Batavia native's debut novel addresses hate, Islamophobia

Growing up in Batavia, Samira Ahmed couldn't help but feel a bit like an outsider.

Hers was among the first Indian Muslim families to move to the lily white suburb, which had little diversity in the early 1970s.

"There are always these things that make you feel like 'the other,'" she said of cultural differences such as wearing Indian clothes, having hands painted with henna, or when her mom brought Indian sweets to school.

To Ahmed, Batavia is the typical American small town, which is why she set her debut young adult novel about a Muslim teenager facing hate and Islamophobia there.

"It has a Norman Rockwell-esque quality to it," said Ahmed, 46, a Batavia High School graduate now living in Chicago. "(But) every town has its flaws. Every town has people who are haters."

Ahmed's book, "Love, Hate & Other Filters," made The New York Times best-seller list and has garnered acclaim from literary critics and teen readers. She recently was featured on BBC Radio and will speak about her novel at 1:30 p.m. Sunday at the Town and Country Public Library in Elburn - the final stop of a cross-country book tour.

Ahmed has been speaking at schools and teen festivals nationwide. Reactions to her work have been "heartening."

"In this age of Islamophobia, a lot of the readers are so receptive and open and wanting to read these stories," she said. "That is what is so great about American diversity and people who are open to the idea that America isn't just one story. It's many, many stories that make up this larger anthology."

Ahmed said the book is not based on her high school experience.

Her story's protagonist, 17-year-old Maya Aziz, is a typical teenager with hopes, ambitions, crushes and conflict with her parents. A second-generation Muslim-American, she finds support in the Batavia community, where her family has deep roots to combat the Islamophobia she encounters for being different. The book chronicles the journey of how she grapples with young adult life and the cultural divide between her parents and peers.

"Anytime you are not 100 percent on what is deemed to be normative, any child feels a bit like an outsider looking in," Ahmed said. "The story is really an American story. This kind of hatred can be in any town, no matter how quintessentially charming and American it feels. I very much believe that in America, there is no 'other.' There is only us. Making people feel like 'other' is to the detriment of our community."

That's the message Ahmed hopes to convey through her book providing a window into Muslim culture in America. She also wants Muslim children to see themselves reflected in it.

"Every child deserves to see themselves as a hero in a book," Ahmed said.

Ahmed taught high school English for seven years in Homewood, Skokie and New York City public schools, and she later became the deputy director of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity and director of external affairs at New Visions for Public Schools. Now a full-time author, she is working on two more young adult fiction novels coming out in 2019.

Batavia High School graduate Samira Ahmed's debut young adult novel, "Love, Hate & Other Filters," is set in Batavia and features a Muslim teenager fighting hate and Islamophobia. Courtesy of Soho Press
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