At a recent book signing, fans of Samira Ahmed strike a pose: the classic camera frame formed with your hands when you wish you could photograph or record something happening in front of you. But that gesture takes on a lot more meaning because it echoes the cover of Ahmed’s recent novel Love, Hate and Other Filters.
The YA novel follows 17-year-old Maya Aziz as she goes through the usual trials and tribulations of teenage-hood — trying to get the attention of your crush, dealing with your family’s expectations, and figuring out how to do what you love after high school. But Maya deals with other factors, too. There are her family’s cultural expectations for who she would date and marry, and there’s also the realization that racial discrimination is rampant at her school.
Maya sees everything through a camera lens in her mind, often wishing she could slow down certain moments so she can enjoy them for longer. But soon, Maya finds herself in a situation she wishes she could cut from the narrative of her life.
When a terrorist attack takes place in her town, the alleged attacker happens to have the same last name as Maya.
Suddenly, Maya must see the world through a new, harsh lens. From the micro-aggressions to the blatantly violent encounters Maya and her family face, Ahmed details it all. The author makes her character’s mother’s anxiety palpable, as she begs to take Maya out of school to keep her safe. When Maya returns to school after the attack, a police escort comes with her.
Passages like these may feel familiar to many POC readers, no matter their age. Ahmed hopes that “fully-fleshed, complex characters” can continue to appear in YA books. “As a kid, I almost never saw a character even remotely resembling myself or my experiences,” Ahmed writes in an email interview with HelloGiggles. “Characters of color were often stilted stereotypes, pawns to serve a purpose in a white savior narrative.”
When the events surrounding the terrorist attack — and the hate towards Maya’s family — start to unfold, Love, Hate and Other Filters feels far from fiction.
“I started writing this book years ago and it’s devastating to see how this story has become more timely — to know that the Islamophobia Maya and her family experience, the fear they hold so close, is relevant to so many kids and their families today,” the author states.
Ahmed says that parts of her experience with “being the only Muslim and only Indian-American in [her] school” inspired the book. It comes through “in the way Maya thinks and relates to her parents and the world” as well as in the way Maya stays “hyper-aware of who she is and what she is and how people ‘other’ her.”
Fans of the book continue to reach out to Ahmed to tell her how much the book means to them. In 2016, a “young Muslim woman” came up to Ahmed at BookCon. She was sharing the book with her sister, and reading it affected her tremendously. Ahmed reveals, “She gave me this giant hug and said she had never seen herself or her experience represented on the page before. Both of us had tears in our eyes. It’s hard to convey how much that moment meant to me.”
Another time, a teacher from the Midwest emailed the creator to share that the book really helped him gain “a new understanding” of what Muslim teenagers go through. “The privilege of hearing from these readers… it’s a dream for any author. It’s a dream for me,” continued Ahmed.
It’s important to note that Ahmed’s book joins Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give on the New York Times best seller list, and a recent New York Times article looked at the rise of published YA novels that focus on stories with a social justice angle. Writer Alexandra Alter argues that teachers see these books as a “particularly potent tool for engaging with volatile topics.”
While the internet remains a powerful place to shed light on injustice, it can quickly turn toxic. People rail at one another in the comments sections of major publications and many female, non-binary, and POC writers have been driven away from social media altogether. Love, Hate and Other Filters offers a bit of solace to teenagers growing up in a tense political climate. But Ahmed emphasizes that the story shouldn’t be interpreted as a story about an “other.”
“I hope that readers see that Maya’s story is her own — one experience of being an Indian-American, Muslim in America — but also that her story is an American story. It is at once personal and universal. This isn’t the story about an ‘other.’ Indeed, I believe, in our nation, there are no ‘others.’ There is only us.”
Ahmed will be in Chicago, Illinois, on February 3rd as part of her recent book tour.