Bilal’s debut collection, Temple Folk (Simon & Schuster, July) depicts African American Muslims exploring their faith and seeking liberation in the 1970s.
Black Muslim people are doubly marginalized in the U.S. What challenges did you face in writing about them?
First was conceptualizing this world for fiction. There is debate about whether anyone has written about the experience of African American Muslims. To be very frank, there hasn’t been work of the sort I have written. I did feel like it was a pioneering effort to distill this world so that all readers can connect to the characters on an emotional level. Next was wrestling with the language: making the stories feel authentically American. Making sure people understand that this is a distinct cultural space, but also that there’s something very folksy and relatable about these characters.
Why did you decide not to explicitly identify the character called “the Messenger” as Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammed?
I knew I needed to begin this book at the end—depicting the Messenger’s death and its ripple effect on the members of the Nation of Islam. I refer to him as the Messenger because that was what he was called by members. I don’t name him because part of the fun of reading is going back and doing some investigation of your own. Reading should be pleasurable and easeful. An added pleasurable element is the little details and gaps a reader can unpack for themself.
The collection begins with the story of a journey, and it ends with characters looking for their North Star. What interested you about movement and the search for home?
The primary project of this book is exploring how the Black Muslim experience fits into the larger story of African American religion. Probably upwards of 30% of people who were captured and brought to America were Muslim. But the storyteller in me always disagreed with the notion that Islam is the end point of liberation for African Americans. In “Due North,” Taqwa’s story dramatizes the way her identity is repressed because her place in the Muslim community hasn’t allowed her to explore her identity in a healthy way.
There’s a great deal of nuance to your portrayal of characters who are believers. They have a complex relationship with their faith.
Religious practice often means conforming to all kinds of restrictions, and reckoning with questions like: How do I recover myself? How is this religious experience bringing me closer to myself? At the crisis point of the stories in Temple Folk, characters must ask themselves: How do I react to what I now know about myself?