There’s a new kid on the block, and her name is Karuna Riazi. With its magical premise and trio of heroes, her debut novel The Gauntlet seems destined to join bestsellers like Percy Jackson and The School for Good and Evil as middle grade fantasy classics. In an interview with Bustle, Karuna Riazi talks about her journey to publication and reveals what it means to be a Muslim woman writing Muslim stories.
Heralded as a steampunk version of Jumanji, Riazi's novel follows 12-years-old Farah and her two BBFs as they enter The Gauntlet of Blood and Sand — a board game — with the aim of saving Farah's brother, Ahmed, while battling against the game's evil architect and its magical creatures. It's a high-stakes adventure with plenty of fantastical twists and turns — and it just so happens that the story unfolds through the eyes of a Muslim girl.
Before Riazi set out to write what would become her first novel, the Hofstra University senior was a book blogger with an active Twitter presence. In fact, in May 2014, she created the viral hashtag #YesAllWomen in response to misogynistic reactions to violence against women.
“After that, things blew up," Riazi tells Bustle.
Her online presence certainly helped her foster networks and create connections that would help her on the road to publication. She says she is especially inspired by the women of color she's met online, many of whom have helped make her writing dreams come true. "Just watching [these women] get better at their craft to write books that really engage people," she says. "Watching these ladies grow helped me grow."
The Gauntlet is a book unlike any other. It's an action-adventure novel that features a young girl proudly wearing a hijab, written by a Muslim author, and edited by a Muslim woman. Salaam Reads, the book's publisher, is dedicated to telling Muslim stories for children and is helmed by Simon & Schuster executive editor Zareen Jaffery.
"I feel more understood. I feel less fearful asking about what is normal in the industry," Riazi says of Jaffery. "I’ve been exposed to less micro-aggressions, and I could tell my editor got it. I could speak in one of my own tongues. There’s a cultural understanding, and we could figure things out together."
This sense of cultural authenticity shines through in the work, as exemplified by what Riazi describes as her favorite scene in the novel. "One of my favorite scenes to write was when the kids enter the game and are surrounded by all these people," she says. "Farah looks around, and they’re wearing Muslim clothing and speaking in different languages she can recognize. The world looks familiar from her visit to Bangladesh, and there’s something comforting about seeing these brown people around her. For this kid, coming into this Middle-Eastern-coded world is not a threat. It was an important scene for me to write. To know that these people are her people."
Riazi adds that her editor worked by a strict motto during the creation of this book: "This is normal for us. We are not going to give into exoticism."
For Riazi, the message of The Guantlet is personal, too. "Muslim kids can have adventures too, and can be Muslim while having adventures," she says. "I think one time, I broke down and was frustrated, because no one cared or wanted to know what brown girls want. Growing up post 9/11, no one wants to hear our story because there’s an underlying narrative of who we are and what we felt."
That's why it's so important stories like The Guantlet exist — so Muslim children see themselves as the heroes, and so Muslim children can see themselves represented in authentic, respectful ways.
"[Farah] is going to win while being a Muslim girl in a hijab," Riazi says. "And this is going to be normal. It’s going to be important for Muslim kids to see that they have the right to have these adventures, too, and it’s part of their lives, and there’s nothing boring or wrong with them. They should expect these type of stories where they can be brave and smart and save the world."
The Guantlet just hit shelves on March 28, but Riazi is already working on her next project. Though she can't divulge too many secrets, she says the book will be "YA magical realism with a Muslim girl protagonist and Muslim love interest."
I'll be waiting in line for it.