What inspired me to write MOMMY'S KHIMAR is the same as what inspired me to become a children’s literature author to begin with. Up until two years ago, I had never seriously thought about writing children’s books although I had vague dreams of becoming a novelist. I would like to say there was some deep or ethereal inspiration that began my work in kidlit. However, my children’s book writing really started with a Facebook post.
I’m a member of a closed Facebook group for Muslim mothers. Members are mainly from the U.S. and many of the members are African American. We discuss a wide range of topics related to parenting and one repeated topic is lack of representation. One day back in 2015 another Black Muslim woman posted to the group about the types of books she wished her kids had--books that told our history and books that represented our kids. Many other mothers chimed in to agree. What was especially true for these moms and for me was that even in stories about Muslim children, Black Muslim children were almost never represented.
Although in the U.S., Black Americans make up the largest population of Muslims, a post-9/11 focus on representing American Muslims as foreign has meant that almost all portrayals of Muslims are of immigrants from Middle Eastern or South Asian descent. Additionally, in stories about Black people that feature spirituality, Christianity is almost always the faith that’s depicted. Black American Muslims are simply erased in most literature and popular culture.
I have always been a dreamer and that Facebook post made me daydream for hours. Many characters flooded my mind. The girl in MOMMY'S KHIMAR was one of them. It sounds strange but it was almost like these characters had always been somewhere locked up in my brain and I just needed an impetus to let them out. I had always had these stories to tell and just needed to tell them.
I jotted down many ideas and then started to plot and organize them. I soon became obsessed with learning how to write children’s books, reading everything I could online, purchasing writing guides for my Kindle app because going to the bookstore took too long, and taking out children’s books from the library so that I could carefully dissect and imitate them. I’m a perfectionist and wanted to get this very interesting artform correct. I spent hours writing and rewriting stories and even reading them to my son who was entering kindergarten around this time. He was my first critic! I found that I loved the challenges of picture book writing.
One of the stories I began writing was about a little Black girl playing with a hijab, the head covering worn by some Muslim women. Literature about hijab, whether in story, nonfiction, or poetic form, is almost always serious and even political. However, in thinking about how I saw hijab as a little girl, I remember seeing it as a dress up item--a soft piece of cloth that could be manipulated and used in pretend play. I didn’t want to write another serious story to defend hijab or show its importance. I wanted to take this scarf that has become so controversial and show it as the simple cloth I saw it as while I was a girl.
In my stories, I wanted to show my underrepresented people to the fullest extent and that affected my decision to include a non-Muslim family member in MOMMY'S KHIMAR as well as using the word “khimar” in the title. Like many Black American Muslims, I grew up with Christian relatives. And like many Black American Muslims, I grew up calling the headscarf a “khimar” not a “hijab.” Both words are used in Islamic scripture; however, for whatever reason, early Black American Muslim communities used the word “khimar” while others don’t commonly do so. I wanted the book to feel unmistakably Black and Muslim for the children of those moms who first inspired me. And I wanted to take that identity and put it in the mainstream. It seems I may get what I want.
In publishing with a mainstream publisher, one thing that worries me is whether others will be interested in MOMMY'S KHIMAR and other stories I write. Do others care about the lives of Black American Muslims? I think about my own interest in stories about people whose backgrounds are very different from mine. I think about the time when I went on a reading binge of Victorian novels and my recent discovery of Lisa See’s novels about ancient China and 20th century Asian Americans. I think about how in middle school I identified with so many of the white characters Judy Blume created. And I think about how as a kid I used to write stories for fun and that my characters were always white and never Muslim because the books I read showed me that’s how it was supposed to be. I know intuitively that it’s not impossible to care about characters that are very different from the reader. I know it and yet it’s still a worry.
Thanks for caring enough to read.
MOMMY'S KHIMAR by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow, illustrated by Ebony Glenn
Simon & Schuster (Salaam Reads); April 3, 2018
Currently Available for Pre-order from Amazon and Major Bookstores