My interfaith activism was more than a decade old when I embarked upon a seemingly new career: fiction writing. From my perspective this was an extension of my non-fiction and technical writing: the end result of it all is activism through words, isn’t it? For others, it appeared not to be the case. When my short story collection Brick Walls: Tales of Hope & Courage from Pakistan was published in summer 2015, many of my colleagues and family members thought I had given up on interfaith work.
I can understand why that would be the case. Bringing people of different faiths – or none at all – together for long-term understanding and friendship is a very difficult thing to do, and not everyone is successful. Those who thought I had become disappointed or disheartened can easily be forgiven for thinking that fiction was my way of turning my back on this great cause. But thankfully, my work in the Houston area has energized and motivated me. Over the past decade I have seen the fruits of my humble labor in the countless men and women who have changed their attitudes after months or years in interfaith dialogue. I have received emails and personal testimonies from those who were critical of Islam but are now some of the most ardent supporters of Muslims.
Of course, these observations make others even more confused. If I have seen good things come out of interfaith activism, why then am I leaving it to write fiction? How can I focus on storytelling and entertainment when there is work to be done in the trenches? For me at least, the answer is simple: storytelling is another form of activism, and fiction may be stories but it doesn’t have to be entertainment.
Brick Walls is an example of how fiction can be a powerful form of activism. In it, I tell seven stories of fictional characters in my birth country of Pakistan. But while the characters are made-up, the events that they endure are very real. I like to call it fiction based on reality, because the issues I highlight in the collection are issues that Pakistanis deal with every day: poverty, sexism, corruption, terrorism and much more. Because my goal as a fiction writer was to remove stereotypes and showcase the complexity of a faith/culture (exactly the same goal as my activism, by the way) I was able to bring Brick Walls into my overall work as an interfaith activist.
What then, does this mean to the writer-activist? It means that we can create a real world for those around us using our words and yes, even fictional characters. Through fiction we can learn how other people dress, what cultural traditions they follow, what difficulties they face. By telling the story of one single person, we can share interfaith expectations and paint a broad picture of religion, society and so much more. I wrote about this effect in detail here when my book was first published.
Since Brick Walls was published last year, what I have learned is that fiction told carefully and respectfully can open the minds of readers to a different way of seeing things. Instead of sitting in an interfaith group saying “only a minute percentage point of Muslims support terrorism” I can tell the story of Faisal, a young man struggling with economic and emotional loss, who gets trapped into a terrorist cell despite his best intentions (Paradise Reinvented, the second story in Brick Walls). Instead of explaining that “corruption results in a lot of bad decisions in third world countries” I can tell the story of Lubna, who is falsely accused of a crime and thereafter overcomes a series of fantastical events designed to crush her spirit but which only serve to strengthen her faith (Free My Soul, the last story in Brick Walls). I can talk about heavy (and often boring) issues without using pie charts and data surveys. I can tell stories that make a difference.
I’m not the only one, of course. Countless authors from a variety of backgrounds are telling stories that educate under the guise of entertainment. I created a reading list for Huffington Post earlier, and also came up with a list of Muslim women authors on Twitter which later I complied onto Storify for safekeeping. There are others like me who are doing the same for their own faiths and cultures. The bottom line is that reading does make a difference, and a good book can stay with readers long after they have finished it. In practical terms this may mean starting a book club in lieu of inviting a speaker at your next interfaith event, or encouraging your local library to buy multicultural fiction. It may allow more non-religious people to become interested in interfaith dialogue, and it may be a way to learn a lifetime’s worth of lessons from the pages of a single book. The possibilities are endless, and interfaith activism doesn’t have to stop at non-fiction.
Photos courtesy of the author.