I am Thunder by Muhammad Khan (first published in 2018 by Macmillan Children's Books)
She wants to be a writer, while her parents' aspirations for her are entirely on the opposite end of the spectrum – they want her to qualify as a doctor and get married to a cousin from Pakistan.
This is the story of sixteen-year-old Muzna Saleem, a young teenager with big ambitions but overprotective, controlling parents. But that's not the crux of Khan's debut novel.
It is Arif Malik, the high school hottie that, to Muzna's surprise, expresses interest in her. However, Arif is not what he seems. Like his brother, he is angry at the West for demonising his religion, Islam, and subtly persuades her down a dark path of extremist activity and forums, confusing her with different "versions" of Islam.
Is Arif an extremist, and how many reasons will he use to convince Muzna to start seeing things from his perspective? Somewhere down the line Muzna mentions she wants him to see her as "a slayer of Islamophobia and ignorance", but only time will tell whether she allows herself to be wholly manipulated down that path.
Khan brings a fresh voice to the writing board, and it is one that I must commend. Through this novel, he introduces and clarifies a lot of misconceptions that confuse culture with Islam, clearly showing how they aren't one and the same.
As a math educator in a secondary school in London, Khan has plentiful insight into the teenage mind. Muzna's character, as an example, felt unbelievably real. Her character has great development from a naive, easily manipulated teenager to a mature young girl trying to find herself in a world of confusion where the lines between culture, religion and extremism are sometimes blurred.
In regards to representation, as a Muslim woman from an Indian culture, Muzna and her family resonated with me quite a bit.
One example, as above-mentioned, is the concerning patriarchal belief in Indian and Pakistani culture that a woman will ever finally be complete once she marries.
Religion is a major theme in this novel and gives readers perspective into how easy it is to radicalize someone. It tells the story of one of the characters who so easily took simple passages from the Qur’an and misused the understanding of this religious scripture to do pure evil. This book is needed in today's society.
Khan, a young author, digs deep into the complexities of battling with religious extremism and what really drives a young teenage mind to that point.
Having himself lost a family member to religious extremism, he says in his letter in the book that what hit him pretty hard was the reopening of old wounds when three young British schoolgirls flew to Syria in 2015 to join the self-proclaimed 'Islamic State'.
I'm not a fiction lover, but I am Thunder is a book that had me hooked more than several autobiographies I've read. Because Muzna's daily life, like Khan says in his letter, is the very real experience of some Muslim students, and is one that should be read by Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
In fact, he leaves readers with this note at the end of his letter:
“I wrote Muzna’s story for you. Muslim or non-Muslim? It doesn’t matter to me. It shouldn’t matter to you. You are thunder. Don’t keep quiet.”
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