Islam and Science Fiction Anthology of Short Stories

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Salaam everyone,

I know it’s been a while since I’ve updated my blog. I’ve been meaning to share this, but kept putting it off due to other commitments. Back in August, a really awesome anthology of science fiction short stories was put together by Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad over at Islam and Science Fiction. As described on the site, the anthology is “centered around Science Fiction with Muslim characters or Islamic cultures.” The term “Islamicate” refers to the “cultural output of predominantly Islamic culture or polity” and is “similar to the term West as it encompasses a whole range of cultures, ethnicities and schools of thought with shared historical experience.”

The anthology contains a total of 12 short stories, one of which was written by me. I felt like I could have expanded on my story if I gave myself more time to write it, but I’m glad to be part of an anthology like this. Something I always appreciated about science fiction is how it is often filled with social and political commentary, and I thought it was important for me to directly address Islamophobia in my short story. While most of my creative energy has been focused on my independent feature film, it was nice to revisit my passion for writing short stories, especially science fiction. It’s also exciting that the anthology was featured on i09, Tor.com, and The Arab Weekly!

You can read and download the complete anthology by following this link. Insha’Allah I’ll return soon with more blog posts!

Reflections on Wiscon 40

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Although WisCon 40 ended on Monday, I didn’t make it back home until Wednesday because my Tuesday flight was cancelled due to the weather. Even on Wednesday, United Airlines sent me consecutive texts about how my flight kept getting delayed. My plan was not to miss my Wednesday night class, but due to the flight delays, I ended up being an hour late!

There is a lot I want to say about my first time attending WisCon, a self-described feminist science fiction and fantasy convention that advocates anti-racist and intersectional politics. Overall, it was a great experience and I loved how efforts were made to provide safe space for everyone. There were so many amazing panel topics and discussions, but some took place at the same time, so it was impossible to attend all of them! It was refreshing to hear feminist, anti-racist, anti-homophobic, and anti-transphobic perspectives highlighted upon, particularly in the context of science fiction and fantasy. In more mainstream discussions, the issues of racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of oppression are mostly marginalized or excluded altogether.

A friend finally convinced me to join Twitter so that I could keep up with the conversations at the panels and also live tweet reactions that others could read. I remember people doing live tweets when I spoke at the Banana 2 conference back in 2011, but I missed all of the tweets because I didn’t have a Twitter account!

Anyway, as much as I enjoyed WisCon, it was not perfect. I had one experience with a racial microaggression that shook me up a little on Friday, where a White woman scolded me in the elevator for not moving, even though there were clearly two other people standing in front of me and I was waiting for them to walk out. Her anger may have been towards all of us, but it was directed at me. I was the darkest person in the elevator, so I figured that I was an easy target. I didn’t say anything to her and just walked out when I was able to, but as someone who experiences racism, Islamophobia, and microaggressions on a daily basis, I couldn’t help but think, “I came here to get away from the dehumanizing treatment I get from White people. I have to deal with it here, too?” Thanks to a friend, I was able to move past it. I needed to, otherwise I would have been in a terrible mood and I would have missed out on meeting wonderful people at the Con.

The first panel I went to was a Star Wars panel, which tweeted under the hashtag #TheFandomAwakens. As one can imagine, the discussion was full of praise for the latest Star Wars film, particularly for Rey, Finn, and Poe. It was nice to hear the panelists mention the Women of Color characters that we saw in the background of the film, but I was hoping for them to be a little more critical and talk about how Women of Color deserve to play significant roles, too. I mentioned this in my previous posts here and here about how it’s great we are seeing more prominent women characters in science fiction, fantasy, and comic book movies/TV shows, but the majority of them are White women. I have some friends, for example, who wished Rey was a woman of color. It would have been interesting to discuss and ask, “Could a woman of color ever be the main character in a Star Wars movie?” This is not a diss on the panel because I totally understand wanting to talk about all the positive things in The Force Awakens. I wasn’t bothered by this, until a White woman referred to John Boyega’s skin color as “dark chocolate.” I was sitting there, thinking, whoa, did I just hear that?

Let me take a minute here to say: NO. Do NOT compare Black people and other People of Color to food. JUST DON’T. I remember classmates in school likening my skin color to Hershey chocolate after they told me I couldn’t dress up as Batman for Halloween because I’m not White. The panelist initially said that she appreciated how a dark skinned Black man was chosen to play Finn. There was nothing wrong about that statement because, yes, we see colorism a lot in Hollywood where People of Color, especially Women of Color, with darker skin are excluded and discriminated against, but the “dark chocolate” comment was completely unnecessary.

