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Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38
Michael Muhammad Knight grew up Irish Catholic and converted to Islam aged 16, after reading the Autobiography of Malcolm X. At 17 he traveled to Islamabad, Pakistan to study in a madrassah at Faisal Mosque. His first novel is The Taqwacores.
Mark Thwaite: Before we get on to your novel, Michael, tell us a little about how an Irish Catholic kid like yourself becomes a Muslim?
Michael Muhammed Knight: I read the Autobiography of Malcolm X around the same time that the movie came out, and that was the same year that I met my father for the first time. He turned out to be a white supremacist. He asked where I leaned religiously, I answered "Muslim" and he spit out some racial slurs. That only encouraged me to press forward with it. I was conscious of Islam as a correction of everything wrong in America and my own little life.
MT: What gave you the idea for The Taqwacores?
MMK: After crashing and burning as a fundamentalist, I hoped for a new Islamic experience with more room for individuality, creative chaos and honest expression within the community. Punk rock seemed to have the answer.
MT: How long did it take you to write it?
MMK: It took a couple of months, if I remember. Then I just started xeroxing copies, numbering pages with vinyl stickers and binding the books by hand. My plan was to travel from mosque to mosque and hand it out in parking lots, but that didn't work too well. Then I started posting online at message boards, offering to ship the book to anyone on my own dime. After mailing books to places like Saudi Arabia and Malaysia, I couldn't afford to do it anymore. Then Alternative Tentacles, the punk rock record label founded by Jello Biafra, decided to include The Taqwacores in their catalog.
MT: Do you hope The TaqwacoresThe Taqwacores will help readers understand a little better the complexity and diversity of Muslims and help, a little, to lessen the rampant Islamophobia we see around us?
MMK: Honestly, I had never thought about non-Muslims reading The Taqwacores. My original version had no glossary, since I was perfectly fine with alienating non-Muslim readers. Now non-Muslims are telling me that they got something good out of the book and I still don't know how to feel about it, because it wasn't meant for them. But whoever reads this story, I hope that I've given them something positive.
MT: One of your characters, Jehangir, is a pot-smoking Sufi punk. I'd be keen to know more about your interest in both punk and Sufism.
MMK: I don't know if I'd call Jehangir a Sufi. I know that I'm not one. I'm somewhat afraid to use that term because Sufism represents a very mature commitment. Jehangir's only Sufi virtue is that he really does love Allah with all of his heart, and he does put his life in Allah's Hands with absolute faith.
As a teenager I believed that stringed instruments were prohibited by Islam, so I didn't encounter punk rock until college. It offered a whole competing mythology to me. The punk kids I hung out with had this heroism to them, they really lived it out like they were taking on the whole world. Punk was a way to hate everything but in a life-affirming way, if that makes any sense.
MT: How do you write Michael? Longhand or directly onto a computer, straight off or with lots and lots of editing?
MMK: My stuff becomes more technically sound when I can see it on the computer, because I can improve it as I go, but the energy's better when I'm just outside somewhere scribbling on paper. It's like Allah said, "you have the power, but you have no refinement." The raw power's on the paper, but then I refine it on the computer. I edit more now than I used to. I think the key to good writing is to recognize when I've written badly.
MT: What do you do when you are not writing?
MMK: Nothing. It's a very real problem. Most of the time I only want to write. I've started to get better about it: I make a point of taking days off, and I've started to watch junk TV just to relax. And this weekend I'm going to Detroit for WrestleMania.
MT: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?
MMK: I try to avoid that thought. I'm a bad driver when other people are in the car, because I end up looking at them instead of the road.
I honestly thought that noone would read The Taqwacores. A photocopied novel filled with obscure Muslim references and punk-rock references? I was sure that the Islam would alienate the punks and the punk would alienate the Muslims. Now it's being read by non-punk non- Muslims, I never could have dreamed it.
MT: What are you working on now?
MMK: I've just finished a nonfiction project about my experiences in American Muslim counterculture, and I also have a finished novel coming out next year, Osama Van Halen, featuring Amazing Ayyub and Rabeya from The Taqwacores. I've now started to mess around with my third novel, and I also have another research project in the works. I might want to take a break at some point, but it seems that each book begets three more.
MT: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?
MMK: My favorite author is F. Scott Fitzgerald. The Taqwacores actually contains some Fitzgerald references, but most of them aren't obvious. My favorite book is Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, because it just tells its story through characters. There's no real plot, just a guy who goes around getting all these odd people to confide in him and that sums up this town that he's about to leave behind. He's doing what writers do.
MT: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer!?
MMK: Writers write. Writers don't go to parties and talk about what they're writing. They sit at home and do the work.
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