Andika was a student in the kid’s karate class at that I taught at the University of King’s College ISKF for a decade. His parents were Muslims from Indonesia, and always treated me with the utmost kindness, calling me Master Richard (even though I’m not a karate master), and bowing low before talking after class. His father was doing his post-doc work at Dalhousie, while his mother raised the children in their traditional home. They bought me sweet, touching gifts every Christmas.
Andika loved karate. And by that I mean to say he loved it. From the very first class, he wore a smile as big as an sunny September sky. His ability to focus on lessons and advance through the ranks was remarkable and, in a class filled with wonderful children, he shined. He never missed a class that I remembered.
At the end of that Wednesday class, I asked my 30 or students to sit naturally. I told them that something horrible had happened because some crazy men had wanted to hurt innocent Americans.
And I said when something terrible happens, people look for easy answers. They look for someone to blame. And I said that narrow-minded people all over the world would be angry at Muslims just because they’re Muslim.
And then I told them to think about Andika.
“Have you ever seen a cuter kid in your life?” I asked. I could see my students smiling, nodding, and chuckling because it was true. Andika was adorable. Everyone in the class really liked him.
People are going to be angry about what happened, I continued, and they’re going to be furious at Muslims. They’ll be mad at people like just like Andika and his parents. People who are kind and generous and wonderful.
And that I said that over the next months — probably even longer — Muslims like Andika would be targeted by people who were racist and cruel. And I told them we might not be able to change the world, or stop planes from flying into towers but, if we have the courage to speak and act when we see injustice, we can stop a few innocent people from being hurt. Even people who were living in Halifax.
People like Andika.
And that’s a big reason why I am so grateful to Jennifer Zobair.
There are many reasons for me to be so, because Jennifer has been a kind and supportive friend since we first met during an ill-fated writing competition two years ago. She offered many valuable comments after reading Secrets of the Hotel Maisonneuve, and organized a bevy of writers who combined their talents to help me survive the financial burden of neurosurgery last year.
And she’s done something extraordinary. For people like Andika.
Jennifer’s written a lovely book about smart, sophisticated Muslim women who are navigating the fraught world of a post-9/11 America. Painted Hands is poignant and nuanced, and provides a deep insight into every day lives that suffer from subtle and overt racism. She’s a gifted writer, and her ear for dialogue is first-rate, so you really feel this story.
So, in these days of racist talk radio and and media bullies, Jennifer Zobair’s allowed us to know, for a brief time, a world too few of us have tried to understand.
I think her own words tell it best, in this brilliant article for The Rumpus.
I understand that multicultural fiction does not exist simply to speak truth to bigotry. And still this is, for me, part of its importance. It is not as good as actually knowing someone, but it is close. If you love Celie or Shug or Kimbili or Sethe, I believe you are going to have a harder time seeing African Americans as “other.” If you experience the love between Jack and Ennis, it is exponentially more difficult to see love between gay people as different from love between straight couples.
Of course, these are often also big, beautiful, breathtaking stories with stunning voices and plots and characterization. But my heart clings to this: It is harder to hate a group of people when you know people from that group.
This is my truth.
It’s mine, too.
Please welcome Jennifer Zobair to Telling Stories.
About Painted Hands
Muslim bad girl Zainab Mir and her best friend Amra Abbas have thwarted proposal-slinging aunties and cultural expectations to succeed in their high-powered careers in Boston. What they didn’t count on? The unlikely men who shatter their friendship, including a childhood friend who turns out to be more traditional than he let on, and a right-wing politico with career-threatening secrets of his own. When the personal and the geopolitical collide, and a controversial prayer service leads to violence, Zainab and Amra must figure out what they’re willing to risk for their principles, their friendship, and love.
About Jennifer Zobair
Jennifer Zobair grew up in Iowa and graduated from Smith College and Georgetown Law School. She has practiced corporate and immigration law in New York and Michigan, and has been a strong advocate for Muslim women’s rights. She is married to a fellow Georgetown Law graduate who happens to be Pakistani-American, which means she knows her cumin from her coriander and that the dry cleaner is lying when he says he can remove that big blob of henna from your favorite white pants. She lives with her husband and three children in the Boston area.
Author Jennifer Zobair Answers 25 Questions
1) What was your favorite book as a child? What is your favorite children’s book?
My favorite book as a child was Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson (which still has the power to make me cry, by the way.) My favorite children’s book now is The Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson by Bette Bao Lord, which is just so beautifully written and important.
2) What is your most marked characteristic? Does it help or hinder you?
I’m pretty sensitive, and I think this helps me feel a great deal of empathy for other people. But it also means I don’t have the thickest skin.
3) Which quality do you most like in a man?
That he’s a feminist, that he’s fully committed to women’s equality and self-determination, that he’ll fight for those things. Bonus points if he calls himself one.
4) Which quality do you most like in a woman?
