Congratulations on receiving the [2021 honorable mention for a first book prize] honor from the Modern Language Association. How do you feel about receiving this?
I feel really privileged to receive the honor. It’s nice to get professional recognition from the main academic professional organization in your field, which –– I am an English professor and my training is in the discipline of literature. It’s really nice to get recognition for this kind of project because as a professor, you spend a lot of your time doing solitary research and writing and you never quite know how it is that your book is going to be received and what your peers are going to think about it. At the end of the road when you finally publish, it’s nice to get that kind of recognition.
The book was published in 2020 by Rutgers University press. It was also published in another edition by the University of the West Indies Press, which is based in Jamaica with branches all over the Caribbean. The Rutgers University edition is the American and U.K. edition, and the University of the West Indies press edition is the Caribbean and worldwide one. It’s really important for me to have gotten that kind of representation in publishing and have it available easily to people in the Caribbean specifically, who are the demographic that the book is about. It’s also the place where I came to this work because I was born in the Caribbean, in Guyana, so it’s really important to me that that audience has easy access to it.
It also came out in the middle of the pandemic––or really a couple of months after the pandemic started––which is kind of weird. I had some book talks in person that were canceled, but I managed to move most of them online. Last year I did a good number of book talks with different institutions, all of which were online. Ultimately, because they were online, they were able to reach a larger cross-section of people than otherwise.
The book is called Far from Mecca: Globalizing the Muslim Caribbean. It’s a study of the history, literature, and culture of Muslims in the Caribbean, but with an emphasis on the English-speaking, Anglophone Caribbean, specifically Guyana, Trinidad, and Jamaica, with some mention of other places like Suriname. It’s the first monograph by an academic on the subject of Islam in the Caribbean. There are other anthologies on the subject of Muslims and Islam in the Caribbean, but there was no single-author book. This is the first one.
One of the things that I wanted to do was to bring to light these understudied histories of people who practice Islam and who were Muslim in the Caribbean, from the time of the transatlantic slave trade to now. I also have other goals, which include intervening in postcolonial, racialized, political conflicts of people in the Caribbean, between the descendants of Indian indentured laborers and the descendants of enslaved Africans in the Caribbean, by showing that they share both a labor and religious history that they should take into consideration in contemporary postcolonial politics and nation-building.
The book follows a linear trajectory, so it starts off by focusing on the autobiographies and the religious manuscripts of two enslaved West African men in Jamaica in the early 1800s. We tend to think of enslaved people in this stereotypic way––they were illiterate and didn’t come to the New World with very much, but that’s not necessarily true. Historians estimate that at least 10 percent, if not much more of enslaved West Africans were Muslim. There’s no way of telling exactly, but like, we can trace it based on where in West Africa they were from––from predominantly Muslim regions, from what is now Senegal, Mali, Guinea, also because of some of their recorded names on plantations, names that were clearly Muslim: like Mohammedo and Ahmed. Many of them were highly educated because that is true of many Muslim West Africans at that time. There were many Islamic schools scattered about West Africa since the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. These two men who wrote these letters in Jamaica were not the only ones who left autobiographical, written records of their lives and their enslavement in the Americas. There are also a number of documents that we have in the United States, including most famously, from Sapelo Island, off the coast of Georgia––two documents, including one called the Bilali Muhammad diary. These documents from Jamaica are like those, written by enslaved people in Arabic and also what is called ajami, which is African languages transliterated into Arabic script.
That’s how I start off the book––proposing those texts by enslaved Muslims as the founding texts of Caribbean Islam. And then I trace other Caribbean Muslim texts with a goal of establishing a canon of Islamic Caribbean literature. I also look at music by and about Muslims in the Caribbean—I read their music and the legacy of their music as texts too, like poetry and fiction.
If you have time, I would be interested to know about how it’s been since the book has been published and maybe like the responses you’ve gotten, and how you feel as an author having your work published, if there’s anything you haven’t covered yet that you would like to say about that.
