Raising Her Voice

Raising Her Voice

A Rockville children's author hopes to help readers understand what it means to be Muslim American

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Author Hena Khan published Amina’s Voice last year. Photo by Skip Brown

Hena Khan was raised in Rockville, the child of Muslim immigrants from Pakistan, and I ask if she’d ever faced discrimination because of her religion. “When I was growing up it was really more about feeling invisible, and not thinking my culture mattered,” she replies. “Nobody at school knew anything about being a Muslim, being a Pakistani-American. My teachers often couldn’t identify Pakistan on a map.”

Khan, now 44, is devoted to ending that ignorance. Several years ago, she started writing children’s picture books that portrayed Muslim holidays and traditions, and last year, she published Amina’s Voice, a novel for young teens that draws heavily on her childhood experiences in Montgomery County. 

Her first audience is Muslim children like her own boys, now 16 and 12. “I want to write stories where my kids and others like them could finally see themselves,” she says.

Khan is also aiming at a wider market, the community that made a Muslim girl from Pakistan feel unappreciated, “the people who don’t understand who we are.” With the rising tide of anti-Muslim sentiment in this country, fueled in part by presidential rhetoric, she feels this obligation “more than ever.”

“I really wrote Amina’s Voice for everybody, for people to get a glimpse into a Pakistani-American family, and into a Muslim family, in a way that they might not be able to otherwise,” she says.

Hena’s father supported the construction of the Muslim Community Center in Silver Spring in the early 1980s, and in the novel, Amina’s family mosque—defaced by vandals and rebuilt with help from churches and synagogues—plays a big role. 

Her goal, says Khan, was to give readers “access to a mosque…and [have them] meet an imam, and hopefully dispel this idea that sinister things are happening at mosques, and imams are up to no good and recruiting people for bad things.”

I submitted Amina’s Voice to an expert reviewer, my 12-year-old granddaughter, Cecilia. She was enthralled with Amina’s story saying, “I learned so many things about her family.” So did I. Hena has three more chapter books for young teens in the pipeline, and she’s constantly trying out ideas on her own boys. “It’s very helpful to have test readers in the house,” she says.

That house is only 2 miles from the one near Falls Road where Hena grew up and her mother still lives. Her father came to America in 1959, to study microbiology at Howard University, and returned to Pakistan seven years later to marry a bride he’d never met. The young couple settled in Montgomery County, and Hena’s father commuted to the District where he worked at Children’s National Medical Center.

Being invisible showed itself in many ways. “I went caroling in the neighborhood with my best friends. I could sing every Christmas carol. I knew the dreidel song. The neighbors across the street were Jewish, and I’d go to their seder,” Khan says. “So I felt I understood everyone else’s traditions but nobody knew anything about mine, or anything about my life.”

Hena was a devoted reader by age 5, and the family made regular treks to the Rockville library, coming home with shopping bags full of books. “But I didn’t ask the librarians for books about Pakistani-American kids, I just accepted the fact that they didn’t exist,” she recalls. 

The Khans were like most immigrant families—torn between becoming American and preserving their traditions—and efforts to display their culture did not always go well. Hena recalls one Halloween when her mother suggested: “Why don’t you go as a Pakistani princess and wear your ethnic clothes? And all I wanted to be was Wonder Woman like everybody else.”

Then there was the “disaster” of show-and-tell, when Hena’s mother made a traditional Pakistani dessert for her classmates. “It smelled like perfume,” she recalls. “And they were all like ‘Eeeewww, get it away from us’ and no one wanted to eat it.”

After graduating from Wootton High School, Hena went to the University of Maryland, where she met her husband, Farrukh Saleem, who shares her Pakistani origins and now works for an IT services company. Her first career focused on international economic development, but a turning point came when a friend asked her to do some freelance writing for Scholastic, a publisher of books and magazines for children. “I was writing technical boring stuff for adults, but writing for kids was an entirely different experience,” she says. “I had to be lighthearted, you could use puns and exclamation points!”

When her first child was 3, Hena visited his Montessori school on Seven Locks Road to help celebrate Ramadan. The teacher, meaning well, gave her some material to read to the kids. “I don’t know where she pulled this stuff off the internet, but they were using words like ‘revelation’ and ‘gates of heaven,’ and these kids were sitting there glazed. That was the moment I realized we needed children’s books that you could take into a school environment, that would explain the holidays from the perspective of a child.”

That moment led to Night of the Moon, her first book, published in 2008. Others followed including It’s Ramadan, Curious George. “People were just so happy,” she recalls; it’s a “very, very simple little book,” but Curious George celebrating Ramadan gave Muslims “a sense of finally being included.”

The invisible girl has become a very visible woman. “I feel like I’m in a unique position to talk to kids,” Hena says. “If I go into a school and they remember that they met a Muslim and she seemed OK, I think I just need to do this. If I have the opportunity to change the way anyone sees Muslim-Americans, I have to take it.” 

Steve Roberts teaches journalism and politics at George Washington University and his most recent book, Images of America: Bethesda and Chevy Chase, was published by Arcadia. Send ideas for future column ideas to sroberts@gwu.edu 

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