• Muhammad Khan

    Muhammad Khan



    MUHAMMAD KHAN's debut YA novel I AM THUNDER takes us to the heart of many questions around being British, and Muslim, as it explores the world through the eyes of a second-generation Pakistani teenager, Muzna.

    Touching on the experiences of many British Muslims and their varied cultural roots, Khan - who is himself a fourth generation British Muslim - shows the reader that being Muslim, and British, can mean many different things.

    In I AM THUNDER, Muzna faces many difficult choices as she grows from childhood to adulthood in an over-protective home environment that has left her ill-prepared for the challenges she faces as she explores her identity and her beliefs as a British Muslim.

    Through her experiences at school and at home, as she falls in love and confronts extremist beliefs, Khan explores how young Muslims like Muzna navigate the difficult path of integrating their traditions and beliefs into the person they want to become.

    We asked author Muhammad Khan to tell us more about his debut novel, I AM THUNDER:

    Q: Why did you want to write a novel exploring what it means to be British and Muslim?

    A: I actually didn't want to write this book. I was writing a fantasy novel - which is where my heart lies - when I heard about the three girls from Bethnal Green who had been groomed online and ended up in Syria.

    There had been a huge falling-out between the Muslim community and the media which linked being Muslim with terrorism and I remember how many of my students at that time simply clammed up, they were afraid to talk about what was happening, while many of my non-Muslim students wanted to ask questions but were afraid of being perceived as racist.

    So many students wanted to speak but were scared because they didn't know what the consequences would be, but sometimes they would say things when they were at the peak of their frustrations. So I wanted to explore those frustrations, to take their opinions and write a composite for this book. That's the point of literature, you hold a mirror to society and say, 'this is what is happening, what do you think should be done about it?'.

    Q: Muzna, your main character, has a lot of questions around what being Muslim means but why, as she explores her faith, do you put her into so much danger?

    A: When we had September 11th, there was obviously a lot of backlash against the Muslim community but what surprised people was the number of conversions to Islam. People had started to explore what being Muslim meant and had discovered that being Muslim didn't mean 'terrorism', it was about finding peace and a community. However, Isis was promoting what they called 'the one true Islam' which is a very radical distortion of Islam.

    Until then, the children of Muslims had simply taken being Muslim for granted and just did what their parents did, but now they started to do their own research online to find out what being Muslim actually meant. It concerned me because there are people on the internet who want to exploit that vulnerability, so I decided to write an exploration of all those difficult issues but in a safe environment and to show the dangers; at one point, Muzna goes online but ends up speaking with terrorists. I wanted to show how many avenues are available for extremists to exploit young people.

    Q: Your character, Arif, also reflects on how focused the school environment is on identifying Muslim extremists, to the detriment of their wellbeing. Was this based on your previous experience as a teacher?

    A: When I was teaching, we had to do a course on the Prevent Strategy. There were a lot of issues around that because it was so focused on Islamist extremism but not far right extremism, but you don't get one without the other so both sides need to be addressed.
    There have been some horrible incidents related to Prevent and commentators described it as racial profiling given that the vast majority of Muslims are people of colour. In 2016 around 7,500 people were referred to Prevent and more than half of them were children. Some people believe that Prevent is a toxic brand that needs to be changed and re-branded. The number of referrals is coming down.

    Q: Given the issues you address in I Am Thunder, was it a difficult book to write?

    A: For any author of colour, it's hard to write an 'own voices' story because you are expected to be so many different things to so many people but each and every one of us is unique, we are so diverse - from Zayn Malik a non-practising British Muslim, to Mohammed Mahmoud the hero Imam at Finsbury park mosque. The children at the school where I taught were so diverse in their beliefs, I wanted to give every one of them a voice but there are so many variations that I simply couldn't get everyone in.

    It was also a very difficult story to write for many other reasons. For any Muslim to approach this topic, it is painful and sometimes hard to write certain scenes but I had to be truthful, I wanted it to be balanced, to show society as it is, without being preachy. I'm a Maths teacher, I don't have experience as a writer, so I was very reliant on my editor to help me keep the story - not the message - at the forefront.