Later that day, I decided to go to the Safer Space for People of Color room. I cannot express how grateful I am that such a space exists for People of Color. Everyone in the room was friendly, welcoming, and supportive. People use the space to vent about anything, not just about the experiences they’re having at the Con. One night, I was talking to a couple of people about the “dark chocolate” remark I heard at the Star Wars panel. I also expressed how I often get worried about being critical of Star Wars (which is my favorite movie series of all time, by the way) because there’s a perception that if you critique something, then it must mean you hate it. One person in the room immediately said, “Oh, that’s such a White attitude.” And I was like, “Yes! It so is.” We had discussions about the metaphorical minorities panel and all of the sci-fi/fantasy movies that appropriate the struggles of People of Color, LGBTQ people, and other marginalized communities, and depict White people as being the most persecuted group. Someone in the space also mentioned how she felt Furiosa from Mad Max: Fury Road should have been an Indigenous woman due to how disappearances of Indigenous women and other Women of Color are still prevalent today. All in all, it felt great to have these discussions with people who understand that just because you’re critical of something, it doesn’t mean you “hate” it (And of course, I did talk about certain movies and TV shows I hate too!). I think having such spaces where people can vent freely and not worry about being judged, silenced, or marginalized is a radical act.

Frequent readers of my blog may know this already, but I am not used to being around a lot of People of Color due to the demographics of where I live, work, and study. Being the only person of color and only Muslim in the workplace or classroom is a norm I’ve experienced all of my life. At the Safe Space for People of Color room, when I introduced myself to people, everyone made a genuine effort in learning how to pronounce my name correctly. That meant a lot to me. I’m so used to the opposite, where White people won’t make an effort to learn. I worked 5 years in a workplace where one of my White managers refused to address me by my name because, “It’s too hard!” (yet she knew how to pronounce “Hydrochlorothiazide”). Of course, there are White folks and People of Color that I meet in my everyday life that are better at this, but I didn’t have any anxiety about introducing myself at the Safer Space for PoC at WisCon.

There was also a dinner for People of Color on one of the nights. Across the PoC dinner room was the dinner provided by the main Con. As you can imagine, all of the White folks were lined up for that dinner, but as a friend and I were walking by, we heard a couple of White people complaining about how there was a PoC dinner. One of them even said, “I’m transparent, does that count as a color?” Ha Ha. Get it? Because transparent is… Yeah. My friend and I looked at each other and were like, “Did you just hear that?” As I mentioned earlier, this was my first WisCon, so I was unaware of the work that went into getting safe space for People of Color. My friend informed me about how WisCon has been changing and becoming more inclusive over the years, and how there has been resistance to these changes, especially from the older generation of White attendees. I heard more People of Color mention this in conversations.

Of course, WisCon isn’t the only place where I’ve heard White people complain about safe space for People of Color. I’ll speak for myself here, but I’ve lost count of how many times I have been excluded from workplace dinners or parties organized by classmates. The workplace dinners were the worst because there were multiple times when pork would be on the pizza they ordered or there was never any effort to order Halal meat. I don’t expect the latter, but you would think “holiday dinners” would have vegetarian options at least, but they didn’t until I complained about it. I became so used to being that one person who couldn’t eat anything at non-Muslim dinner events. So it felt nice, for once, that I could access a space that White people couldn’t and that there were food options available to me. In downtown Madison, we were looking for restaurants that served Halal meat and were able to find three. I am thinking about contacting the organizers at WisCon to let them know which restaurants. I think it would be nice if the WisCon app included Halal and Kosher meat categories under the restaurants they have listed.

It was awesome meeting all of the science fiction and fantasy authors at the Con. I was introduced to N.K. Jemisin’s work last year and read The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, but she wasn’t at WisCon this year. I felt a little awkward getting my book signed by Sofia Samatar because I had not read any of her work before. Before I went to the Con, I bought a book where two of her short stories are featured, but I didn’t get a chance to read them in time! I bought her book, The Winged Histories, and told her that I was really looking forward to reading it.

