COLUMN: Children’s fiction by Muslim writers by Claire Chambers
As I discussed in an earlier article, South Asia is currently experiencing a boom in popular Anglophone fiction. In Britain, the growing success of children’s novels by authors from Muslim backgrounds shows that non-mainstream writers are starting to be recognised by commercial publishers, and finding readers outside the established adult literary fiction market. To mention briefly just two of the best children’s books of recent years, Wendy Meddour’s novel A Hen in the Wardrobe describes the adventures of a British-Algerian family and won the John C Laurence Award in 2010, while Secrets of the Henna Girl, Sufiya Ahmed’s novel about forced marriage, had a high-profile launch at the British Foreign Office in 2012.
The rest of this column focuses on vampire fiction by a contemporary British writer of Pakistani descent, Sarwat Chadda. In 2008, Chadda signed with Penguin Books’ children’s imprint Puffin, with whom he published two teen novels featuring the mixed-race protagonist Billi SanGreal, Devil’s Kiss (2009) and Dark Goddess (2010). I concentrate on Devil’s Kiss, as its vampire theme is particularly interesting in this post-‘war-on-terror’ era (Dark Goddess is indebted to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, and focuses on werewolves). As Chadda himself acknowledges, his debut novel contains echoes of Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire television series, and of The Da Vinci Code. Like Dan Brown’s 2003 bestseller and other novels in the conspiracy/secret history genre, Devil’s Kiss focuses on the activities of an offshoot of the medieval Knights Templar still operating furtively in contemporary society. Yet, perhaps because of his Muslim background and years spent in the Middle East, Chadda is suspicious about the role played by these Poor Fellow Soldiers of Jesus Christ and of Solomon in both medieval and more recent crusades.
This is evident in the sympathetic protagonist, Billi’s, marginalisation from the Templar group, which stems partly from her disquiet with the Order’s ruthlessness. Billi’s full name is Bilqis, which evokes heroism, nobility, and wisdom: it is the Arabic name for the Queen of Sheba, a figure common to the Abrahamic traditions. Billi’s mother, Jamila, was a Pakistani migrant killed in mysterious circumstances, but whom Billi mistakenly believes may have been murdered by her English father, Arthur SanGreal (this name is of course straight out of Arthurian legend). Under her mother’s influence, Billi spent her early years loving Allah, but in the second half of her life she is taught to worship Jesus, as Christianity forms the main focus of Templar religious life. Yet there is something Muslim in her still, as she cannot bring herself to eat pork and feels an instinctive empathy with oppressed peoples, given her familial link to British-Pakistanis, a marginalised group in multicultural Britain.
As a second-generation migrant of mixed heritage, Billi does not so much experience “happy hybridity” as cultural confusion grounded in oppressive experiences. Her Muslim heritage creates for her a sense of isolation from the Templars; she has virtually no power within the Order, even though she is expected to risk her life with and for them. She is emotionally and physically abused by her father, has few friends, and appears resigned to a life ostracised from all society except the group to which she unwillingly belongs. Moreover, while Buffy and Billi are strong, adept warriors, there is much more of an emphasis in Chadda’s text on the physical vulnerability of Billi. Her encounters with demons, vampires, and her apparent Templar allies leave her more often than not bloody, bruised, and traumatised. There is a sense in which Billi’s body (like that of her mother before her) becomes the site on which the novel’s various metaphysical, cultural, and religious battles are violently enacted.
If Billi’s mixed heritage is often a source of pain and conflict within the novel, then there is also a sense in which she embodies a fluid and redemptive hybridity. This becomes more apparent in the second Bilqis SanGreal novel, Dark Goddess. In the following exchange, Billi has just compared the Templars to the Russian Bogatyrs while in conversation with a psychic Russian girl, Vasilisa:
“‘The Bogatyrs were great knights [says Vasilisa]. My mother told me stories about them. They fought dragons, evil witches, the Mongols, the Muslims. All the evil people.’
Billi laughed. ‘My mother was a Muslim.’
Vasilisa went red. ‘Are you?’
Billi shrugged. She could pray in Latin, Greek and Arabic. She knew the direction of Mecca and the psalms. Did God really care?”
The child’s unthinking Islamophobia is offset by Billi’s comfortable mixing of faiths and her confidence in a beneficent deity that is unconcerned by sectarian divisions. Billi goes on to explain to Vasilisa that after centuries of fighting the Muslims, the Templar Knights eventually joined with them, replacing the “holy war” against Islam with the “Dark Conflict”: “Instead of fighting other men, we fight the Unholy. Monsters like werewolves. Ghosts. The blood drinkers.”
In Chadda’s teen vampire-slayer fiction, Islam emerges as one of a number of potent cultural and religious forces engaged in a Manichean struggle against evil which draws upon, but significantly renegotiates, the premise of Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Devil’s Kiss also relocates its vampires and slayers from the rather bland, racially homogenous community of Buffy’s American suburb of Sunnydale to the hybrid space of contemporary London. London offers Billi (as it did for another mixed-race British-Asian protagonist, Karim, in Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia) “new kinds of community and ways of living”. What appeals to Billi about London is its multiculturalism, the “kaleidoscope of cultures and races”. She also learns new languages so that she can communicate with recent arrivals to the city, and what is clear here is that Billi identifies with the hybrid, postcolonial city of the immigrant poor — of orphans, poor labourers, and refugees. Indeed, there is a clear sense in which Billi’s British and Muslim identity is a London identity which aligns her explicitly with marginalised groups, often invisible to privileged white society, who are nevertheless essential to the economic and social fabric of the city. The fact that this mixed-race heroine saves a city unable even to recognise the true nature of the danger it faces can be read as a potent metaphor for the unacknowledged contribution made by the marginalised (and often abused) citizens of postcolonial London.
In a context in which migrants generally, and Muslims in particular, tend to be demonised and their contribution to British society underplayed if not ignored, Chadda’s work emerges as radically counter-cultural. Consider, for instance, the extent to which vampyric mythology surrounds Muslim immigrants in Europe and North America: they are seen as draining the continents’ resources, halal food is often regarded as animal cruelty (because it involves the slow bleeding of the animal), and they are seen as predatory outsiders, acting as a fifth column. For comic purposes, American humourist Stephen Colbert imagines the figure of the “Muslim vampire” who communicates not through sleeper cells, but through “sleeper-in-coffin cells”. He exhorts his audience with mock hysteria: “Protect yourself from Muslim vampires by making your neck non-halal.” Within this broader cultural context, Chadda’s reworking of contemporary vampire-slayer narrative deserves to be taken very seriously.