    Q: Your lead character is of course female, why did you want to explore these issues and ideas from a girl's perspective?

    A: There were several reasons for having a female lead, especially that I had taught for several years at a girls' school and had a good relationship with my students. At the time there was a lot of news in the media about the hijab being a sign of repression and about women having to learn to speak English and to not be oppressed. My feeling was, why not ask the women who want to wear the hijab why they wear it? When you look into it, you often find young people want to wear the hijab but are prevented from doing so by their parents; they don't feel oppressed by it at all. For many women, wearing it is like a medal of honour, just as Muslim men should have beards and wear their trousers higher than their ankles.

    I remember, when I was teaching, seeing some students adopting the hijab when they hadn't done so before and thinking how brave they were. They were saying 'I am this and I'm proud to be this'. I was so glad that they didn't let Isis and the far right break them down. That's what I wanted to create with Muzna. I drew on all these things that came at that time to these girls, very powerfully wearing their veil, stating 'I am not a terrorist, I'm not afraid of what I am, and I have faith that the vast majority of British people will take me for what I am': 'I am thunder', as Muzna states in the book.

    But I also wanted to have an important male Asian character, Arif, who isn't a nerdy, butt of the jokes kind of character as we see so many Asians being portrayed like that. So Arif is attractive and intelligent - and Muzna has to remember not to lose herself in being star-struck over him.

    Q: Was it difficult to pace Muzna's journey from quiet student to her much bigger role at the end?

    A: I loved following those changes because I knew it would mean so much to some of my students. Sometimes you get those very polite, quiet students who don't cause any trouble, but when you give them time and opportunity, they surprise you and show you what they can do. I remember one of my Maths students who just coasted until I worked with her and she ended up with an A*; we have to find a way to unlock the talents of all our students.

    Q: I Am Thunder is also unusual in the amount of teenage slang you use, why did you decide to embrace this even though it might date your novel?

    A: My thinking was that this is a book that is of its time, this is what is happening now and hopefully it won't be like this in the future, so I wanted it to be relevant to today's young people and, because it is such as sensitive topic, I also wanted it to ring true.

    I researched it with my students, I asked them, 'does this sound like you?', and they might say, 'it's the sort of thing they would have said three years ago' and then help me modify it. Trends do come and go but Angie Thomas's The Hate You Give is also very much of the moment.

    Q: What would you like readers to take away from I Am Thunder?

    A: First off, I wanted to say that I'm so pleased it is being published - my students told me my manuscript was great but that 'no one will publish it' because it is by and about Muslims, but I do think things are changing, there is now more representation in books and on television - and we even have a Muslim Mayor of London!

    But I hope I Am Thunder is an education and so far the reaction has been very positive, so many white people have said the book has opened their eyes to what life can be like for British Muslims. When people are aware, that brings support and that gives resilience in the face of extremism and the bigger movements that are shaping our societies, like what is happening in the US, with Brexit and the far right in Europe. I have teenagers, students, asking me, 'what is the point?' at a time in their lives when they should be excited about life. So I hope readers have a positive reaction to the book. I really feel that if we celebrate our differences rather than conformity, it makes us a stronger society.

    I also hope that it helps readers to reflect how every one of us has the potential for greatness and it doesn't matter how. If we use the talents that are unique to us, we can fly. We can all achieve greatness and for all of us, that will mean something different. We need to celebrate our successes, however small or large.

    Q: What are you writing now?

    A: At the moment I am doing a Masters in creative writing at St Mary's, Twickenham; having a book published is really encouraging for all of us in the group.

    I wrote I Am Thunder as a fourth generation British Pakistani boy and I wanted to give that representation because we have been invisible for so long. But Muzna isn't representative of all of us and my next main character, a boy, will be very different and the book will tackle gangs and toxic masculinity. I feel blessed to be working with an editor who understands exactly what I'm trying to do with a story and helps me get there.