Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Science Fiction and Muslim Identity

Alif the Unseen, the 2012 debut novel of G. Willow Wilson, takes an inventive approach to the contemporary techno thriller. Its titular hacktivist is a freelance security provider trying to evade the oppressive state censors in the unnamed emirate where he lives. And he's aided in his efforts by a mystical, ancient text titled One Thousand and One Arabian Days. Wilson, a young American woman who converted to Islam after moving to Egypt and falling in love in the early 2000s, seamlessly blends elements of fantasy, dystopian adventure, Islamic literature, and contemporary politics into a genre-defying literary read.

And for Noor Hashem, a Mellon postdoctoral fellow in the Humanities, Wilson's Alif is a prime example of how a growing number of Muslim fiction writers are turning to genres like science fiction, fantasy, and comics to navigate Muslim identity and aesthetics in a post-Sept. 11 world.

"She's really someone who is taking charge in this field," Hashem says, adding that Wilson is an active comics writer and part of the creative team behind one of the most successful mainstream examples of this trend: Marvel Comics' reboot of Ms. Marvel. In the Marvel universe, three different women characters have gone by the Ms. Marvel name since the late 1960s, and the super-heroine series relaunched last year with Kamala Khan in the title role. Khan is a Pakistani-American teenager living with her parents in New Jersey, the first Muslim character to headline a comic in the publisher's history. [...]

It's not surprising that Muslim writers are exploring the metaphorical freedom that this genre encourages. The 20th century is littered with writers, from Octavia Butler and Angela Carter to Philip K. Dick and Samuel R. Delany, who use fantasy and sci-fi to navigate ideas about gender, politics, race, and sexuality. But where sci-fi writers might allude to Christian spirituality and a secular Western literary tradition, Hashem is seeing Muslim fiction writers explore Islam and its literary culture in their works, such as the comic book series The 99, an allusion to the 99 names or characteristics of God; Helen Wecker's The Golem and the Jinni, Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt, and the short-story collection A Mosque Among the Stars.

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