One of the panels I really liked was about Social Media Exclusivity. It stood out to me on the schedule because I’ve deactivated from Facebook for about 7 months now. I have been thinking about writing a post about why I deactivated, but it was nice to hear other people express similar concerns and critiques about social media. The panelists spoke about how people tend to assume that everyone has access to social media and/or the internet in general. They mentioned how a lot of activist organizing and announcements are made on Twitter and Facebook, but there are also a lot of people, especially communities of color, who are excluded from these meetings and events because they don’t have access to social media. There was also a discussion about how people choose to stay off social media due to how unsafe it can be due to racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, ableism, etc. I appreciated this panel because it reminded me of how torn I feel about being off Facebook. On one hand, it was a space where I could meet and network with people (mainly other Muslims and people of color) who I would not have met otherwise, but on the other, there was also a lot of toxicity, ego battles, and oppressive behavior. The latter made Facebook extremely time consuming, but also exhausting. I don’t know how long I’ll stay on Twitter because I hear it can be worse than Facebook. Anyway, like I said before, I have been thinking about writing a post on this, so I’ll save all of the details for that post.

I was hoping to find a panel about Muslim characters and/or Islamophobia at WisCon, but there did not seem to be any. However, I was informed that panels about Islamophobia and Muslim characters were discussed in previous years. I didn’t register for WisCon in time to organize a panel, but I would like to in the future because there’s so much I want to vent about with regard to Islamophobia in mainstream science fiction and fantasy movies! Overall, I am glad I went to WisCon this year. I got to meet some really wonderful people and I hope to stay connected with them! I would definitely go to WisCon again, though probably not next year because memorial weekend falls on Ramadan.

If you went to WisCon 40, I would love to hear your thoughts or read any posts you’ve written about it!

Attending WisCon 2016

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About a year ago, a friend told me about a feminist- and people of color-friendly science fiction convention called WisCon. Being a huge fan of science fiction and fantasy, I was intrigued to learn about it, especially since I was always interested in going to a science fiction/comic book convention. WisCon sounded unique because it provided safe space for women, people of color, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities, and other marginalized groups.

I am excited that I will be attending WisCon 40 this year in Madison, Wisconsin from May 27th to May 30th. I was disappointed to learn that I missed the opportunity to hear N.K. Jemisin — author of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms speak last year, but I am hoping she will come this year, too! Also last year, admission tickets/memberships were free for Muslim-identified people or anyone of Arab descent. This was made possible through an anonymous donor who sponsored the Daisy Khan fund. Unfortunately, no such donations were received this year by WisCon, but I will still be attending (adult membership is $50). I’m not sure how many Muslims attend each year, but it would be cool to meet and network with other Muslim science fiction/fantasy/comic book fans, writers, artists, etc.

WisCon states that it is committed to intersectionality and is conscious of issues such as Islamophobia. I was just reading about how they withdrew their invitation to sci-fi/fantasy author Elizabeth Moon due to her Islamophobic comments. It is encouraging to hear about solidarity like this, especially when Muslims are often demonized and accused of being “enemies of free speech” when they speak out against anti-Muslim hate speech and Islamophobia in general. WisCon is very clear on their statement of principles and anti-harassment policy to ensure the convention is a safe space.

Since I registered late, I did not get a chance to organize any panels. However, a friend told me that we can do impromptu panels in case we wanted to discuss something that isn’t being highlighted in the other panels. I can’t imagine there not being a panel on the new Star Wars film, but in case there isn’t, I’ll try to set one up where we can talk about race and gender in the Star Wars films, animated shows, novels, graphic novels, video games, etc. You can read my commentary on the depictions of Rey and Finn in The Force Awakens here.

If any of my readers are going to WisCon this year, feel free to contact me! I will definitely write about my experience when I come back, insha’Allah.

“Planet of the Apes” and How Racism, Sexism Hurts Science Fiction

Honestly, as a brown Muslim who takes his science fiction seriously, I wish I could like the “Planet of the Apes” films. I really do. I’m always a sucker for mind-boggling time travel paradoxes, and “Planet of the Apes,” especially Tim Burton’s remake, gives sci-fi aficionados plenty to discuss/debate in that regard. However, as I recently revisited the films after several years, I am disheartened by what I found.

I vividly remember watching the 1968 classic “Planet of the Apes,” starring Hollywood legend Charlton Heston, when I was a kid. I also remember being frightened by the apes. They were strange and scary-looking “monkey people” as far as my childhood brain was concerned. Interestingly, I recall feeling an odd sense of satisfaction when Heston, the White male protagonist, shouted the infamous line: “Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!” I cheered for Heston because I hated the apes. They were animals.

Hairy. Ugly. Dark.

