Amani Al-Khatahtbeh is the founder of MuslimGirl.com, an online magazine and community for Muslim women. Her memoir, Muslim Girl: A Coming of Age, was published by Simon & Schuster in October 2016 and was listed as a New York Times Editor’s Pick. Al-Khatahtbeh’s work has appeared in New York Magazine, Time, and Teen Vogue, among others. You can follow her on Twitter at @xoamani. Al-Khatahtbeh is based in New York.
E.B. Bartels: First off, how did you start writing nonfiction?
Amani Al-Khatahtbeh: I started writing nonfiction as a means of survival. For me, writing was the only space I could squeeze myself into. Chronicling my experiences became a way to make sense of them. It also felt like the only way I could get my voice out there. When I held the pen, I was the one with the mic. It not only empowered me with a platform, it also connected me with my friends and other likeminded people.
EB: You created the website MuslimGirl.com. Could you speak a little about the history of the site and how you have used nonfiction to form a community online?
AA: I was already journaling every single day throughout high school on this pre-Tumblr era blogging platform called LiveJournal, because I was having such a hard time connecting with my peers in class. I noticed that there wasn’t really a community on there where Muslim girls like me with similar experiences could come together to discuss the things that we really wanted to talk about. I was already always writing so I thought, why not? I started a space myself where all of us could learn and grow through writing. Within its first five days of going live, the community was flooded with over 1,000 members. I realized that there was an actual interest in having conversations that centered on us, so it felt natural to create our own dedicated, independent platform.
In its own organic way, MuslimGirl.com grew up with us and became a real-time chronicle of the evolution of our identities during one of the most potent moments in modern history. As our audience grew over the years, we began to carve a presence for the Muslim woman’s voice in the online space, and cultivate as well as prove a public demand for our increased representation.
EB: What was your experience writing Muslim Girl: A Coming of Age? The book is an extremely personal, powerful memoir. You mentioned using writing to make sense of your own experiences––did you find writing Muslim Girl to be a form of self-therapy?
AA: I didn’t expect the process of writing the book to be as therapeutic as it was. By the time I placed the last period on the manuscript, I felt like I had just released this burden that had been weighing me down for much of my life back into the universe in the form of something positive. I walked lighter, as if a heaviness had fallen off my shoulders like an old coat I had outgrown. Writing about my family’s experiences was the most powerful part of it for me, because those were Islamophobic incidents and sentiments thrust upon them that never received any closure.
EB: That’s incredible. Nonfiction can be so powerful––to make sense of experiences, to release pain, to connect with others. Though there are so many types of nonfiction… How do you see the different genres within nonfiction? While both your book and your website share a name, Muslim Girl is a memoir, while MuslimGirl.com is much more journalistic. Do you approach journalistic nonfiction differently than you approach personal nonfiction?
AA: Sometimes. It’s always a journalistic priority to be factual, straightforward, and unbiased. But what’s interesting about MuslimGirl.com is that it’s very much “reporting” through the unique lens of our demographic. We contextualize contemporary topics with our own lived experiences to give voice to how today’s society impacts our day-to-day lives. Creating that type of representation for ourselves is a means of survival, because so much of the negative attitudes, policies, and decisions targeting our community are based on preconceived notions of Muslims—especially Muslim women—without ever passing us the mic or including us in the conversation. In that way, a lot of my researched and journalistic nonfiction is born from my lived experience in the first place.
MuslimGirl.com is a reflection of the beautiful spectrum of women who make it up, who come from incomparable walks of life and have such unique and diverse experiences.
EB: I love that.
When you are searching for a piece of nonfiction to post on MuslimGirl.com, what do you look for? What makes a great piece of nonfiction?
AA: The thing I look for the most in nonfiction writing is raw honesty. I can edit bad grammar and spelling, or add sources where they’re needed, but authentic voice is something that can’t be replicated or manufactured. It has to just be, without judgment. It’s my belief that it’s the very real stories and shared experiences that bring us together and connect us on a universal level. It’s how we can relearn empathy and remember that we are all human.
EB: What has been challenging for you about writing nonfiction?
AA: Honestly, the biggest struggle is how revealing writing nonfiction can be sometimes. Nonfiction only comes alive when you truly pour a piece of yourself into it, whether it’s passion or experience or voice. Writing my memoir felt like I was putting my cards on the table: I was talking about my family and childhood, my insecurities, the moments where I felt my weakest. I had to suspend that “outward eye” of reading what I wrote and imagining how someone else would judge it. Instead, I just let go and let it rip.
EB: And what has been rewarding about writing nonfiction?
AA: By the same token, writing my memoir was overwhelmingly liberating. That’s something I really didn’t expect, especially sharing something as personal, buried, and painful as the Islamophobia that my family and I had to endure immediately after 9/11 and the ways it twisted and morphed my self-esteem growing up. Through writing, I was overwhelmed with the feeling that I was finally talking back to everything we had been through. Writing on MuslimGirl.com for the entirety of my adult life was like I was throwing punches for a fighting chance. Getting my nonfiction writing published was a declaration to myself and the Muslim women I write for that we are here.
EB: Your memoir is, of course, all about your experience being a Muslim girl and how that has affected your life. But how do you think being a woman and a Muslim has affected your experience as a writer specifically?
AA: Writing is survival, plain and simple. Beyond the way that the written word gives shape to voices that might otherwise be buried, it’s also a safe space and a refuge. The alienation I was forced to feel at the hands of classmates and educators alike resulted in something close to social isolation in school. Instead of meeting friends at the mall after dismissal or going to parties on the weekends, I would go straight home to my computer and write about my day, my experiences, and how I was feeling. It helped to be able to get it all off my chest and lay it out in front of me, as well as to talk myself through the pain and adversity. Since digital media is overwhelmingly transmitted through written text, it was the perfect vessel that my countless Muslim sisters and I needed to get our voices across borders and boundaries.
EB: How has writing nonfiction impacted your life as a writer and a person?
AA: On a personal level, I certainly wouldn’t be the person I am without nonfiction writing. I wouldn’t know myself so well and I’d make far less sense out of my experiences, whether the good or the bad. I also struggle to imagine how I would have been able to deal with much of the bullying and isolation I endured throughout school if I didn’t have a journal to call my friend. Online, my nonfiction writing garnered me an audience. How cool is that? All my life I grew up feeling like society rejected my voice and didn’t want to hear what I had to say. Now, writing has allowed me to build not just a career but a movement to push back on the conversations from which we were shunned for most of our lives.
EB: Thank you so much, Amani, for sharing such honest insights, both in this interview and in your book. Finally, what is a favorite passage nonfiction by a woman writer?
AA: Oh no, there is no way I could possibly choose a favorite! But I’ll leave off with a woman who never disappoints, Audre Lorde:
You do not have to be me in order for us to fight alongside each other. I do not have to be you to recognize that our wars are the same. What we must do is commit ourselves to some future that can include each other and to work toward that future with the particular strengths of our individual identities. And in order for us to do this, we must allow each other our differences at the same time as we recognize our sameness.
E.B. Bartels is from Massachusetts and writes nonfiction. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, The Toast, The Butter, xoJane, Ploughshares online, and the anthology The Places We’ve Been: Field Reports from Travelers Under 35, among others. E.B. has an MFA from Columbia University, and she runs an interview series on Fiction Advocate called “Non-Fiction by Non-Men.” You can visit her website at www.ebbartels.com, see her tweets at @eb_bartels, and read her haikus about strangers’ dogs at ebbartels.wordpress.com.