Growing Up Muslim: Muslim College Students in America Tell Their Life Stories
(Cornell University Press, 2014)
When I saw a book titled Growing Up Muslim: Muslim College Students in America Tell Their Life Stories, I thought I would be reading insightful autobiographical essays representative of the range of experiences of growing up Muslim in a society fundamentally ignorant of the breadth of Muslim culture and variety of forms the religion takes. I also assumed the book would describe an upbringing notably different from my own. Instead, the collection’s overall message is self-evident, especially to someone already inclined to read it: not all Muslims are terrorists and Islam does not have to be interpreted as an extremist religion. Of the 14 essays within the book, all but one are written by Dartmouth students. Some grew up in the U.S., while others grew up abroad and attended United World Colleges before being accepted into Dartmouth. And although the students, or their parents, come from disparate countries with differing approaches to Islam—from conservative Yemen to secular Turkey—the narrative is fairly similar: Islam begins as an inheritance and becomes a choice largely for the sense of community and stability it provides, especially in the face of the American college experience, which involves drinking and casual sex. Those coming from more religiously conservative backgrounds learn to question societal prejudices against Israelis or gays, for example, while those who grew up in the U.S. grapple with reconciling their Muslim identity, represented and enforced by their parents, with their American one.
In the book’s introduction, Eboo Patel, a leading figure in the Muslim-American community, writes about being a voracious reader of American immigrant and minority literature—from Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club to Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man—replacing the “distinctly Jewish or Chinese or black features with the idiom and experience of my own Indian and Muslim life, wondering … wasn’t the experience of young people who prayed like me worthy of a literature of its own?” It undoubtedly is, and in fact, Patel goes on to list significant works written by Muslim Americans in the aftermath of 9/11, proposing that Growing Up Muslim “enriches that list.” I would say it clutters it. The literary tradition that Patel discusses has the incredible capacity to carve out space for new identities in the U.S. and to expand the definition of what it means to be American, but this volume does not meaningfully contribute to that endeavor. Part of the reason Ellison’s work, for example, is effective is that it renders the African American experience visible through beautiful and imaginative writing; on the other hand, the preface to this collection precludes any stylistic judgment by reminding us that, with the exception of one essayist, all contributors wrote in their second or third language (nevermind that many of them had moved to the U.S. or Canada at a young enough age that this consideration would be moot).
Although the essayists wrote knowing they would be published in this anthology, the preface notes that “for many of the authors, the process of putting their experiences into words has acted as a catalyst for further self-reflection on their life history … the process of autobiographical writing can have a profoundly transformative effect on the spiritual, moral, and emotional domains of a writer’s life.” This observation is borne out by the essays, personal journeys that are undoubtedly meaningful for the writers but which largely reiterate well-known tropes about ignorant American behavior and beliefs and discuss identity in a form reminiscent of college application essays. In one, the writer composes a play that is a dramatization of his relationship with his father. Of his professor’s response, he writes, “To her, my story didn’t explore cultural differences on a ‘meaningful plane’ but rather was ‘any teenager coming-of-age story.’ So what? she seemed to say.” I found myself asking the same question reading this book. After all, these are essays written by college students, most of whom are not aspiring writers. Their identities and self-understandings are still inchoate. Like most other American college students, their relationships with their religion, parents, and culture will likely continue to undergo tremendous change for years to come.
Ultimately, it is not the individual essays themselves that are problematic. It is the anthology, which legitimates its existence by claiming that these essays are important to the national conversation about Islam in the U.S. The underlying assumption is that a marginalized identity, particularly one that is currently fraught and politically entangled, is enough to make these essays worthy of interest. That is the assumption I made in selecting this book, and it is the assumption the publisher and editors are relying on to sell it. The diversification of voices in American literature is a worthwhile pursuit and even a cursory understanding of Islam is vital. This book attempts both, but its goal would have been better served by a collection of essays by professional Muslim American writers or by fiction, which has space to place its characters in scenarios that make the point more effectively.