Book Review and Author Interview: All-American Muslim Girl and Nadine Jolie Courtney

Please Note: I received an electronic review copy and was monetarily compensated in exchange for a book review and an interview with the author. I promise that this compensation in no way affected my opinions or review.

Title All-American Muslim Girl
Author Nadine Jolie Courtney
Pages 432 Pages
Target Audience Young Adult
Genre & Keywords Contemporary, Realistic Fiction
Publication Date November 12th 2019 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR)
Find It On GoodreadsAmazonChaptersThe Book Depository

Nadine Jolie Courtney’s All-American Muslim Girl is a relevant, relatable story of being caught between two worlds, and the struggles and hard-won joys of finding your place.

Allie Abraham has it all going for her — she’s a straight-A student, with good friends and a close-knit family, and she’s dating popular, sweet Wells Henderson. One problem: Wells’s father is Jack Henderson, America’s most famous conservative shock jock, and Allie hasn’t told Wells that her family is Muslim. It’s not like Allie’s religion is a secret. It’s just that her parents don’t practice, and raised her to keep it to herself.

But as Allie witnesses Islamophobia in her small town and across the nation, she decides to embrace her faith — study, practice it, and even face misunderstanding for it. Who is Allie, if she sheds the façade of the “perfect” all-American girl?

1. Hi, Nadine! Thank you so much for joining me on Pop! Goes The Reader today. First, I’d love to learn a little more about you! What books and/or authors do you feel have inspired or influenced your life in a positive way? What books can currently be found on your bedside table?

Thank you for having me! Like most writers, I was a voracious reader as a kid. The writer who probably influenced me the most was probably Beverly Cleary, although I have to confess that I was also obsessed with Francine Pascal’s Sweet Valley High series, as well as anything by Christopher Pike. I remember biking to the bookstore one summer when I was 12 every…single…day waiting for his latest novel. As far as modern writers, I would say that Becky Albertalli has been the most influential on me as a YA writer — I adore her books.

Here’s what’s on my bedside table right now:

The Light At The Bottom Of The World: My friend London Shah wrote this futuristic YA thriller and it’s just stunning. She’s such a beautiful writer, I love the main character Layla McQueen, and it’s beyond a page-turner with a serious cliffhanger.

Shadow and Bone: I just finished reading the first book in the Shadow and Bone trilogy on the plane back from YALLfest and I am addicted! I bought Siege and Storm today while I was at a bookstore signing stock of All-American Muslim Girl and I also bought Ninth House a few days ago, which I only started reading tonight and am literally about 3 pages in. My university had a fancy secret society that everybody on campus was fascinated with, and I’ve always loved the lore of Skull & Bones, so I’m excited to dig in.

American Royals: I love anything royalty-related: not only was my first YA novel Romancing The Throne set in the world of royalty (about two sisters at a British boarding school with the future King) but I actually used to work for a British royal many, many moons ago. (Shh.) I sped through this book one night after getting home from YALLfest.

2. You’re a prolific writer, having written three previous books and over two hundred articles for Town & CountrySelfFood & WineHarper’s BazaarVanity Fair online, Vogue online, Oprah Magazine online and more. How did writing All-American Muslim Girl differ from your many other writing projects?

My first two books were written in my twenties, and they’re also for older readers: the first book was a non-fiction beauty guide called Beauty Confidential that I sold when I was twenty-four, and the second was a beach book-type novel called Confessions of a Beauty Addict, based upon the years I spent as a beauty editor in New York and my subsequent splashy outing as a popular, super-secret mystery blogger. There was a big gap in the middle while I figured out life, dealt with the death of my mother, traveled, and met my husband, so Romancing the Throne didn’t come out until almost a decade after my first book. It was also my first YA novel, so was a complete introduction to the world. I think, if I were writing that book today — even though it’s only a few years old! — I would approach it completely differently. But it’s still a fun book, and I’m proud of it.

As far as All-American Muslim Girl, it’s by far the most personal thing I’ve ever written — even more so than some of the various freelance essays I’ve written. Writing this book was like giving birth. There are so few Muslim stories, so there’s so much pressure to be THE Muslim story that can represent everybody, and that’s obviously not possible. It was hugely important to me to get it right.

3. At the outset of All-American Muslim Girl, Allie struggles with feeling disconnected from her faith, her heritage and her history. She isn’t fluid in Arabic or Circassian like her cousins, is unfamiliar with the Qur’an and often worries she’s not “Muslim enough”. It’s this journey of self-discovery that propels the novel forward as Allie undertakes an exploration of Islam and what being a Muslim means to her. In the process, Allie actively challenges and disproves misconceptions and prejudices held by her peers and others in her life when they learn of her chosen path. What’s something you wish more people knew or understood about Islam and what it means to be Muslim?

