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A new short story collection showcases the diversity of the Black Muslim experience


In her debut short story collection, Aaliyah Bilal writes about one particular community in the U.S.

AALIYAH BILAL: The community is a collection of African Americans who were once upon a time members of the Nation of Islam, though they have moved on to Sunni Orthodoxy. And the majority of the stories depict these individuals reflecting back on their times in the Nation of Islam, from the perch of, again, Sunni Orthodoxy.

DETROW: "Temple Folk" tells the stories of dozens of Black Muslims over the course of several decades. It tackles issues like freedom, love and family in a way that Bilal says cuts through the biases many people have about her community.

BILAL: Quite understandably, when you mention the Nation of Islam, many people's first associations are with hate. And it was important for me to understand that that was, and I suppose remains, a facet of the Nation of Islam and its ideology. Though, for the majority of the people that joined this movement, their primary motivations were not about hatred of others. I think that they brought a profound sense of personal need to the Nation of Islam that other organs in the culture were not addressing. And it was just important for me to balance those interests of depicting a lot of the hardships that were endured by the members in the Nation of Islam, a lot of the harsh realities of the Nation of Islam, alongside the sense that people were really deriving a sense of self-worth and meaning out of this movement.

DETROW: I want to talk about a couple stories that really stood out to me. And one of my favorite stories was "Candy For Hanif." It centers on a woman named Sister Nora, who's raising her son who has special needs. Can you tell us a bit about her and how she came to you as a character?

BILAL: Sister Nora is someone who came to me, reminding me of some of the women that I knew in the days where I was a frequent parishioner of my masjid in Washington, D.C. There were lots of women in that space who worked in the kitchen, and they often were not rewarded adequately for their efforts. Cooking food for the Jumah and that Sunday Taleem, their work was essential to the functioning and the joy that people derived from actually going. But never saw them rewarded for their efforts. And I thought that a character like Sister Nora could really encapsulate this feeling of someone who sees herself doing righteous work, helping to feed her community and not being rewarded for it.


BILAL: And how do we bring her to a place where she has to realize that something has to give? You know, I can no longer bear the weight of this.


BILAL: And so that's "Candy For Hanif" in a nutshell.

DETROW: And in the story, they are being recognized and rewarded, and that experience kind of leads to this epiphany for her. And I think, as you talk about that, it jumps out to me that even if these women aren't being fully acknowledged for the work they do, they find a community with each other. And all of them have real deep needs for community in their lives. Nora's taking care of her son, and another woman she works with takes care of her husband. And it feels like they're at home in the setting with each other, even if they're not being recognized by the broader community.

BILAL: That's right. I mean, in the few stories that do get told about African Americans in the United States - African American Muslims, that is - they tend to feature the experiences of men. And I wanted to take some time to really focus on the realities that African American women face in our communities. And those realities are sometimes wonderful, and sometimes they're just not. And this story really encapsulates that feeling of being in a place where you're not fully appreciated. And in your own way, how do you protest? How do you protest the lack of appreciation?

DETROW: Yeah. Another story that I really liked was "Janazah." It's about two childhood classmates who reconnect at the funeral of an old teacher. But it's also more broadly about one man coming to terms with his marriage and his life choices, and the big differences between his life inside this Muslim community and the life that he made for himself outside of that Muslim community. Can you tell us a bit about what inspired this story?

BILAL: This story was inspired by some of what my family imparted to me about their experiences with abuse as students in the Nation of Islam school, the University of Islam. I wanted to spell out for the reader this complex mix of emotions that comes with acknowledging the ways that these movements harm their followers, but also acknowledging that while there was a negative impact, there was some positive intent. And so we have these two men who are confronting these memories and, you know, sort of going back and forth about the virtues of this man who's died. You know, he just has this mixed legacy that the two of them are contending with all these decades later...


BILAL: ...And that as a microcosm of what the Nation of Islam meant to many people who left the movement. There are lots of people walking around today with scars. And they don't feel they they're able to really voice these things lest they appear to be disloyal to this movement that is so meaningful, not just to the current members but to many sympathetic African Americans of various religious persuasions.

DETROW: And both of those two stories have a powerful theme of escape in them. Characters wrestling with tension about what they want to do versus what they should do or what they want to do versus the fear of taking that step. And I felt it most powerfully in those two stories. But it's an undercurrent of the other stories in this collection as well. What draws you to that idea?

BILAL: Well, that idea really comes to the thesis behind the book, where I'm really asking questions not just of the Black Muslim experience but wondering how it fits into this larger story of African American religion. If African American religion is truly about the project of freedom and advancing freedom in the lives of African American people, there are ways that each of our religious movements advance the cause of freedom. And there are other ways that they stifle freedom in the lives of individual people. And what must those individuals do but move on? And I am showing at various points people coming into an awareness that their place within this particular culture does or does not satisfy their own desire for freedom. And then how do they renegotiate their place within the religion?

DETROW: That's Aaliyah Bilal. Her short story collection is called "Temple Folk." Thanks so much for your time.

BILAL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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