The book has gotten really great reception so far. It’s not just MLA [Modern Language Association First Book Prize honorable mention, 2021]. Before I published it, the work in progress also won two national prizes. It won the American Association of University Women’s Annual Postdoctoral Fellowship as well as the American Comparative Literature Association’s Helen Tartar First Book Subvention Prize. I have received quite a lot of professional support for publishing this book. And again, that is recognition from my peers in the field of literature, in the field of African Diasporic and Caribbean Studies, that I really appreciate. The book was published in the pandemic, so as mentioned, talking to people about it happened mostly online, but in the end, I don’t think that that was much of an issue. I’ve received a lot of positive responses, both from within the Caribbean, and in the U.S. I’m particularly happy about the reception it’s gotten in Muslim communities and amongst Muslim academics, because the Caribbean is not really recognized as a site of Muslims and Muslim culture and Muslim history, just because people don’t know. There are certainly scholars working in the field of Islam in the Americas, but they tend to be focused on the United States, so not so much is known about the history of Islam in the rest of the Americas. People have been really gracious and really interested in that.
This is my first book. In order to get tenure at the University of Michigan and most Research 1 institutions, you have to publish a book. For most people, the first book that they publish is a revision of their dissertation. This is not. I wrote a brand-new book while I was an assistant professor here. That’s unusual because it means that the timeline is very short. You’re not revising work. You’re doing brand new work. My timing was extremely compressed. But, I really felt strongly that I didn’t want to revise my dissertation and I was more philosophically and emotionally committed to doing a book on this topic. It’s what I really wanted to write about and what I really wanted to do. I took the risk of not revising my dissertation and just writing something new. It paid off because it is genuinely what I was devoted to doing and what I wanted to do. I wasn’t doing it to get tenure; it’s what I wanted to do. I felt like I also owed this book to my community. I don’t just mean in DAAS and my academic community. I mean that the book is really about the community that I grew up in because I grew up as a Muslim person in the Caribbean, and I felt very strongly that I had to write their history, because so little was known about it.
Would you say that was your big inspiration for you writing the book?
Yes. I came to this work because I am from this community. Growing up, I couldn’t find work about this community. I couldn’t find things written about it. I couldn’t find research done about it––just in very small fragments. So, I did it myself. I wrote the book I wanted to read while I was growing up, about my own people. I also included a lot of family history and family stories in it, which is not the norm for academic research work. There’s a photograph on the cover that includes my grandmother, and my mother and my aunt as children. And [in the book] there are pictures of my grandfather. I had access to a really rich photographic family archive from Guyana. I’m simultaneously telling the story of my own family while I tell the story of a community that I’m a part of. But it’s also serious research and critical theory work, and literature review. It’s all of those things.
I’m definitely adding it to my reading list.
Thank you. I appreciate it.
Is there anything else pertaining to the book that you want to share?
I’ll say something about my two departments [at the University of Michigan]. I’m jointly appointed in the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies, and the Department of English. I’m also now the director of the Global Islamic Studies Center at the International Institute at UofM. I have always been supported by both of my departments. English Literature is my disciplinary home, or my disciplinary training, but so is Caribbean Studies, which is located within African Diaspora Studies for DAAS’s purposes. Both departments were instrumental in mentoring me and encouraging me with this kind of work, so I’d really like to thank them. I’ve always had really supportive chairs in both departments; Michigan has been a very supportive place for my work.
That’s so great to hear.
If you have any words to share briefly about your career––what brought you to begin teaching at Michigan and what the current scope of your work and study is like here, that would be interesting to hear about.
I received tenure last year in 2020. This was my first tenure-track job out of grad school. I received my PhD in Literature in Feminist Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. I came to Michigan for a job, but it was a job that seemed perfectly suited to my interests and abilities because it was joint in English, my disciplinary home, and African Diasporic and Caribbean Studies. The interdisciplinary formulation was perfect for me. Now that I have tenure, I have started directing the Global Islamic Studies Center, which is focused on Islamic Studies more specifically, but it’s also Muslim cultures of the world. Rather than just a focus on the Middle East, next semester, we’re having a series on Black Islam and a book launch on Muslim chaplaincy in North America, so I get to professionally expand the horizon of Muslim and Islamic Studies in a way that includes the breadth and diversity of the Muslim community, which is something I was already trying to do with my book.
Thanks so much for sharing and thanks for your time today.