I get frustrated when people seem to think that Muslims can only be one way, look one way, act one way. We are the world’s second largest religion! There are nearly two billion of us on the planet! It’s an issue both within and outside of the Muslim community, with pressure put on us by other Muslims and non-Muslims alike. In the book, I talk about how there’s this misconception for some that if you don’t practice perfectly, you shouldn’t be practicing at all or don’t have the right to call yourself a Muslim, and I personally think that couldn’t be further from the truth. Everybody’s religious journey is between them and God alone. It was important for me not to center the white, Western gaze too much with this book, and to write something that other Muslims could relate to and feel seen by, but I do find it gratifying that a lot of non-Muslims have told me how much this book educated them. There is so much misinformation, fear and prejudice surrounding our beautiful religion, and one of the points I try to hammer home is how genuinely feminist it is: women in Islam were among the first in the world to own property and we don’t traditionally take our husbands’ names, for example. The issues that non-Muslims finger point at and say “Muslim women are oppressed!” have nothing to do with the actual religion and everything to do with patriarchy in societies where the religion is manipulated for gain. I mean, we as Americans are going through a dark time in our history as it pertains to women’s bodies, women’s choices, and women’s credibility, sadly and infuriatingly.

4. I loved Allie’s close relationship with her parents, whom she’s ultimately able to talk to and trust without fear of judgement or rejection. One of the many things they share is a love of musicals, something that Allie often draws on for support and comfort, like when she imagines “I Have Confidence” from The Sound of Music before entering her Qur’an study group for the first time. What do you draw on in your life when you’re feeling anxious, intimidated, or in need of comfort?

Thank you! And I will confess that I have actually silently sung I Have Confidence to myself in times of trouble! When I’m in a position when I’m particularly anxious or fearful, I pray. That’s the nice thing about Islam: there’s a prayer for seemingly everything!

5. Over the course of the novel, Allie experiences a number of micro and macro aggressions against her family and herself, including one incident early in the novel when they are confronted by an aggressive and ignorant fellow passenger on an airplane. Is there any advice you could offer to marginalized teens as to how best to respond to this sort of confrontation and discrimination that prioritizes their mental health, well-being and safety first?

First and foremost, prioritizing your mental health, wellbeing, and safety is the most important thing – and that’s something we, as Muslims, have to be particularly careful about. Especially under this administration, when bigots feel more emboldened than ever because of the top-down messaging they’re getting from the people in charge, I think there’s absolutely zero shame in quietly, quickly retreating when you feel unsafe.

6. One of the things I admire most about Allie is her passion for knowledge and education, like her dedication to learning Arabic. Is there anything you would love to learn to do or learn more about in the future?

I myself took Arabic lessons for a few years in my mid-20s and learned how to read and write it, but it’s become extremely rusty; I’d love to rehone it! I love languages in general: I’m fluent in French, and over the years, have studied a bit of Spanish, Italian, and German. If I had all the time in the world, I’d like to become fluent in each.

Meanwhile, last year, I decided I want to learn how to write for TV, so I’ve spent the past 11 months taking courses, reading books, studying the craft, and of course writing scripts. And last week, at YALLFest, I was inspired to try my hand at YA beyond contemporary – I’m now brainstorming a YA historical with a magical element based upon a pivotal moment in my Circassian ancestors’ history.

7. Let’s talk food and have some fun! Both ice cream sundaes and cookies appear throughout All-American Muslim Girl and enquiring minds (i.e. mine) want to know: What’s your favourite cookie and ice cream sundae topping?

I looooove a hot fudge sundae with nuts, no whipped cream! And, believe it or not, I personally don’t like cookies. (Ducks!) If I were forced to choose, however, I’d say chocolate chip.

8. All-American Muslim Girl has a strong theme of faith – Faith in God, faith in family, and faith in oneself. What inspired you to write this particular story, and what’s one thing you hope readers will be able to take from it?

I first started All-American Muslim Girl more than ten years ago, when I moved to LA. I had the idea of exploring my own story through the lens of a young white-passing Muslim girl, very much like myself, named Allie Abraham. In that initial idea — which I only wrote about 3 pages of – she was a little older: college-aged. I loved the concept but I genuinely thought nobody would ever be interested in a story about a Muslim girl like me, so I shelved it for a decade. Fast forward to the afternoon of the Muslim Ban, as I was watching footage of protestors at JFK airport waving signs saying “We are all Muslims.” It was so counter to everything my father had ever taught me about having to hide my religion for safety’s sake. I re-opened that document and started writing, tears in my eyes. I poured my soul into this book, trying to write something that young, dorky, confused 16-year-old Nadine could have read, related to, and felt less alone. I hope that anybody can find comfort in its pages, but I have especially prayed that young Muslim girls and cross-cultural girls will feel seen, respected, and loved. Ultimately, it’s a love letter to Islam, as well as a love letter to everybody caught between two worlds.

High-school sophomore Alia “Allie” Abraham excels at fitting in. After years of transferring from one school to the next as her father, an American history professor, pursued various academic positions, Allie has become adept at making new friends and ingratiating herself with those around her. (“New town. New school. New look. New life.”) One thing that Annie does not ordinarily feel comfortable or safe enough to confide in her friends, however, is that she is Muslim. (“Will people still like me if I show them the real me?”) Because of her fair skin, hazel eyes and red-blonde hair, a result of her Circassian heritage (defined in-text as light-skinned Muslims from the Caucasus region), Annie is afforded a measure of privilege in that she’s able to ‘pass’ as white and does not outwardly exhibit the superficial characteristics many associate with followers of Islam. (“I don’t trigger people’s radar. People have an image in their head when they hear the word Muslim, and I just don’t fit.”)

