Hey everyone it’s Zainab, welcome or welcome back! I’m super excited for today’s post, as it’s my final interview of the year. Today, I’ll be interviewing Nadine Jolie Courtney – best known for writing All American Muslim Girl. We’ll be chatting representation, writing and more, let’s jump into it!
Thank you so much for coming to chat with me for my blog, Nadine! To start off can you give a brief introduction of yourself?
Sure, I’m Nadine Jolie Courtney; I’m a novelist, a TV & Feature writer and also a freelance writer. I live in Santa Monaca.
My father is a Muslim – he’s Jordanian, Circassian, my mother is American. She was Catholic and then when she married my father, she converted to Islam. So, I grew up without very much religion because my father was very much focused on being American and trying to fit in, so I grew up with Christmas trees and my father drinks alcohol so he was very conscious of trying to embrace American culture (which I’ve talked to him about before, I’m not throwing him under the bus). And in All American Muslim Girl, the character of Mo is very much based upon him.
On my mother’s side, she came from a typical American family where there was almost a sense of disappointment that my mother had married a Jordanian. I like to follow the royals, so like with Harry and Meghan and what baby Archie would look like: that’s something my mother’s family said about me. Like, ‘What is she going to look like? She’s marrying a Middle Eastern.’ So, even though my parents were wonderful, I always grew up with this sense of not fitting in with the other American kids and in my dad’s family, not being able to communicate with my Teta (grandmother) as I couldn’t speak Arabic – but I did eventually get an Arabic tutor.
So I never really felt like I belonged in any room I was in. And that sense of not belonging but desperately wanting to is what I put into the character of Allie in All American Muslim Girl. And a lot of the situations and characters is true to my life. My upbringing really influenced how I write and what stories I’m interested in – which led me down the pipeline to All American Muslim Girl!
That’s so interesting – when reading the acknowledgements I noticed some of the characters are based off of people in your life. So, could you share a brief premise of the book?
So, the book is about a 16 year old girl called Allie Abraham – Alia Abraham – and she lives in Georgia with her parents and she is new to a large public high school, she is used to moving a lot because of her father’s job as a professor. Allie is used to trying to change herself to fit into new situations because she doesn’t feel comfortable in her own skin and ultimately doesn’t feel she’s good enough. And that’s because she comes from a family where she’s told she’s Muslim but doesn’t know what that means because her father wanted her and her family to be as American as possible.
While she’s at this school, she decides to learn more about Islam and explore her heritage, and the book is about her internal exploration and how that changes her and about how that effects her external relationships with her new friends, as she join’s the muslim study group, and also how it effects her brand new relationship with a boy she started to date, and wonders if she’s even allowed to date as she learns more about her religion.
So, you just talked a lot about how the book has a lot from your own life but where did the original idea spark to write the book? Was it more a lightbulb moment or something you’ve wanted to write for a long time?
It was something I had always wanted to do – I had always had a character called Allie Abraham in my head. And I first started writing about her when I was around 25, and at the time I made Allie a similar age to me, where I envisioned a scenario where she visits her family and is then thrust into that world. Then, I thought: no one would publish this and thought nobody would be interested in reading about this girl. But, the industry has really changed in what they’re willing to publish, so I kind of shelved it – yet she was always in the back of my mind.
And then, after Trump got elected and after the Muslim ban, I watched the protesters and l literally started to cry as it was the complete opposite of what my father had always told me to do. He always said to not tell anyone I’m Muslim as I look American. Number one, it’s a really screwed up thing, but Number two, it’s a really damaging thing to hear. I grew up feeling I was shameful from my own father, while I was also getting this from society. Therefore, it was so impactful seeing people willing to identify with Muslims and embrace them and to ‘take the metaphorical bullets for you.’
So, I literally opened to old word document I had and started working on it that day and made some changes evolving her into the character there is now.
That’s really cool that you wrote it from activist spirit. So, you mentioned she went to the Muslim Study Group at school, so if you could put yourself into the book – let’s say you were a member of staff at Providence High, what piece of advice would you give to Allie and her friends?
Oh my goodness, I think that I would just encourage them to keep exploring. When you’re that age, you’re so susceptible to what everyone around you thinks. And I’d just want to wrap them up in a little cocoon and tell them,
‘Even if you’re getting any negative feedback from anyone in your life, just keep your head down and continue your exploration. And know what you’re doing is the right thing, and know you don’t have to get any external validation from people in order to know that it’s okay to do or explore something that maybe seems scary.’
It’s cheesy but, just because is popular, doesn’t make it right. So, if you’re doing something that might seem uncool it doesn’t make it wrong. I’d tell them it’s wonderful what they’re doing – so keep at it!
What lessons would you want young people to take away from the book? (Readers, other young people, Non-Muslims, etc!)
So, I think with this book there were 3 trains of thought running through my head as I was writing it.
On the one hand, I wrote this book for girls like me. Girls who never grew up seeing themselves on the page, girls who always felt like they were hidden – even in their own families. Where there would be literally no room they could ever fit in, even within their own community.
