rage that leads people into the streets or for the rage that leads them to want objects to burn. I never wrote that I felt this way but I do feel this way and have no difficulty conjuring these emotions (but do struggle to make them disappear).
I practiced empathizing with George Zimmerman and with Darren Wilson and with Timothy Loehmann and with the officers of Waller County Jail and with Dante Servin and with the Baltimore Police Department and with Jason Van Dyke and with and with and with and with and with
I didn’t like it and I succeeded. But that’s a different story.
I am going to qualify here because if I do not you will wonder that having empathy for someone does not mean excusing someone.
I tried practicing radical empathy after James Foley was executed.
I am trying not to stop myself from writing this.
I tried practicing radical empathy after James Foley was executed. That empathy exists as a heaviness in my chest and a shortness of my breath. That empathy pushes at the edges of my heart but I am scared to let it in. I feel it as a failure of my humanity and I fear it as a failure of our humanity. I do not Google ISIS because I do not want anyone to know I Google ISIS. I do not know the stories or motivations or language of the humans-not-monsters who constitute ISIS because I do not think I can subsequently assert their humanity without putting my own into question. Empathy is risk. I am not a monster.
But I will own to being a coward; by now you know this. In my circles we talk about strategies for change: sometimes you want to be a Malcolm and sometimes you want to be a Martin. Mostly I am a chump choking back both my words of violence and my words of peace.
I remember back to my ethics class in journalism school. The question was whether journalists should not publish information that the government asks them not to publish for security. “Well of course,” said the class, “for security.”
For. Whose. Security?
I do not remember agreeing to value our lives more than their lives. I do remember my question knocking up against the insides of my teeth as I kept my mouth shut. I do remember remembering Abu Ghraib and air strikes against civilians and the Pentagon Papers and the people like me who were killed for the security of people like me. I do remember not saying that I thought our allegiance as journalists was to the truth.
I grew out of wanting to argue to argue. I do not hold these ideas as objects in my mind with dimensions I can manipulate and play with. I feel them in my gut and they bubble up as bile in my mouth. I do not want to taste this publicly in our class discussion or over coffee or as a Facebook comment. I do not want the acid that is burning holes in my stomach to sting in polite company. Would you even understand that while I skinned my knees on the same playgrounds as American soldiers and while my livelihood is tied up in American interests they serve, my mouth also prays the same prayers as those Arabs and Afghans and Pakistanis and Persians we are meant to fear? Maybe you could not understand me but you do suspect me in my skinny jeans and brown skin.
Understand this: I have written. And I have deleted. And deleted and deleted.
I know I am watched. As a consequence, I decided to restrict my speech and my press and my pursuit of happiness. I have been silent, but I have not been blind. I, too, have been watching.
I started stealing razors from my dad in the first grade. It was easy.
I watched my mom and older sisters do the same for as long as I could remember. As soon as I began sprouting hair in areas I didn’t want covered (i.e., not the top of my head), I slicked them off quickly and painlessly without telling a soul.
Although I began signaling sexual maturation sooner than most, I was sure that my very understanding mother wouldn’t approve of depilation at age six. I was right. Dr. Miles, my pediatrician, had forewarned her that I showed signs of precocious puberty. My mom vigilantly observed for the markers that I expertly hid.
When I began menstruating at age ten — I concealed that fact for months before an untimely trip to the mall forced me to reveal it — my mom, in shock, exclaimed that it had happened before any pubic hair growth. I sassily retorted that that was only because I handled the fuzzy inconvenience before she even noticed. The glare she darted my way warned me to tread carefully in my remarks.
I was often referred to as “mujercita sin tiempo” — little woman before her time. It began when I decided to put the dolls away and play instead with my little sister. Toys held my interest for a very short period of time. That was the most prominent feature of my precociousness until I opened my mouth. That mouth got me sent to the naughty table in the first grade. It was there that I formed a lifelong friendship with Miguel, the first and only person to know that I had “woman problems” at the time. Perhaps my smart aleck-y attitude should havve alerted my mother to the situation.
Merriam-Webster simply defines precociousness as having or showing the qualities or abilities of an adult an unusually early age, exceptionally early in development or occurrence (emphasis on early). The National Library of Medicine provides a more precise demarcation for precociousness. Precocious puberty is the development of sexual maturation in boys and girls at a chronological age that is 2.5 standard deviations below the mean age of onset of puberty in the general population.
The language is ominous. Precocious puberty is 2.5 times away from average. Average is typical. Two and a half standard deviations below normal naturally seems abnormal. But is it?
For me, it was a minor change. And if you take it from the perspective of pediatric endocrinologist Louise Greenspan, MD, coauthor of The New Puberty, a book geared toward guiding parents through early development and sexual maturation, it’s a minor change for a growing number of girls. In a study launched in 2005 that evaluated a controlled group of girls in three cities, nearly 10 percent of the participants developed signs of puberty before eight years of age.
