Senior English major Hebah Uddin published her first novel, “The Gauntlet,” last month with Salaam Reads, an imprint of Simon & Schuster that focuses on Muslim characters. The novel, which is targeted at middle school-aged-readers, centers on 12-year-old Farah Mirza and her friends, who are sucked into a board game that they must defeat in order to save themselves and others who are trapped inside.
Uddin describes it as the “inverse of Jumanji,” the 1995 film in which a board game comes to life and must be defeated in the real world. She cites this story as one of the major influences of her book.
“I really, really loved ‘Jumanji’ as a kid, so that influence ended up cropping up again and again,” Uddin said.
Some of Uddin’s favorite books growing up were ones that had strong female characters, including “A Wrinkle in Time” and “Ella Enchanted.”
“I really appreciate the fact that I had access to these titles because it gave me a foundation of, ‘Yes, girls matter. Yes, girls are strong. Yes, girls can save the world,’” Uddin said.
Her main character is reflective of this appreciation. Mirza and Uddin share some similarities. In addition to both being protective older sisters and tea lovers, they are also both Muslim. At a time when Muslim characters and authors are few and far between, this representation means a lot to Uddin.
“There are Muslim authors and we are all working hard to reclaim our narrative and speak our truths, but we’re battling against standards within the industry, stereotypes and assumptions that hold the spaces we want to have on the shelves and often cause us to doubt the importance of our voices,” Uddin said.
Although she now feels grateful that Salaam Reads has given her a space to feel confident in who she is, Uddin admits that she used to be wary about writing Muslim characters.
“This is something I’ve struggled with, particularly when I was younger, because that lack of narratives or honest truths really got to me and made me feel inadequate,” Uddin said. “I didn’t write Muslim characters, or brown characters for that matter, because I felt we weren’t wanted or cared about.”
The process of writing and publishing “The Gauntlet” was especially challenging for Uddin because she is still a student.
“There were a lot of days when I’d rush into the library, find a free computer or take my laptop up to the tenth floor and just churn out as many words as I could – get as many pages of edits done as I could before my next class,” Uddin said.
Now that the book is published, she is excited to learn about how others are reacting to it.
“Just hearing that people actually enjoy something that I’ve written is amazing and humbling,” Uddin said. “Friends have sent me stories about their kids reading the book, exclaiming over their favorite parts or refusing to eat dinner until they got to the very last page. It’s just incredible.”