It hurts Allie to hide an essential part of herself, but her father encourages Allie to blend in for fear of the judgement, discrimination and harassment she will face if she reveals she’s Muslim. (“I’ve spent the past several years trying on masks – taking my dad’s lessons about hiding to heart, amplifying the American part of me, being whatever people need me to be.”) Despite her father’s concern and reservations, however, Allie can’t help but feel she’s missing a piece of who she is. As a result, Allie grows increasingly determined to learn more about the practices of Islam and what it means to be Muslim in more than name-only, even if she must hide what she’s doing from her family in the process. As Allie purchases a Qu’ran, begins to learn Arabic, wears a hijab for the first time and raises money for Syrian refugees, what follows is a personal journey of self-discovery and learning to have faith in herself, her loved ones, and her religion.

In The Witches Are Coming, Lindy West wrote “Storytelling is an engine of humanization, which is, in turn, an engine of empathy.” Stories like All-American Muslim Girl are invaluable both because they offer validation and visibility to those able to recognize themselves in the stories being told and because, for those unfamiliar with a story like Allie’s, reading about a perspective and experience outside a reader’s own creates an understanding and empathy that may previously have been lacking. While it’s shameful that Muslims need to continue to assert their humanity and vulnerability in order to combat the stigmatization of their religious practices and way of life, All-American Muslim Girl offers a sensitive, nuanced, empathetic and ultimately hopeful portrayal of one girl’s exploration of her culture, her community, her faith, and what it means to be Muslim in America.

Over the course of the novel, Allie must overcome a great deal of adversity as she pursues a greater understanding of her heritage and faith. This conflict arises internally, as Allie worries she’s not “Muslim enough” because of her lack of knowledge about Arabic, the Qu’ran and Islam in general, as well as externally, both from inside and outside of the Muslim community. From discomfort, ignorance and micro-aggressions to outright hostility and discrimination, Allie is regularly confronted with the pervasive stereotypes and misconceptions about Islam in the Western world. Rather that being left to practice her religion in peace and harmony, Allie understandably feels as though she has a responsibility to dispel the toxic and often violent fallacies about an aspect of her life that brings her such joy. In doing so, All-American Muslim Girl itself addresses a number of important issues Muslims regularly face, including (but not limited to) Islamophobia, colourism, erasure, tone policing, privilege and how best to interpret and implement God’s teachings.

The discrimination Allie faces in the novel never feels exploitative or unnecessarily cruel in its execution as Courtney illustrates the persecution Muslims are subjected to on a regular basis. It’s exceedingly difficult to watch as Allie often feels compelled to conform to the role of the “Good Muslim” as a result in order to placate and comfort those who have little-to-no true understanding of what being a Muslim entails and who fear what they don’t understand. (“I picture my grandmother in Dallas: my Teta sitting in my aunt Bila’s cheerful purple room, watching Amp Diab music videos and reading gossip magazines spilling dirt on Arab Idol judges. I wish I could show the passengers behind me what a Syrian Muslim in America looks like. Ask them if she is something to fear.”) The novel effectively demonstrates the collective trauma Muslims suffer from as they have been repeatedly asked to atone and take responsibility for those who claim a Muslim identity but who act contrary to Islam’s teachings in a destructive or violent manner. (“Anxiety. Was a Muslim involved? Please, God, don’t let there have been a Muslim involved. (…) Not that the facts matter. Chances are good we’ll bear the blame one way or another.”)

In addition to Allie’s personal journal of discovery, All-American Muslim Girl also explores Allie’s complex relationships with those around her, including her family, her boyfriend, and her new friends in the all-female Qu’ran study group she eventually joins. The latter is arguably the most influential in her life (and my favourite aspect of the novel) as Allie is allowed a safe space in which she’s able to explore, question and rejoice in her newfound faith without fear of judgement or constraint. These moments of levity, comfort, community, and honesty among the girls, one of whom identifies as a lesbian and all of whom identify as feminists, underscore how commonly-held Western misconceptions of Islam being regressive or oppressive do not reflect the reality of the Islamic belief system or the people who have devoted their lives to it.

All-American Muslim Girl by Nadine Jolie Courtney is an informative and inspiring novel which will no doubt educate and empower readers of all ages and backgrounds and reminds us that there is no one, monolithic Muslim experience, but rather a myriad of ways in which to worship that are as varied as they are beautiful. I read this novel during a particularly difficult and stressful period in my life and I can’t adequately express how much I loved All-American Muslim Girl or how much comfort I was able to draw from Allie’s story. This is one of the best books I’ve read in recent memory and one I would not hesitate to declare a favourite of 2019.

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Hi! I’m Jen! I’m a thirty-something introvert who loves nothing more than the cozy comfort of home and snuggling my two rescue cats, Pepper and Pancakes. I also enjoy running, jigsaw puzzles, baking and everything Disney. Few things bring me more joy than helping a reader find the right book for them!