Alicia Jo Rabins ’98 mines her obsessions for her art
In her fourth book, the young adult novel All-American Muslim Girl, author Nadine Jolie Courtney ’02 brings her own experiences growing up as Muslim-American to life through the character Allie Abraham. Struggling to bridge the gap between her Muslim heritage and her public all-American girl persona, 16-year-old Allie decides to embrace her faith and let it guide her through these uncertain times. We caught up with Courtney and discussed her writing process, Barnard professors, and the books currently on her nightstand.
What’s your favorite book from childhood?
When I was younger, I read Cheaper by the Dozen over and over (and over and over!). I also liked the sequel, Belles on Their Toes; for some reason the adventures of the Gilbreth family really spoke to me!
How long did it take to write this book?
It took a little over two years to write: I pitched it just after the Muslim [travel] Ban in 2017 and was still tweaking it up until the last possible second.
What’s the most illuminating or helpful advice you received about writing?
Don’t be afraid to write a garbage first draft. The magic comes in the editing process — and it’s so much easier to finesse something fully written than to existentially wrestle with a blank page.
Do you enjoy the writing process, or are you like Dorothy Parker, who once said, “I hate writing. I love having written”?
It might sound nerdy, but I love to write! It’s all I ever wanted to do, from the time I was a young kid. And, of course, while an English major at Barnard, it was my hope that I’d someday be able to make the dream come true.
What was the hardest part of your book to write?
Although I obviously hope readers of all stripes will love All-American Muslim Girl, it was especially important to me for Muslim readers to feel validated, because actually seeing ourselves on the page is so rare. Some of the scenes that were hardest for me to write were when my main character Allie is deep-diving Islam with her Muslim study group. Many of my early non-Muslim readers felt those scenes were a bit dense, but they were also the scenes that my Muslim readers told me they loved the most!
Did you have to do research to write All-American Muslim Girl?
Even though I’m a (mostly) practicing Muslim, I still spent a lot of time researching Islam to make sure I was getting details correct. Being a Muslim writer at a time when our stories are still not widely told and Muslims are often misrepresented, there’s a sense of pressure to get the representation absolutely perfect. As a result, I had a mentality of “First Do No Harm” with this book. Even though I was essentially telling my own story, I spent months working with various sensitivity readers to make sure there was nothing inadvertently problematic for young or marginalized readers. I really wanted young Muslims, especially, to read the book and feel proud of their religion and to feel heard, seen, and valued.
What did you study at Barnard that helped you become the writer you are?
I was an English and European studies major. Funnily enough, my European studies advisor was one of my most influential teachers: Lisa Tiersten, whom I adored and worked closely with on my thesis. Some other great teachers were Margaret Vandenburg, Maire Jaanus, Timea Szell, and Peter Platt.
How would you advise an aspiring writer?
Just write. Don’t overthink it, don’t put it off, don’t beat yourself up for a bad writing day — just keep writing and finish the damn thing.
What books are on your nightstand right now?
Right now, I’m alternating between Such a Fun Age, Dear Edward, Red, White and Royal Blue, and a parenting guide called How to Talk So Little Kids Can Listen.