Fresh Voices: Q&A with Jamila Thompkins-Bigelow and Hatem Aly, creators of SALAT IN SECRET

★ “[A] sincerely wrought celebration of family and faith.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review

What inspired you to write/illustrate Salat in Secret?

JAMILAH: The idea for SALAT IN SECRET came to me around two weeks after my father passed away, and that also happened to be about two weeks before my youngest child’s seventh birthday. During that space of time, I was grieving but I was also feeling so much gratitude for the many great memories of my father. As I planned out my son’s birthday, I thought about getting him a sajjada or salat rug because age seven is so important for Muslims — the age when children are encouraged to perform all five daily ritual prayers or salat. I thought about how much my father would love to see his grandchild get his own salat rug and this story was born. The father character in the book is modeled after my own father in the way he is an unapologetic Muslim. He even is an ice cream truck man, which is a job my father had.

HATEM: The story could be read and understood by anyone. The desire to create space for oneself in the world is universal—and it’s not always easy to do. Also, the writing was so good.

What was the most difficult part about writing/illustrating the book? What part was the easiest?

JAMILAH: I found the scene when police confront Muhammad’s father as he is publicly praying emotionally challenging to write. It was difficult because I know that often my faith is criminalized, and I also know of other Muslims that this has happened to. In fact, the idea for the scene came from my father telling me about another ice cream man crying after police harassed him for performing salat next to his truck although he wasn’t bothering anyone and was out of the way.

HATEM: What is easy? Ha! It is always a dance on the edge of a sloppy, muddy road! I guess I had some trouble coming up with a way to make the coat closet “a character” that was both a sanctuary and a safe space while still functioning as a coat closet. It was still fun, though!

I find it easiest to convey feelings visually, and I have found that illustration can allow introverted storytellers to become actors on paper and to show something without putting on a show.

What character or element of the story do you identify with the most and why?

JAMILAH: I definitely identify with Muhammad the most because I know what it’s like to grow up knowing you’re different and feeling both pride and shame in those differences. I found public prayer very embarrassing as a young person. Like me, many observant Muslims find needing to pray in public space’s anxiety-inducing because of the various stereotypes tied to Muslim practices. Yet, they still may personally cherish salat in spite of how others view it.

HATEM: I see a lot of myself in Muhammad. It is often up to the sensitive, observant, reflective kid within me to figure out how to deal with the flood of positive and negative emotions and ideas that hit me all at once.

What do you want kids today to take away from this story?

JAMILAH: I want kids to take away that it’s okay to be different and to ask for what you need to be comfortable in the spaces that you occupy. I want them to be open to accommodating others and their differences.

HATEM: I hope that kids will consider what they have wrapped up in their souls that makes it hard for them to be themselves or to observe what makes them feel at peace with themselves and the world, and what it takes to unwrap that with grace and courage.

What are you currently reading?

JAMILAH: I’m currently reading and loving VICTORY STAND! by Tommie Smith, Derrick Barnes, and Dawud Anyabwile.

HATEM: I usually have a few books going at the same time. I am currently rereading Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott and have just started reading Grounded by Aisha Saeed, Huda Al-Marashi, Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow, and S. K. Ali. The list is long and has a lot of different types of books, but I would like to enjoy these first.


The Fresh Voices series is in coordination with the RHCB DEI Book Club Committee.
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