On a slow Saturday night, a Google search of “early puberty” returns approximately 1.3 million hits in 0.31 seconds. The right side of the search window shows a chart proclaiming precocious puberty a rare condition that is treatable by a medical professional.
Several headlines, some by prestigious news organizations, lament this ordinary change, a change that occurs in all (minus a sliver of a minority) sooner or later. Each publication parrots the others, rattling off a list of negative affects of early maturation — depression, eating disorders, substance abuse, early initiation of sexual activity, etc. — expounding the fears of clueless parents.
I was the fourth born, the third girl in a family of five siblings. My home was a stable household steeped in femininity. I watched my two older sisters grow into their womanhood, and the lessons my mother instilled in them flowed unto me in seamless transition. While I didn’t comprehend everything that was happening, I did understand that puberty was a series of events that would occur over time. My mother explained these changes as they were presented to my sisters, as I was a witness to their evolving bodies. My turn would be next. I wasn’t sure when, but I did know it was coming.
Four years ago, writer Elizabeth Weil profiled a mother and daughter experiencing the onset of precocious puberty for a piece in the New York Times Magazine. The article chronicled how Tracee Sioux, mother and now author of The Year of Yes! fought for a “solution or treatment” to the “problem condition” her nonplussed daughter, Ainsley, was traversing. Doctor after doctor had deemed Ainsley advanced but normal, but that was not the answer Tracee sought. The big, ugly world was revealing itself much too soon. Momma bear had to protect and guard against it. A puritanical concept of innocence was at stake.
The false sense of loss of innocence is the most pressing negative affect of early onset puberty. Society’s fixation on the sexualization of young girls — the famed Lolita Syndrome — should not dictate how we educate our daughters. Let’s divorce the idea of being wanted from that of being a woman and teach girls from the earliest moment possible that they are the owners of their own bodies, and that while they grow, those bodies will change. Girls need to be granted agency over their selves in order to successfully navigate the challenges that arise from childhood into adulthood. Womanhood does not begin with desirability.
In her “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” Leslie Jamison suggests that being a woman requires pain. Jamison goes as far as describing menstruation as “one kind of wound.” For such a central aspect of womanhood to be described as an affliction so casually is troubling. If everything ails, nothing will heal. Pain is not a gender.
Women need to lead the change to stop the stigmatization of our changing bodies. While it may seem preferable to be viewed as a victim rather than a whore, both perspectives are damaging. Our collective understanding of self should be the source of our bonding. The pains of our periods may indicate the possibility of fertility. There should be no shame in that potential. It’s potential: a maybe, but not a certainty. And if it does become a certainty, the reality is just another step in life.
Puberty is a beginning and not an end. It’s a minor change that leads to another that will successively lead to more. It may be scary (or not) and weird at first, but it’s just another phase, like fallen teeth and lanky limbs. Our bodies are our own, and that personal space requires respect. Teach this to our girls and our boys.
Let’s not rob our girls of the beauty of transformation. It will happen whether you want it to or not. Womanhood is process. Revel in the process. Revel in self-care. Love being a woman. It is not unclean.
When I was a kid, I used my indoor voice a lot, even when I was outside. It didn’t feel natural to me to be loud, to yell. My mom taught me that I don’t need to be loud to get my point across.
My mom also taught me and my siblings that it’s important to call people out on their bullcrap. “I hate injustice,” she would say. Unfortunately, when you’re a woman—especially a woman of color—speaking your mind about things that are wrong is deemed a problem.
In Blythe Baird’s slam poem “Pocket Sized Feminism,” she says that she hates keeping her feminism in her pocket and only bringing it out at women’s studies classes or slam poetry events. “I want people to like me more than I want to change the world,” she writes. That is how our society tries to mold us: Go with the flow, even if you see that things are hitting the fan. If you dodge it, it will go away.
We hesitate to voice our opinions on subjects that are important to us because the media has put this idea in our heads that we should be “cool” girls or girlfriends who don’t bother guys with our “silly” issues—like feminism—or else we will be a downer. Discussing why we need to close the pay gap or why we need to stop the push of rape culture is burdening men with opinions and conversations that make them uncomfortable—that’s what we learn, and it’s a deeply problematic idea.
But women who exchange indoor for outdoor voices must expect a lot of resistance, especially in the Internet age.
When Harvard professor Danielle Allen wrote a piece called “The Moment of Truth: We Must Stop Trump,” she received racist, sexist, and even anti-Semitic tweets from Donald Trump supporters. “It was a prompt for the trolls,” she said. While this kind of reaction would cause some people to log off of Twitter altogether, it didn’t deter Allen. For her, it was a chance to show others the dangerously ethno-nationalist views his supporters share.