Throughout the film, I was waiting for Heston to find a machine gun and plow them all down like Rambo. That scene never came though; the movie just ended with Heston in front of a ruined Statue of Liberty and screaming in despair about something that my young self couldn’t understand. Many years later, when I was 17, Tim Burton’s remake in the summer of 2001 sparked my interest in the “Apes” franchise. I watched the original again and became an instant fan. I even enjoyed Burton’s remake (aside from some of my friends, not many people liked his version, but I’ll get to that later).

About a week ago, I was speaking with a friend about the bizarre ending to Burton’s “Planet of the Apes” and our discussion prompted me to revisit the movies yet again. This time around, at 26, it was upsetting to discover overt sexism and disturbing commentary on race in both films. Let’s begin with the original 1968 film: it is essentially space porn in its treatment of women. Out of the four American astronauts traveling thousands of years into the future in hopes to start a new civilization on another planet, only one is a woman. Without a single word of dialogue, she has about 3 or 4 seconds of screen time before being killed off by a lame air leak in her hibernation vessel. In other words, she doesn’t even survive the voyage! Furthermore, after the spaceship unexpectedly crash-lands in a river on an unknown planet (which we find out to be earth in the famous twist ending), the three male characters abandon ship without the woman’s body, completely denying her at least a proper burial.

As Heston gives some exposition about why he left earth, he reflects on the female character, Stewart, and how she was supposed to be “our new Eve.” Stewart is reduced to a reproduction machine and, were she to survive the expedition, her sole purpose would be to mate with one of the three males. Or, given the competitiveness of the male characters and the sexual frustration subtly expressed by Heston’s character later in the film, she would probably have to mate with all three men. I simply find it illogical for a small group of astronauts to embark on an enormous one-way journey and only bring one woman along to serve as their “Eve.” But the objectification of women and space porn fantasy doesn’t stop there.

When Heston and his two fellow astronauts stumble upon a tribe of humans living in the wild, a scantily-clad female native catches Heston’s eyes. Like the other humans on this future earth, she is mute and primitive. When Heston is paired to mate with her, he does not complain, nor does she. And why should Heston complain? He is a heterosexual space traveler in an unknown world and has a woman at his side – a woman who is only a body; she does not speak, challenge his actions, or resist his authority. Heston can do anything he wants with her. He even names her like a pet; never mind whether or not she had a name of her own or didn’t like to be called “Nova.” It is easy to argue that traveling into a distant future where a primitive and woman looks up to you as the superior male figure is nothing short of exotic, highly sexualized hetero-male fantasy. The only female character with speaking parts is Zira, the ape who, with the help of her fiancé Cornelius, defends Heston and human rights. However, she is consistently treated as an “other,” making it very easy, I would argue, for the audience to perceive her exclusively as an ape and not an empowered female.

The “otherness” of the apes and its correlation with people of color, specifically African-Americans, has been much discussed in other critiques of the film. As Gregory P. Kane of Black America Web comments:

The apes in the films have names, but they also have something else: A racial hierarchy. The blonde-haired orangutans are at the top, ruling the roost. Next in line are the chimpanzees, depicted in the films as having brown hair and light-skinned faces. At the bottom are the gorillas, who have black hair and – yes, you guessed right – black-skinned faces.

While one of the American astronauts is Black, he is quickly killed when the apes round up the humans in their first on-screen appearance. The humans on this future earth, by the way, are all White. As Kane remarks, “All those Black folks in New York today, and NOT ONE survived in the future? Oh, and there are no Latinos or Asians either. Every one of the future humans – the ones who survived – is White.”

One could make a counter-argument that the film condemns racism and actually blames “man” for essentially nuking humanity into extinction.  The argument would continue and point out that the experiences African-Americans have with racism in White supremacist heteropatriachy is exemplified in Heston’s character. That is, although Heston is a White man surrounded by an “other” majority, the role reversal is meant to allegorically teach White people how it feels to be enslaved and discriminated against.

I can see some aspects of this perspective, specifically the way the film regularly criticizes the destructive nature of “man,” but it does not excuse the stereotypical representations of apes that are meant to stand in for African-Americans and people of color. To be “human” in the film is to be “White,” and to be “Ape” is to be of color. Even if the message was about denouncing racism, the film’s ending – with Heston realizing that humanity (read: White people) blew up the world – sends an ominous and cynical warning: White people are going to destroy the world and make way for the genetically and technologically “inferior” races and civilizations to rule the planet.

