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Tell me a story

By S.K. Ali • July 31, 2019Open Your Mind

When I was a child, I had a simple, reoccurring request. It was one echoed by many around me back then and, happily, is oft-repeated today too: tell me a story.

Love from A to Z by S.K. Ali

From William C. Morris Award Finalist, S.K. Ali, comes an unforgettable romance that is part The Sun Is Also a Star mixed with Anna and the French Kiss, following two Muslim teens who meet during a spring break trip.

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When I was a child, I had a simple, reoccurring request. It was one echoed by many around me back then and, happily, is oft-repeated today too.

Tell me a story.

Tell me a story about kids on adventures, thrilling or quiet. Who find treasures guided by tattered maps, solve ghost town riddles, or cut their hair in a fit of rage after a botched dyeing attempt, after being called “carrots” at school.

Tell me about kids dealing with pesky siblings named Fudge or Ramona or Beezus. About Margaret asking God if He was out there listening to her, if puberty could be duly hastened so she wouldn’t be left behind as her peers matured.

I read them all fast, like the stories would disappear if I didn’t.

As I began living in the school library, cementing my identity as a bookworm, my request evolved. It became a request that young readers with voracious appetites continue to ask: tell me a BIGGER story.

Tell me about fairies, about vampires. About witches and wizards in a parallel dimension.

Tell me a story. About dystopian robots, big manga eyes gleaming with artificial intelligence and . . . was that a glint of human yearning, human love?

Tell me about these otherworldly characters who don’t walk among us. Conjure up their worlds and paint them as fierce or plotting, as terribly misunderstood, with a depth unforetold in previous stories.

Tell me lots so that these tales tumble out, fill shelves and hearts, and a vast lore grows. So that fandoms and wikis and fan-fiction bloom too. So people begin to understand. To empathize with plights and struggles that mimic those of the pen-holder.

So that we begin to love them, those unreal creatures, with intensity. And invite them into our homes, on our screens, allow them to roam the earth freely, their arrivals heralded by NOW PLAYING banners. We fall for them and visit them in places dedicated to their very selves, like theme parks and castles, even visiting them in their “homes.”

It was all beautiful and good, me and these stories I devoured.

But then I grew, as readers do. Looked up from my books. And, awakened and fueled by what was happening around me, a terrible realization grew: I, real me, was unloved in my own world.

I didn’t belong fully to this place I’d lived and worked and loved in all my life. That I’d read in.

But I had no other place to go to except here, home.

Instead of simply and rhetorically wondering how we’d arrived at a point in time when I felt unwanted for being born with brown skin, to Muslim parents, I turned and looked back and saw something in my trove of well-loved, treasured stories.

It glimmered like an answer: it was easy for people around me to love everyone else way more than they loved me and my friends—we who didn’t look like the boys and girls on the covers of books, those precious ones who got to have adventures.

Even the unreal ones were cherished. People seemed to endlessly love dragons who magically puffed, the train engine that could and those cuddly, quaint animals who pined for shed buttons or whose velveteen fur lost its sheen through love.

More than they loved us.

Gazing back, feeling the warmth with which my teacher gushed about his loveliness, I let myself think, Oh, to trade places with a bear named Winnie!

I also gave in to the sad, true thought, vampires were more understood than Muslims.

Suddenly it felt like bookish-me had lived through a suffocation of stories. Of sameness and select differentness made up mostly of inanimate or conjured-being diversity.

My reading experience felt like it was a big yell of no-you-can’t-play-with-us.

So my request has changed yet again.

"It was easy for people around me to love everyone else way more than they loved me and my friends — we who didn’t look like the boys and girls on the covers of books, those precious ones who got to have adventures."

Now I ask, retroactively for the kid I was, and the adult I currently am, feeling unloved by travel bans and headlines blaring presidential pronouncements about bullets dipped in pig’s blood meant for “my kind,” and presidential announcements telling people like me to leave home to go back “home” if we dare to participate in democracy, unloved with the rest of the unloveds: Tell me another story.

About Mexicans, about Muslims, about Mexican-Muslims. Tell me about the countries some people call shit-hole ones. Tell me about those indigenous to this continent, tell me of those souls and spirits extinguished by residential schools, tell of those forced here against their will, of those thrown into oceans without a second thought, of those with generations of stories, of histories to tell.

Tell me about those who walk among us.

But don’t point to the stories already on shelves, written by the pen-holders, circulated and recycled and pummeled into us from our earliest encounters with the heart of darkness in the canon.

Don’t even point to “new” books about us unloved ones if they were written by a pen-holder. They most likely tell the same stories—like the Sad Muslim Girl Who Needs Saving from Her Mean Family and Culture.

These books help fuel the raison d’être for travel bans and invasions and the condoning of the killing of humans as collateral damage. They contribute to seeing souls roaming the earth fleeing hurt, seeking peace for themselves and their families, as roving rapists, as “illegals.”

Don’t point to books that help build walls.

I will tell you a story, these books say. It will be about people. Real people like you. I will tell you about them, about you, but not like I told you about dragons and fairies and witches and wizards. Not even like I told you about that robot with stirrings of love in its cold, dead heart. I will tell you about your people in the ways of the conqueror, the colonizer, the civilizer. Because those are the only stories I know.


Actually, don’t tell me a story.

Give me the pen and let me tell the story. It will be the only way we real ones will belong, become beloved, to our painfully real world.


S. K. ALI is the author of YA novels, Love from A to Z, and the 2018 Morris award finalist, Saints and Misfits, which won critical acclaim for its portrayal of an unapologetic Muslim-American teen’s life. She has a degree in Creative Writing and has written about Muslim life for various media, including the Toronto Star and NBC News. She lives in Toronto with her family, which includes a very vocal cat named Yeti.

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