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How Creative Writing Informs my British Muslim Identity

This year, I took an elective Creative Writing 'Horizons' module. Beyond developing my abilities and furthering my enjoyment of the hobby, the course exposed me to the importance of creative writing in exploring my identity. Both the pieces that I submitted built characters and scenarios surrounding the often complex dichotomy of being a British Muslim. The first story, ‘Home / Screen’, follows Abbas, who has claimed small-time fame as a rapper. Following the loss of his mother and turbulence in his obsessive relationship with social media, we see him grasp for meaning through his grief and confusion, both in the familiar lanes of weed and social media use and the more detached lane of religion. My second story, ‘He Made Them Forget Themselves’, follows Isra, who becomes increasingly anxious as she learns of her fiancé’s plans for developing a Quran-based artificial intelligence that presents Islamic teachings in an inauthentic, edited and stylised form. In creating both these stories, I was able to reflect on the difficulty of building a pure and genuine relationship with Islam whilst feeling an uncompromising entitlement to Western individualism and liberalism. I have therefore come to see the process of creative writing as invaluable in exploring identity politics, be that through crafting, receiving feedback or exploring classmates’ pieces.

The act of writing, of putting “black on white”, has proven to create a sense of tangibility and validity to my neurotic identity conflicts. This is an integral first step in understanding these conflicts. The specific identity conflict of being a second-generation Muslim immigrant is not often put in the limelight in popular culture, despite the media antagonization and public mistrust that it is largely born from becoming ever-present. Additionally, the conservative social dynamic created by the traditional upbringing for those that belong to such an identity typically makes the discussion and articulation of such conflicts difficult, especially for its proximity to the taboo subject of mental health. This lends an alienation that teaches British Muslims that their identity crises are not significant and do not deserve attention, let alone from the mainstream white British audience. The act of creating fictional worlds transparently and wholly rooted in this inner borderline conflict is therefore highly liberating and rewarding. In each of my pieces, I was able to untangle the conflicts implicit in the Western Muslim identity by framing different treatments and perspectives in different characters and their respective arcs. For example, in ‘Home / Screen’, Abbas’ character portrayed a shallow impulse to religion in times of personal grief and distress. Maryam’s character, who Abbas imprinted a hope of righteous salvation to, represented the reductive perception of hijab-wearers as an archetype of Islamic virtue, despite being capable of the same human flippancy as anyone else. In ‘He Made Them Forget Themselves’, Hamza’s character represented a facetious, conceited, blinding obsession for Islam’s spirituality. Isra’s character represented an indignance and despair at witnessing religious manipulation. In some way, I relate to each of these perspectives and thus, when the conflict in these stories came to a head, I had the opportunity to weigh up my contradictory beliefs and determine which of them most reflected the values I hold, or wish to hold. This process was a result of my writing method, whereby I placed focus on the content of the conflict, planning how it would come to a climax and allowing this to develop and adjust as I wrote, before then considering and comparing ideas for how a resolution would come about.

Receiving feedback on my work has proved to be an element of the creative writing practice that is integral to further exploring my identity and considering it in a wider context, outside of just my own experience. Comments from readers who share my British Muslim identity have allowed me to recognise that my internal dialogues resonate with others from this demographic, building my confidence in writing. Additionally, when readers from other demographics have also demonstrated an understanding, appreciation and enjoyment for the conflicts presented in my stories, I have discovered the wider affiliation that the specific identity exploration can elicit. This instils in me a greater sense of societal belonging and makes me less stubbornly protective of the British Muslim identity’s esotericism, acknowledging that it is possible for those unfamiliar with the culture to receive the nuance of my distinct reflections with clarity. It therefore reminds me that readers will each have a unique set of experiences regardless of their demographic and that they may be able to apply these to relate to my musings in unpredictable ways. Constructive, critical feedback from culturally unfamiliar readers also provides me with practical insights into adjusting portrayals of the culture in my writing to make it accessible to a wider audience without compromising richness, unlocking their potential to resonate with the story. For example, when discussing a draft of ‘He Made Them Forget Themselves’ during a workshop session, readers commented that my insertion of a non-Muslim, white character into the scene allowed them to have a reference point against whom the culturally influenced yet individual personality traits of the Muslim characters was made more transparent through their interaction. Developing such a feeling for the practicalities of cultural translation has opened my mind to the opportunity for stories unique to Western Muslims to be accessed by a wider audience, promoting recognition and harmony.

Adding to this, reading and editing the work of other writers whose stories are placed in a culture foreign to me has furthered my sensitivity for providing access to a range of readers, allowing me to appreciate the issue from the opposite side. Through reading these pieces, I have been able to identify methods for presenting culture-specific conflict in a way that better accommodates unfamiliar readers, before applying them to my own writing. For example, firmly embedding the narrative voice to creative a vivid sense of characters and settings; allowing universal themes and conflicts to emerge amongst the culturally specific ones; and surrounding unfamiliar language with contextual clues. Furthermore, discussing other writers’ work has informed my own identity exploration by framing my insights in relation to those of other cultures, demonstrating the significant influence of my Western Muslim identity on my perspective. One piece discussed during a workshop session, for example, followed a group of university freshers during a pub crawl. One of the supporting characters was a Muslim girl who covered her hair with a beanie instead of a headscarf. Though the dialogue of the piece was exchanged mainly between two other characters, I was fascinated by this character. When the piece hinted at the main character suffering from depression, I perceived that the story would head towards an eventual heartfelt interaction between him and the Muslim character – I am all too aware that an alcohol-centric freshers environment can be uniquely depressing for a young Muslim trying to hold onto religious practice whilst attempting to integrate. However, I found that this expectation was not shared by the other readers and even the author of the piece had not planned for such a plot development.

Through the Creative Writing Horizons module, I have discovered creative writing’s effectiveness in aiding my identity exploration, not only through the process of writing, but in receiving and giving feedback. To engage in creative writing is to consider, communicate and discuss one’s views on self in both a personal and social context. Inherent to both avenues of thought, for me, is my second-generation British Pakistani Muslim culture, a factor that sits just as inseparable from my engagement with my own thoughts as it does my engagement with the world. Thus, to exercise and love creative writing is to exercise and love my own identity.

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