Sadly, this racist theme is even more pronounced in Tim Burton’s 2001 remake. Like the original, the protagonist, played by Mark Wahlberg, represents the White man as a minority. In order for Wahlberg to return to earth, he has to fight an epic and violent battle against the apes, which only reinforces the White and “other” divide. What we see new in Burton’s film is the influx of Orientalism. The apes carry scimitars and wear pointed helmets, floral-patterned clothing and ornaments which all look like an odd fusion of Arabian, Ottoman, and South Asian art. Even when we are first introduced to an ape village, we see the apes playing sitars and smoking hookah. These images call for an important analysis on how representations of the non-human species in popular science fiction compares to the way people of color are depicted in mainstream media and perceived in society. Metaphilm alludes to this point in its commentary on Burton’s film, describing the attitude as: “Damn, look what’s happening to America! The White man is getting screwed. If we don’t do something, the Black man is going to take over our whole, f***ing planet!”

The author elaborates:

Burton’s “Planet of the Apes” fuels this exact kind of racial defensiveness. The connection between the domineering apes and the growing Black (and ethnic) culture in America is striking. Almost every human represented in the film is played by a White actor: an insignificant Black man ends up getting killed, and a submissive Asian woman is virtually invisible. If humanity is represented as being White in the film, then apeness is understood as being colored. The Black man and Asian woman represent minorities that have chosen to blend into Whiteness: cultural sell-outs. And, according to the film, they too will suffer under ape domination.

In addition to these Black and Asian “sell-outs,” there are also the ape “sell-outs,” notably the female ape, Ari (played by Helena Bonham Carter). She is a passionate human rights activist and actually a very well-developed character. I mentioned earlier that not many people liked Burton’s remake, mostly because they didn’t believe it felt like a Burton film. True, I believe the studio tried to transform the original into an action movie, but if there is one aspect of the film, aside from the aesthetic, that has Burton’s signature written all over it, it is the romantic and sexual tension between the female ape and the male human. One could argue that the romance here is tainted with White hetero (earth-) male space fantasy and exoticism.

Ari is an empowered female ape and perhaps the most three-dimensional character in the entire film. She is devoted to her activism for human rights and challenges anti-human sentiment and policies, including in her family. When Wahlberg arrives, she immediately falls in love with him – a complete stranger from another planet – and loses all sense of her own identity. Whenever Ari is around Wahlberg’s character, she is deeply fascinated by him, by how intelligent he is and how he comes from somewhere else, a more technologically advanced, superior civilization where the humans – the White man – rules and dominates. Furthermore, the inter-species Love is only one-way. Wahlberg never shows any interest in her or in the female human character who also swoons over him. The latter is scantily-clad like the original film’s “Nova” and is played by supermodel Estella Warren. She hardly has any dialogue because, quite obviously, she serves only as eye-candy. But Wahlberg doesn’t care about them. Throughout the movie, he just cares about getting the heck off the planet!

The inter-species romance can easily be read as an inter-racial relationship. This is a common trope we find in science fiction where non-human species are stand-ins for people of color. This becomes more clear when we pay attention to social status, power dynamics, how the characters are being depicted and racialized. Although Ari is played by a White woman, her ape character’s representation is consistent with the way women of color are often portrayed in mainstream media: exoticized, animalistic (and that is obvious here), oppressed by the men of her own race/species, and must be rescued by the White man (this isn’t the first time to appear in science fiction either, you can find it in James Cameron’s recent “Avatar” film). Perhaps the most insulting aspect of the film’s sexism is how Wahlberg gets to kiss both Ari and the female human at the end of the movie! And neither of the women have any objection to that! Why should they – he is the White Messiah figure, they should feel honored he bothered to show them some attention in the first place, right?!

In closing, it is discouraging for me to reject these films that I once enjoyed. I’ve always appreciated how science fiction could convey important social (see “1984”), political (see “V for Vendetta”), and even spiritual (see “Star Wars”) messages in fantastical or futuristic settings, but throughout the history of the genre, at least in Western literature, non-human species have been used as substitutes for people of color. Though the intention is not always to be racist, the perception of the “other” is always reinforced, just as “otherness” is stressed when people of color are portrayed. This makes it quite challenging for people of color like myself to enjoy science fiction classics like “Planet of the Apes.” Women, especially women of color, are relegated to the background, and whenever they are given significant roles, they are almost always hyper-sexualized and exoticized. I really believe they could have made a “Planet of the Apes” film without the racism and sexism. For instance, why couldn’t the protagonist be Brown or Black or Yellow? Or why couldn’t the protagonist be a woman? Why not a woman of color? Why always a White man?

For women and people of color, I only see one solution to this: we need to start promoting and writing our own science fiction stories.