Palestinian-American author Sahar Mustafah on telling all sides of a 'marginalised' story in 'The Beauty of Your Face'
'It’s unpleasant, it’s disturbing, it’s uncomfortable. But I couldn’t let readers forget the immediate threat of violence our community always faces'
It’s a nightmare that has become distressingly familiar. But that doesn’t make the opening scenes in Sahar Mustafah’s debut novel any less harrowing.
A shooter, radicalised by the alt-right, enters a school in America and starts firing. Not indiscriminately, but close enough that he can “soak up their terror… their pleas for their lives”. The principal of Nurrideen School For Girls, Afaf Rahman, is faced with the day she always feared.
It’s almost too difficult to read, and Mustafah, speaking from her Illinois home, recognises this. “It’s unpleasant, it’s disturbing, it’s uncomfortable. But I couldn’t let readers forget the immediate threat of violence our community always faces.”
Marginalised communities can’t just be defined by trauma
Get past the horror, though, and The Beauty Of Your Face is actually the poignant story of Rahman’s journey to this moment; in the midst of the Black Lives Matter protests, it’s also an alarmingly timely look at the racism endemic in America.
Or perhaps, sadly, it's timeless.
Immediately going back in time to Rahman’s Palestinian-American family life in 1980s Illinois amid a bigoted society, the novel tracks the constant suspicion and casual cruelty they suffer. When her sister disappears, the police department don’t appear to take the investigation seriously. When Rahman belatedly seeks comfort in the Muslim community, she is called a “raghead” in public.
“This micro-aggressive behaviour might seem low level, but it becomes internalised in the victim; someone like Afaf growing up in that environment will have their self-worth fractured,” explains Mustafah, a second generation Palestinian.
“What does it look like not to belong, to have parents who also struggle to fit in, who are these unanchored immigrants? I have to say I have white friends who have been startled by this book. They say things like ‘I have no idea this happens’. So books like this can fill that void. That feels really important right now.”
Not least because when Mustafah sent the first manuscript to editors, some responded by asking her to drop the white shooter and instead focus just on Afaf’s immigrant story. If she did that, they suggested, it would be published very quickly. She stood her ground, and rightly so; this nuanced novel explores in impressive detail the forces that bring the shooter to the moment where he enters the school, the bifurcated timeline always building towards his encounter with Rahman in the third act.
Writing stories 'that change preconceived notions'
“There has been a lot of control over the immigrant narrative, and it does feel that writers of colour are always asked how much of their stories are autobiographical,” says Mustafah, who is also a high school teacher. “Yes, of course, my lived experience is here, but I have to be able to control the fiction, too.”
Islam is not about being perfect but it is about forgiveness, both of yourself and others
The question is also whether authors like her are actually being heard. Mustafah feels optimistic about the future, partly because she’s seen a flourish of new Palestinian-American authors, such as Susan Muaddi Darraj, Zaina Arafat, Hala Alyan, Etaf Rum and Lena Mahmoud. But for her, the gatekeepers have to shift too; there need to be more editors of colour, agents of colour and publishing houses with people of colour in managerial positions.
Perhaps, then, the actual stories we get to read would change, too.
“There was this interview I did which had a headline along the lines of “why Sahar hates happy endings,” she laughs. “I’m really not that dark, but there is definitely a burden placed on writers of colour who come from villainised communities to be hopeful. I put that down; what I can do is write a story which challenges preconceived notions in a good way.”
In a recent interview, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Colson Whitehead was doubtful that fiction has the power to change anything. “Politicians don’t read,” he said.
But individuals do, and if Mustafah has a dream, it’s that her intimate look at the Palestinian-American experience makes people “speak up, or change their vote in November. These are things I wish for. If nothing else, I hope people will see a shared humanity.”
And the way readers will navigate The Beauty of Your Face, from despair and horror to hard-won peace and acceptance, is in some ways a mirror of Mustafah’s own state of mind. She admits that sometimes she just has to switch off the news and social media, but also, more recently, there has been some succour in the idea of "black joy".
“Being a teacher, there’s this idea you have to challenge students to see beyond their privilege and develop empathy for other communities. But then, these last few weeks I’ve read so much from black authors and scholars who have said there’s got to be room for joy.
"We won’t be able to get through our struggles without humour and happiness; these are the things that make us human and elevate us – and which also change the narrative of the so-called downtrodden black person. Marginalised communities can’t just be defined by trauma.”
And even in Rahman’s case, Mustafah thinks that might be possible.
“She’s forever changed but I think she’s also stronger – she’s able to ask: ‘What do I do with this experience?’ It’s unwanted wisdom – life will go on, but with this knowledge there will always be this threat of violence.
"And that felt authentic to me; Islam is not about being perfect but it is about forgiveness, both of yourself and others.”
The Beauty of Your Face (Legend) is out in the US now and will be available worldwide from Monday, August 3
Updated: July 13, 2020 03:35 PM