When seventeen-year-old Amandla Stenberg posted her project, “Don’t Cash Crop on My Cornrows,” where she discussed the problems of cultural appropriation of black culture, comments about her being an “angry black girl,” “stupid,” and even “racist” went flying. Women of color who air their views on feminism, racism, and misogyny online are routinely bullied by those who would silence us.
In a world that preaches that it wants you to stand up for what you believe in, the fact that there are people who will harass you for doing so is perplexing. When I see the constant nonsense that women put up with online and in person for taking action in their beliefs, I feel exhausted for them. It can be mentally and emotionally draining trying to educate people and create a dialogue with them on important issues when they don’t want to make an effort. Being ignorant is much easier than being woke.
In an interview with Rookie Magazine, Rowan Blanchard talks about how she learned to stop apologizing for herself. “It has felt safer and less terrifying to silence myself to a degree … I have treated, specifically male feelings and ego, as superior and more fragile than my own.” I felt the same way growing up, and in some ways still do. I’ve had to learn how to stop myself from rethinking how I sound and how I act when I put someone in their place, especially when that person is a guy. If I don’t, I find myself pulling back and thinking that I sound kind of bitchy. I end up feeling bad, and I forget the reason why I told the other person off to begin with. There are times when I subconsciously try to keep my tone of voice low, even if I’m passionate about something, because I’m afraid of coming across as angry.
We’ve been taught to put our feelings on the back burner and to protect other people’s feelings, even when they are hurting us. We learn from this that what we have to say doesn’t matter—unless it benefits the majority. I’ve come to understand, though, that apologizing for how I feel doesn’t get me anywhere. If I genuinely hurt someone’s feelings, I’ll apologize. But if you’re intimidated by my opinion or presence, I’m not apologizing for it.
When you’re a woman of color, not only do you have to be conscious of possibly hurting a man’s feelings and ego, but you have to do the same with white people’s feelings. That’s why when we talk about the systemic effects of racism and sexism in our society, we are told to shut up and that we’re the reason racism still exists. Really? How can you say that we need to have an open and honest discussion about race, but when we bring it up, we’re the racists? It’s a move that favors those with power, who control the discussion by refusing to let it happen.
When I see women like Netta and Amandla on the covers of magazines, and young black women thanking them for being an inspiration, it makes me feel good. It reminds me that even when people try to stifle us with stereotypes like that of “Angry black woman,” call us derogatory names, and even threaten our wellbeing, we can’t let them win by keeping quiet.
Use your outdoor voice. Speak up. Get involved. Do what feels right to you. Why should we apologize for simply existing? We were brought into this world. The fact that we are here on this Earth is validation that we deserve our space.
The idea of self-care sounds, well, selfish. And to be selfish is bad.
At least that’s what we’ve been taught since we were toddlers. We were told to share even when we didn’t want to and to apologize whether or not we felt it. We, as women especially, are told by our parents, caregivers, teachers, and society to hold our tears, lower our voices, and take one for the team. The idea of putting others ahead of ourselves becomes more and more ingrained as we get older. To love someone is to put their needs above your own. We are taught, either directly or indirectly, to sacrifice in all the roles we play: wife, partner, mother, colleague, friend, daughter.
All my life as a Palestinian-American I was taught to put others before myself. It is a good lesson. It is a noble endeavor—and yet it can go too far. There never seems to be a limit. Even when I want to say no, I am embarrassed and feel compelled to say yes. I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. There have been so many times over the years that I’ve stayed up all night preparing food for a dinner party, the whole time berating myself. Or the countless times a friend has called to ask me to visit or to go out or to let their kids come over, and I just said yes. Because that’s what I do. It’s what I’ve been taught by my parents. The culture my father and grandparents brought with them from Palestine was very clear: people come first.
I grew up in a house that seemed like it had a revolving door. We always had guests over. Relatives would stop by for coffee and stay for hours. We’d serve a set menu of “courses” that we all knew by heart. From the moment guests entered the house, we all took our positions. Our parents would sit with them in the living room, and me and my sisters would head to kitchen to start making tea. Tea was served with biscuits, followed by fruit, followed by American coffee with an assortment of cakes, followed by mixed nuts and water or more tea. Sometimes visits went into overtime, and we’d find ourselves pacing the kitchen asking, “What else can we serve?” Last thing was always Arabic coffee. When you served Arabic coffee, it meant the visit was over.
Luckily, there were five of us, so there was always someone to help or cover for whoever needed to study or work. But someone had to cover that kitchen. Now that my mother had teenage daughters, she was free to work and socialize, and we took over the household duties. But she never took time for herself. My mother worked full-time. She commuted from Brooklyn to Manhattan and back every day on the subway. But she never came home and locked herself in a room for some quiet time. She never took a Saturday spa day. When we shopped for clothes, she never bought anything for herself. Or if she did, she left herself for last.
