In June 2021, a middle-grade debut told us the story of a champion underachiever who must start over in a new state with the help of three classic books. In this contemporary, the Indian-American Muslim boy is an inimitable protagonist who deals with bullies, makes new friends, and uncovers his family’s past —all while finding himself in three good stories. With a standout voice as Ahmed, the main character, is sarcastic and has a biting sense of humour, this Ahmed Aziz’s Epic Year is truly compassionate and authentic. Featuring a contemporary Muslim family, this coming-of-age tale shows a nuanced perspective. Needless to say, it’s a pleasure to have Nina Hamza, author of Ahmed Aziz’s Epic Year, elaborate on the power of ‘and’ in a story about identity. To view more such posts by Muslim authors, make sure to check out this collaboration, Muslim Musings, spanning over Ramadan 2022. This blog post may contain affiliate links. To know more about them, please read my disclaimer.
Nina Hamza, the author of Ahmed Aziz’s Epic Year, on the power of ‘and’ when crafting a middle-grade story about identity.
I grew up Indian and Muslim in an American community in Saudi Arabia.
My friend, Cherise, had a picture hanging in her house that summed up this unique experience for me. It was a photo of two women enjoying our beautiful local beach in their own way. One woman, covered head to toe in her burqa, crouching with her veiled face turned to the crashing waves. The woman next to her is lying on her back, in a bikini, her face and bare limbs soaking in the sun.
There were many moments and situations like that, growing up in Saudi Arabia. As an adult they seem incongruous, but as children we knew seemingly opposite things can co-exist, living comfortably side by side as long as we made the space. Instead of saying but it doesn’t make sense, we learned to say AND it makes total sense. The power of AND.
Like how I can feel too Muslim (thank you random airport checks) AND not Muslim enough (thank you lady who prays for me to start wearing a Hijab). Or how I feel my family is the most important thing to me, AND I also chose to live almost 8000 miles away from them.
Or how I believe that all stories are the same, AND I know diversity and representation matter. The first part of this sentence I learned as a child. The second, only as an adult.
Ahmed Aziz’s Epic Year by Nina Hamza
Ahmed Aziz is having an epic year—epically bad. His family moved from Hawaii to Minnesota because his dad got sick, and even though Minnesota is where his dad grew up, Ahmed can’t imagine a worse place to live—not that anyone asked him.
Being the new kid is tough, especially because Ahmed is the only brown-skinned student in a sea of white. But over the course of the school year, Ahmed—who never lives up to his potential—surprises himself by actually reading the three assigned books for his English class: Holes, Bridge to Terabithia, and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Even more surprising, he doesn’t hate the books. At the same time, Ahmed is learning about the uncle he never knew—his dad’s brother, who died young, and who Ahmed takes after. Investigating his family history offers Ahmed comfort as his dad’s health hangs in the balance. Could Ahmed be warming to Minnesota?
Like children everywhere, I grew up reading Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary and Enid Blyton. I felt the pain of Margaret, the frustration of Ramona, and the excitement of the Famous Five. It never occurred to me they were different because they were white. We felt the same joy, fears, love, anger, frustrations. Our stories are all the same.
Years ago, when TV shows that we watched had ads, I remember the first time I saw an Indian couple. I believe they were choosing a cell phone carrier. That’s all! They were doing something completely ordinary, something completely boring. They weren’t Apu from The Simpsons or Baljeet from Phineas and Ferb or Ravi from Jesse—my references reveal my kids’ ages at the time.
They were people living their life, who happened to be brown.
That was me. I was living my life. I happened to be brown.
I texted my sisters immediately because that’s what I do when I’m excited about something. This tiny, inconsequential thing was exciting. Those of you lucky enough to see yourself all the time on TV, in magazines, in books may not even understand. Because until that moment I didn’t understand. I didn’t know how badly I needed to see myself.
I am grateful others were smarter than me, already fighting the fight, pushing for representation so I could see myself before I knew I needed to.
Since then I’ve seen so many great children’s and middle grade titles and covers with kids of all skin colors and hair textures doing exciting things like going on adventures in fantasy lands, but also doing everyday things as they learn to love the shape of their eyes or the hair on their upper lip.
And that’s what I hope my book, Ahmed Aziz’s Epic Year, does for some kid. I hope they get to see their exact blend of American, Muslim, with a hint of Indian in Ahmed. AND I hope some kid who has zero American, Muslim, and no hint of Indian in them is able to pick up the book and think Whoa! This kid is just like me.
That’s the and I hope my book brings.
Nina Hamza moved to Minnesota from warmer climates. She tried downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, ice-skating, sledding, snow tubing, and snowshoeing before deciding the long winter months were perfect for reading and writing. Now she is happy to call Minnesota home. She writes about her experiences as a Muslim and an immigrant and has been published in the Star Tribune and the Chicago Tribune. Ahmed Aziz’s Epic Year is her debut novel. Visit her online at http://www.ninahamza.com.
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Everything stated in this post is independent of any compensation, and the guest writer’s comments and thoughts are solely their opinion; the formatting was done by the blogger but no changes were made in text.