The Power of Story

I was five years old the first time someone called me "filthy" because of my dark skin. I went home and spent the rest of the day trying to scrub the brown off my body. I turned to books early on, finding an escape in the pages that I couldn’t get on the playground—never stopping to notice how no one in the stories ever looked like me.

I was five years old the first time someone called me "filthy" because of my dark skin. I went home and spent the rest of the day trying to scrub the brown off my body. I turned to books early on, finding an escape in the pages that I couldn’t get on the playground—never stopping to notice how no one in the stories ever looked like me. I lost myself in the adventures of my favorite characters. When they were unkind to each other, it was never about the color of their skin or where they came from—nothing that inherently defined them or invoked a feeling of intense shame. Rather it was because of something they could easily change about themselves or learn a valuable lesson from. For me, the power of story was escape.

When I was eight-years-old, my family moved from our small town in Germany to Bangladesh, and for the first time I found myself surrounded by people who looked like me. But by then, it had been engrained in me that I didn’t matter and it was difficult to feel like I belonged. I was no longer visibly an outsider, making it easier to adjust to a country that felt completely foreign to me. But despite feeling like a misfit for so much of my childhood, a lot of my long-lasting friendships were based on a mutual love of books. The power of story became acceptance.

When I became a parent, I found myself searching for books with characters that resembled my brown-skinned, culture-straddling daughters who were growing up in a far more diverse community than I had. I discovered authors who, like me, had immigrated to the U.S. and Canada and who had built a life in their new home country. As a young wife and mother, the stories of their struggles as new immigrants resonated deeply with me. But there were still not many stories about my daughters’ generation for whom the country of my childhood and its customs were almost as foreign as those of my adopted home. When I took my daughters to visit Bangladesh, I could see how out of place they felt and it brought me back to my five-year-old self. A generation had passed, but nothing much had changed. The power of story was empathy.

When I was writing The Love And Lies of Rukhsana Ali, I was driven to give teens—who, like my daughter, identify as queer and are straddling cultures—more stories in which they can see themselves and identify with the difficulties they face while navigating through two or more wildly different sets of expectations. Rukhsana’s parents have very strict guidelines for how she should live her life. Their religious and cultural background dictates much of what they expect from their daughter. It is important to note that Rukhsana’s story is just one of many, and while certain incidents in the novel may seem extreme, they are by no means unrealistic.

The power of story builds bridges of understanding for those whose lives are unfamiliar to our own experiences. The pain of rejection is the same whether because of the color of our skin, our religious, cultural, socio-economic background, or our sexuality. Stories have the power to let us feel some of that pain so that we may be more empathetic and compassionate. They also allow us to partake in the joys and wonders of other customs and traditions. We must first acknowledge that these differences exist and are important for us to know. If we forget, we risk losing more than just stories. We risk the erasure of our shared past, of our history. It's been inspiring to see so many great authors of color telling our stories. Though there is still a lot more work to be done, I am hopeful to see that things are slowly changing.


Sabina Khan writes about Muslim teens who straddle cultures. She was born in Germany, spent her teens in Bangladesh, and lived in Macao, Illinois, and Texas before settling down in British Columbia with her husband, two daughters, and the best puppy in the world. Visit her online at sabina-khan.com. Her debut novel The Love & Lies of Rukhsana Ali will be available on January 29.


This article is part of the Scholastic Power of Story series. Scholastic’s Power of Story highlights diverse books for all readers. Find out more and download the catalog at Scholastic.com/PowerofStory. Check back on School Library Journal to discover new Power of Story articles from guest authors, including Tonya Bolden, Ahn Do, book giveaways and more.

 

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