In 2015, Muhammad Khan was a maths teacher who dreamed of having a book published. Agent Penny Holroyde was interested in his fantasy novel, which had a Muslim lead. Then, news broke of three Bethnal Green schoolgirls fleeing to Syria to join Islamic State. “I found this shocking on many levels,” Khan tells me when we meet at Macmillan’s London office. Over the Easter break, he wrote the first draft of I am Thunder. “I wanted to speak to those Muslim students who were feeling unloved and afraid at the rise of the far right across the world. They’re trapped in the middle. They don’t recognise ISIS as Muslims. There’s the [far] right who hate them for something they haven’t done. I wanted them to know that they are British, they are valuable, they are loved and they have nothing to apologise for.”
Muzna Saleem is the novel’s 15-year-old protagonist, based, Khan says, on three of his students. She dreams of being a writer, but her parents insist on a career in medicine. She has to deal not only with regular teenage angst - friends, boys, body image, parents - but also with racism and Islamaphobia. When she attracts the attention of the charismatic Arif, he and his brother Saleem begin to lead her down the dark path of radicalisation. Can she find her inner thunder and speak out?
Like Muzna, Khan grew up in a British Pakistani family in London. “I began to make books before I could read,” he laughs. He wrote constantly through adolescence. “I used to invent worlds and live vicariously. Writing for me was an escape and it kept my sanity.” In I am Thunder, Muzna is repeatedly told,“You don’t hear of many Muslim authors, do you?”, and this was Khan’s experience; there were no Muslim characters in the books he read either. Added to this was the weight of parental expectation. “In Asian families, there are four respectable professions: medicine, engineering, business and law. My father selected the day I was born that I was to be an engineer. That was non-negotiable.”
Following an engineering degree, Khan had what he calls his “pseudo-rebellion”, and trained as a teacher. “The writing dream was dead but at least I’d get to work with these fantastic young people.”One day in a quiet moment, Khan told his students a story. “Even the naughtiest kids were quiet with their mouths open. It became a regular thing. It eventually led to some of the kids saying, ‘Sir, you should be an author.’” His dream was reignited.
Khan’s experience as a secondary-school teacher is evident in his writing, both in the stories he chooses to tell and in his gift for dialogue, which is fresh, colloquial and alien to anyone who doesn’t spend time with teenagers. “My students are my beta readers,” he admits. He gave them his first three chapters. “I asked them to be brutally honest, ‘Does the voice sound like one of you guys, or an old man trying too hard?’” Happily, they loved it. “A couple of my students asked me: ‘Sir, why are we never in books? Either we’re never in books or they always get us wrong.’ I had grown up only seeing books with white characters on the front. It was the norm. With them pointing it out I realised how true it was.” Creating something that could speak to his target audience was vital.
In 2015 mandatory Prevent Duty training - “a duty on specified authorities to have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”, the Counter-Terrorism unit says - was introduced into schools. Khan saw a shift in how
teenagers behaved. “All the openness we’d enjoyed before vanished. It wasn’t just the Muslim students who didn’t want to talk. Non-Muslim students were afraid that they might be perceived as racist if they wanted to ask something.” The book became an opportunity to demystify what was going on. Radicalisation had also touched him personally. A member of his extended family had come into contact with a group with extreme beliefs, and came to believe that Islam was incompatible with life in Britain. She moved to an Islamic country and cut her family off. The speed with which it happened was, he says, “horrific. They changed her in the name of Islam and it doesn’t make sense. Islam is about bringing families and people together, it’s about charity and love, kindness and forgiveness. It’s not about segregation.” The book, he says, “is a rebuttal to that, it says you absolutely can be British and Muslim. There is no conflict between the two.” Khan sat down to write with a very clear vision. “It’s going to be an anti-radicalisation book and I’m going to make sure that both issues are addressed. Islamist extremism and the other side of the coin: Islamaphobia. You can’t look at one without the other. And I wanted to present that being a Muslim isn’t one thing, being a Muslim is multifaceted.”
I confess to Khan that I was expecting something very serious and gritty. Highly topical issues are explored but viewed through the lens of Muzna’s coming of age; this real, complex, vulnerable and relatable heroine gives the story real heart and power. Initially a cautionary tale - ”I felt I needed to shock people into seeing how awful ISIS is” - the tone evolved in subsequent drafts. “I learnt that you mustn’t be didactic. Your audience are far more intelligent than that and you need to trust them.” Khan felt it key to leave his readers with hope, particularly in the relationship between Muzna and Arif: “I don’t think I’ve ever come across a Muslim love story in YA fiction before. Arif is being controlled by his brother, he’s done some despicable things. How do we redeem him?”
When the book went out on submission “there were a few who didn’t want to touch it” but Khan met several publishers and “immediately clicked” with Macmillan editor Lucy Pearse. “She was all kinds of woke, she completely understood...to me that was a surprise. Muzna is a very traditional Pakistani girl but Lucy got her immediately and never wanted to censor anything. There are quite controversial things in the book, all kinds of things that in polite society we don’t talk about. But Lucy got it.” Khan is proud to see a big publisher like Macmillan “spearheading inclusivity” - it will also publish Tomi Adeyemi’s hotly tipped Children of Blood and Bone in 2018 - but stresses “as consumers we’re very powerful and we don’t realise that. We need to make sure we go out and buy these books”.
Khan is currently taking a year out to study creative writing at Roehampton “I’m working backwards!” he laughs, but sees himself working with young people again in the future. He has a two-book deal and is writing his second contemporary YA. “I have so many stories to tell. I’ve taught so many kids and each one is so unique and impossible to forget.” He might go back to that fantasy book one day, but “to see a Muslim girl in a hijab become a hero is a kind of wish fulfilment. I know that a lot of my students will really appreciate that, for once, they can be the hero.”