It’s a common story. Most women can identify with this. Once I became a mother, I fell into the same pattern. My husband worked, and I stayed home with the kids. I breastfed and we practiced attachment parenting. My five kids are all two years apart. I was stuck in a cycle of breastfeeding, weaning, and potty training. My entire day was filled with children, housework, and cooking. If friends came over, it meant more of the same. It wasn’t that I was unhappy—just unfulfilled.
Again, it’s not a new story. Many women can relate to this. In my case it was babies and cultural obligations. To someone else, it’s a demanding boss or husband, an overwhelming friend or sibling. We all have stresses in our lives. But we don’t know what to do about them. We know we need to take better care of ourselves physically; we diet or go to the gym. But we don’t take time for ourselves emotionally or mentally. We don’t prioritize ourselves.
Self-care is literally defined as anything you do to care for yourself. It can be anything: a walk, a deep breath, a quiet moment of reflection, or a full-on spa day. And yet very few of us take the time. The problem isn’t just the physical, it’s the mental. Whenever I did get a chance to have alone time, I’d spend most of the time watching the clock or thinking about how the kids were doing.
Until recently. Once my youngest started going to school, I didn’t really know what to do with myself. I started taking yoga, and it was the first step toward finding my center. After every class, there would be a kind of prayer to remind us to set our intentions for the day, to be mindful and gentle with ourselves. Just those simple reminders resonated with me. I felt lighter. I felt hopeful and empowered to take on the day. But then I’d leave and go back to reality and get bogged down in the routines of the day.
Then I was invited to join a women’s circle by my yoga instructor. It was a workshop of sorts for women to discuss the idea of courage. I am not one to try new things, but I was intrigued. When I entered the room, it felt like the first day of school. Everyone was just looking around at each other, unsure of what to say or do. We sat in a circle and began to introduce ourselves, and as we did, the anxiety began to fall away. It became clear that we were all looking for support in some way. We all wanted to feel like we were not alone. Because the reality is, we all feel like we are. We buy into the lie that we need to do everything. We are afraid and ashamed to ask for help. The more we feel the need to accomplish on our own, the more we tend to neglect our own needs.
The purpose of this women’s circle was to learn to be our most authentic selves—to break out of living by habit, the tendency to just go through the motions, and truly listen to our needs. Emotional distress tends to settle in our bodies in various ways; we feel anxiety in the pits of our stomachs or our necks and shoulders ache from the burden. But what if we could let go of our emotions instead of holding on to them? Emotions are just emotions, not good or bad, and they only need ninety secondsto course through the body. Ninety seconds! Allow yourself to feel it, and then poof! It’s gone. This idea changed my life. Before, I would get angry with my kids for something which would lead to me ranting about how they don’t appreciate me or how they never listen. But after learning this ninety-second gem, I began to give myself a moment to breathe and then tackle the problem. I taught it to my older kids, too. It’s a work in progress, but it was a tangible tool I could remind myself to use.
I was not living my best life. The most helpful part of being in the women’s circle was realizing that I was preventing myself from feeling fulfilled. I have always wanted to be a writer, but I was afraid of rejection. There were so many stories I wanted to tell about our travels through the Middle East or raising children, but I wouldn’t write anything down. Forget submitting, I wouldn’t even put pen to paper! But in the circle, I realized so much of that fear didn’t come from anything real. I had never had anyone read my writing and say, “This is crap! Never do this again!’ It was all in my head, as so many fears tend to be. My wonderful coach asked me to go back to my earliest memory when I felt my voice was silenced, and I realized that while I was never told not to write, I was also never encouraged to. Culturally, while I was growing up, girls weren’t told to follow their dreams. We were told to get married, start a family, and then follow your dreams if your husband was okay with it. I internalized those messages. My writing became a dream just out of reach. I encourage you, dear readers, to sit in a quiet place and really think about what’s holding you back. What’s keeping you from following your dreams? Or simply taking an hour for yourself?
When an opportunity for an open call for writers came up, I decided to do it. Whether or not it was accepted, I was determined to get over the fear. Thankfully, instead of all the voices in my head telling me I couldn’t, I finally felt like I could. So I did. And I was successful! My writing was accepted and liked. What a feeling to hear someone has read your stuff and liked it. With that newfound confidence and validation, I started going after new opportunities.
Not everyone will be able to join a women’s circle or have a coach, but we can all help ourselves. We can all take time from our days to take a deep breath. We are worth the time. This may be our biggest challenge as women yet. But healing ourselves will heal those around us. My kids have seen me realize my dreams, and it has inspired them to do the same. Holding ourselves back does not help anyone. Forcing ourselves to do for others when it is draining us only creates bitterness. It is not selfish to take care of ourselves mentally, emotionally, spiritually, or physically. It is imperative.