Written by author N.H Senzai
By 1790, nearly 4 million immigrants lived in the United States, the majority British, 19 percent African, the rest European or unattached to a nation, such as the Jewish community. And within a year of his inauguration, President Washington sought restrictions with the first Naturalization Law, defining who could be an American: any alien, being a free white person, who had lived in the country for two years; neither blacks, brought as human cargo, nor natives, dispossessed of their land, need apply. Over time, Asians, Mexicans, those from southern Europe, the Middle East and Catholics faced restrictions, even bans, as their presence, voices and stories were unwelcome.
Two hundred years later, my father arrived, courtesy of the Hart-Celler Act of 1965 opening up immigration. Chilly Minneapolis had the young graduate student from India fleeing west for warmer climes. When my sister was introduced to her class in the San Francisco Bay Area, the boys greeted her with war cries as they played cowboys to her Indian. It took a while to explain that she was not the Indian Columbus had stumbled upon, but the ones he was actually looking for, in his desire for wealth and spices from the East Indies.
Growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, I felt a bit foreign; I didn’t see many others who looked like me, especially in the pages of books. Then my librarian handed me Sport by Louise Fitzhugh, and within the kaleidoscope of multicultural New York City, I encountered characters who crossed religious, ethnic and gender lines. I met Harry, who was black, and the first Muslim kid I’d seen in the pages of a contemporary, American novel. It struck me that if I knew Harry, others would too, and connect with his story. Years later, when I began to write, I sent my Afghan, Indian, Pakistani, Vietnamese, Middle Eastern and Muslim characters out to not only meet those who were searching for themselves, but also meet kids who’d never encountered characters like these in real life, and could get to know them better.
Since 1790, the United States has changed greatly as it has grown to embrace its rich diversity and become globally interconnected, facilitated by technological innovation. However, old fears and prejudices linger, and stories, such as Jeanette Winter’s Nasreen’s Secret School, a tale of a girl seeking knowledge in Taliban controlled Afghanistan, and The Librarian of Basra, about a librarian saving books during the Iraq war, have been banned and challenged for being too violent, inappropriate and having a “pro-Muslim agenda.”
And in the current political climate, with presidential elections around the corner, there is a push to go backward, to close borders, build walls and place restrictions on those perceived as foreign, even though they may be U.S. citizens. There is even a call to ban ethnic and religious groups, to banish them physically, silence their voices and their stories.
Today, more than ever, children need to have the ability to grasp the perspectives of people who don’t look like themselves, to be a part of this new landscape at home and abroad, because politically, economically and militarily, the United States has been involved in shaping the world, most recently in Afghanistan and Iraq. Our kids know about these engagements, and many have had family stationed there. Keeping them from connecting to these people is disingenuous at best, racist and discriminatory at worst.
As the Library Journal states, stories such as Nasreen’s is “an important book that makes events in a faraway place immediate and real.” A generation ago, and even today, The Diary of Anne Frank allows readers who may have never met a Jew to befriend Anne and experience her plight during the Holocaust. In a recent TEDx Talk, author Grace Lin relayed how students stopped teasing an Asian classmate after they read Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, Lin’s adventure story starring a Chinese girl named Minli. The book, Lin said, had made being Asian “kind of cool.”
In the Quran it says, “O mankind! … We made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise [each other].)” It is a lofty ideal, one I hope all writers, educators and librarians strive for, to introduce readers to books with characters they would not normally encounter — what Ambassador Gene Luen Yang challenges us to do by reading without walls.
Books have the powerful ability to open minds and be a messenger of peace and understanding, where characters, their voices and stories can transform social attitudes toward others by illustrating our shared humanity.
N.H Senzai is the author of award winning “Shooting Kabul,” chosen by the Asian Pacific Librarians Association as their Young Adult Literature winner and an NPR’s Backseat Book Club pick, along with Edgar Award nominee “Saving Kabul Corner” and “Ticket to India.” She spent her childhood in San Francisco, Jubail, Saudi Arabia and attended high school in London where she was voted “most likely to read a literary revolution” due to her ability to get away with reading comic books in class. Her upcoming novel is “Escape From Aleppo,” about a girl fleeing Syria at the advent of the Arab Spring (Summer 2017).