True compassion, and the ease and confidence with herself that it requires. Women who embody one of my favorite Alice Walker quotes:
“I think that’s what I get from these older women, that sense that every soul is to be cherished, that every flower is to bloom. That is a very different world view from what we’ve been languishing under, where the thought is that the only way I can bloom is if I step on your flower, the only way I can shine is if I put our your light.”
5) What is your favorite memory?
When I was pregnant with our third child, my then-five-year-old son, Tariq, secretly arranged to have my husband’s sister help him get flowers to give me in the hospital. I was sitting up in bed the morning after giving birth, holding our new son, and my husband was holding our two-year-old daughter in the chair next to me. Tariq rushed in with this enormous vase of flowers, all smiles and little boy cuteness, and proceeded to dump his gift on me, soaking the entire bed. He felt awful, but it was one of the sweetest things ever, and I just remember thinking I have everything I need right here.
6) Describe the best meal you’ve ever had.
The best meal I’ve ever had is any masala dosa I’ve ever eaten in any Indian restaurant anywhere. I’m addicted.
7) What’s the best book you’ve read in the last two years? The best movie you’ve seen?
The best book I’ve read in the past two years is Christie Hodgen’s Elegies for the Brokenhearted, which begins with a sentence that is more than 150 words. It’s brilliant. The entire novel is devastatingly brilliant. The voice is masterful. It’s the kind of book that makes you certain you can never write another word, because it will fall so far short, and yet also makes you want to go write something immediately.
The best movie is Silver Linings Playbook, which I love more every time I think about it. It’s a tough story in parts, and also just so smartly funny. The two lead roles are played flawlessly, and the script makes me so envious as a writer.
8) What characteristic about yourself would you most like to change?
If you put this question to people who know me well, they would all answer in unison, “Worrying!” It is definitely an issue for me and I’d love to get better about it.
9) What always make you happy?
10) What always angers you?
Injustice, particularly when predicated on bigotry.
11) At this moment, where would you most like to be?
Wherever my kids are.
12) Tell me about a boneheaded mistake you make in writing Painted Hands?
I said “and then” excessively in the original manuscript. My agent pointed it out to me, that this was my “writer’s tic.” He was very kind about it. He said everyone has one. When I reread, naturally I was mortified.
13) What has social media brought to your life?
For the most part, it has been an amazing experience, connecting me to talented and generous writers, many of whom have become dear friends. I couldn’t have made this journey without them.
14) Who is your favorite fictional heroine and why? And fictional hero?
I don’t know that I think of characters in these terms, but my favorite fictional female protagonist is Celie from The Color Purple. The distance she covers from the beginning of the novel to the end, in terms of seeing herself as valuable, of believing she has the right to speak—to the God she believes in, to those around her, to men—is so great my heart soars.
My favorite male protagonist is Ennis del Mar in Annie Proulx’s short story, Brokeback Mountain. I’ve read it countless times and now all I need to do is get to the penultimate sentence of the prologue–”If he does not force his attention on [his dream about Jack], it might stoke the day, rewarm that old, cold time on the mountain when they owned the world and nothing seemed wrong”–and my heart is breaking.
15) Who are your three favourite composers (or musicians)?
Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls, who composed some of my favorite songs like Closer to Fine, Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, especially for Alive, and Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, who sings the male vocals to Teri Ore, which is played during a wedding in my novel. In looking up his name, I discovered that he worked with Eddie Vedder on the Dead Man Walking soundtrack. I have to admit that this kind of blew my mind.
16) Who is your favorite painter?
17) Which talent would you most like to have?
I would love to be able to cook vegan Indian food that tastes as good as that found in the best restaurants in New York City.
18) How would you like to be remembered?
As a good mother, as someone who tried to be kind to people, as a person who stood up for the right things.
19) What has been the most exciting part of being published?
I have to say getting the offer from my agent and the offer from my editor rank pretty high up there. Both made me shriek and then cry. Holding the final book was pretty amazing, too. Okay, truthfully?. The whole process has been ridiculously exciting.
20) What is your greatest regret?
That my grandparents aren’t here to celebrate Painted Hands with me. They would have been so proud and excited.
21) Aside from your book, of what accomplishment are you most proud?
My children. I don’t know how much of the credit goes to me, but they are just really compassionate, engaged, amazing kids.
22) What is in heavy rotation on your iPod?
Indigo Girls, Pearl Jam, Mumford & Sons, Sheryl Crow, Fun. “Teri Ore” when I want to feel close to my novel. Also? One Direction. Because my 12-year-old daughter knows my iTunes password.
23) When was the last time you wept?
I’ve probably cried since then, but the last time I wept was in April, while watching the interfaith memorial service for the Boston Marathon attack victims.
24) What is your guilty pleasure?
Mountain Dew. And Dance Moms. But I’m trying to quit at least one of those things..
25) In what way do you hope your life will change now?
I hope it doesn’t.