You Truly Assumed: What it means to be Black, Muslim, and female in an age of increased Islamophobia
You Truly Assumed is a debut novel by contemporary YA writer, Laila Sabreen, that follows the story of three teenage Black Muslim girls – Sabriya, Zakat, and Farah – living in America. After a non-Muslim man with an Arabic name, bombs a train station in Sabriya’s town, the girls and their respective Islamic communities experience the increased angst and Islamophobia that normally follows an attack like this.
Following the attack, Sabriya unintentionally starts a blog (You Truly Assumed) to share her thoughts and feelings, and later, she invites other young Black Muslim girls to contribute to the blog.
"In many Western communities, Islam has a ‘face’ that Blackness rarely fits, and this often raises the question of its validity in the religion"
Responding to this call, Zakat and Farah volunteer, one as a comic writer and the other as a web designer. As such, readers witness these girls utilise their artistic talents to share what it means to be Black, Muslim, and female in an age of increased Islamophobia while growing individually.
The cover of You Truly Assumed is stunning and showcases some of the many variations of ‘Blackness’ and ‘Muslimness’.
This may seem trivial to some, but it is pertinent because in many Western communities, Islam has a ‘face’ that Blackness rarely fits, and this often raises the question of its validity in the religion.
This inability to link Blackness with Islam surfaces in You Truly Assumed when a character named Asher tells Zakat that she shouldn’t whine about the Islamophobia her community is experiencing because “…look at what’s happening to Black people, they have it way worse”. As if Zakat being Muslim erases her Blackness. Thus, I think it’s appropriate that I first acknowledge how validating a book like this is to Black Muslim girls growing up in places where Black Muslimness isn’t the norm.
Through the girls and their words on the blog, I come to understand that, like many things, the Islamophobia that Muslims experience is different based on the many intersections that they fall into.
During my reading when either Zakat, Sabriya, or Farah describe their anxiety about the bombing, I sometimes thought that they were ‘complaining too much’. But along the way, I realise that even though I grew up with my share of Islamophobia and bigotry, my experiences differ from theirs because I didn’t deal with that added layer of anti-blackness. This realisation elevated my reading experience with You Truly Assumed and I’m grateful to this book for teaching me this.
However, there are a couple of things that affected my overall experience with the book. After the first few pages, I wanted to drop it – an 'almost-disaster' now that I look back because that means I’d have lost out on the aforementioned realisation. This is because the writing in those opening pages is clunky, wordy, and repetitive. It’s a debut novel so I understand but more thorough editing would have corrected that and made the writing succinct and fluidic. Still, once the girls create their blog, the writing flows better and the book becomes easier to read.
Another thing that left a funny taste in my mouth is the overall execution of the representation in You Truly Assumed. As a reader and a Muslim, I do not naively assume that all literary Muslim representations have to include characters that actively practise the deen; if books are supposed to reflect our reality (and perhaps, our dreams), then literary Muslim representations with non-practising characters are to be expected.
But You Truly Assumed has three brilliant (and gorgeous, because look at that cover!) Muslim girls as the main characters and not one of them actively cultivate the tenets of the faith – this includes hijab-observing Zakat whose Islamic practices stay limited to her soliloquies about the community masjid. We also, of course, have Sabriya who is obsessed with her ‘Allah charm’ necklace and Farah who tells us she’s Muslim more times than she shows us.
"Even with these hiccups, You Truly Assumed portrays its fair share of vital issues – asides from Blackness in Islam and racism-laced Islamophobia"
This fact simply begs the question: why is it such an anomaly to see fully practising Muslim characters in books while we expect (and rightfully so) to see non-practising ones? Of course, this doesn’t fall on the writers, but on the publishers, who only seem to pick and push Muslim representation when it suits the watered-down version that they expect.
Even with these hiccups, You Truly Assumed portrays its fair share of vital issues – asides from Blackness in Islam and racism-laced Islamophobia. For instance, I appreciate the depiction of inter-faith marriages and the children from such marriages, through Sabriya. The book is set in the US, but in Nigeria where I’m from, many young people identify with ‘Chrislam’ (a medley of Christianity and Islam) as a result of interfaith marriages between their parents. My observation does not examine the validity of interfaith marriages in Islam, but I find it interesting that Sabreen chooses to represent this in her book.
Another brilliant arc is the individual growth of the main characters, which is unmistakable. Zakat starts as a timid, wears-my-heart-on-my-sleeve girl with over-protective parents, and readers see her transform into a confident girl who eventually encourages her parents to let go of their worries.
Sabriya transforms from a ‘things-must-go-according-to-plan’ girl to one who finds a balance between her many to-do lists and spontaneity and even finds love as a bonus.
Farah of course isn’t left out: she rediscovers the meaning of family, taking chances and stepping out of one’s comfort zone. In these ways, the girls’ character growth single-handedly redeems You Truly Assumed.
While You Truly Assumed did not reach its fullest potential, it is a step in the right direction that we have a contemporary YA novel that many Black Muslim girls will see themselves reflected in.
Aisha Yusuff is a book reviewer with a focus on African and Muslim literature. Her work can be found on @thatothernigeriangirl as well as in digital magazines like Rewrite London.
Follow her on Twitter: @allthingsaeesha