Number two, I was writing for other Muslim girls (or boys!) Just wanting to add another reflection onto the page of our community, and how amazing I think it is to be a Muslim and to be exploring your religion. Because I know (at least in America), we live in a society that’s so much more progressive and tolerant than it used to be – but there’s still Islamophobia!
And because I have light skin and look stereotypically American, I’m subject to the mildest microaggressions (I call it ‘death by a thousand cuts’) where because I look like someone else, people feel safe saying really offensive things to me. Which is a very different thing, than someone who wears hijab, or someone with much darker skin, etc! They have to face things incredibly different, which is incredibly horrifying. But, it’s a very damaging thing to go through the world like that.
So, there’s still a lot of room to grow – so I wanted to reflect this Muslim community that I love and to put that on the page.
And then number three, you want to have the widest possible audience when writing a book. So, I wanted to pour all my love into this, but for an external-facing audience as well. Like, when I first started writing the book, the first half has any Arabic in italics (as Allie doesn’t know any Arabic) and then in the second half, none is in italics anymore, because it’s kind of become part of her by that point. So, at the beginning I do explain some Arabic words and phrases but it ends up where, I don’t think any part of it is othered and I hoped non-muslim readers would walk away understanding a little bit more what it’s like to be Muslim.
That’s what’s really gratifying to me, when different readers from different backgrounds say they really identified with this book – so that’s what made me really happy!
So, with the Arabic, it’s as if the reader is going on a journey with Allie?
Yes, that’s exactly it!
Why do you think that more good muslim representation is needed in the world?
I think more good muslim representation is sorely needed, I think we’re so lucky we’re seeing more and more if it (such as books and TV shows), I don’t think there’s many movies though, so that kind of needs to be resolved. Yeah, I think it’s so important to see ourselves on screen, it makes us feel seen and respected – because Hollywood and books have so much power. And I think it’s so important to see other stories (from all different backgrounds) not just for us, but for other people, to recognise the world is so diverse. Which can lead to more tolerance, more understanding and more empathy.
I totally agree, I want to talk to you more about All American Muslim Girl in a little bit, you were formerly a beauty editor and writer for many publications (Vanity Fair, Vogue and Oprah to name a few!) , so what was your journey to becoming an editor for a publication like?
Sure! So, I went to college in New York, and while I was in the city, I tried to take as many internships as I could. Basically, I gathered as many names on my resume as I could, so when I graduated I applied for many magazine jobs – and I was lucky enough to get an interview for one of them, called Lucky Magazine (which sadly isn’t around anymore). Which allowed me to kind of get my foot in the door, as Lucky Magazine was part of Condé Nast (a media company) it grew very quickly, and it became a really good name to have on my resume. Which then I started swinging from job to job, magazine to magazine.
Then, in my mid-twenties, I started a blog about the beauty industry called Jolie in NYC. Which became very popular, very quickly. And I was saying things about the beauty industry that were secret at the time. I wrote about things such as photoshop, basically behind the scenes industry secrets – yet it was anonymous. So, it quickly became like, ‘who is this secret blogger?’ and the New York Post did an article about that, Regis and Kelly had talked about it.
So, I ended up getting a book agent from that as I was one of the first beauty bloggers, and I was doing more beauty blogging and freelance writing. And then I ended up writing my first book which was a non fiction beauty guide called: Beauty Confidential.
I was actually about to ask you about Jolie in NYC (but you got there before me!) Since you were an original blogger, and this is being published on my blog, do you have any advice for bloggers?
I think honestly the most important things are: consistency and a point of view.
When you’re starting a blog (or social media) the most important thing is consistency. If your readers know what to expect e.g every Monday you have an interview series or every Friday you have advice posts, they will start to expect that from you and come back, and maybe forward it to their friends! You could be the most genius writer in the world, but if you post once and then don’t post again for another three months, your readership will fall apart.
Then I would say, it’s obviously important to have the point of view. You have the strong voice. And what you’re putting out there is top quality.
I’m sure my readers will be thankful for this, so I want to talk a bit about TV writing – which you’ve mentioned before! So what do you think is the biggest different between writing for films and shows compared to books?
So, I think that publishing is obviously a business, but when you write a book, you write whatever you want to write. You start sending out to agents and editors, and then the editor can work with you if they’d like to, and help to edit. But, it’s basically free, the book editing process doesn’t cost a lot of money.
But, with TV & Film, it is first and foremost a business. Because it costs millions and millions of dollars to make TV shows, and even more to make movies. And yes, the foundation is the script. So, I have faced a higher barrier of entry to TV & Film, even though you can write a script much more quickly then you can write a book. You could, theoretically, write a TV Script in a day – it is impossible to write a book in a day.
So, it’s much easier to create a TV script, but in my experience, it’s much harder to get it made. There are much higher barriers to entry, because of the high costs involved and so many people behind the scenes. But, it’s been a fun challenge – and then you have to start thinking about casting challenges.
For example, I really want to put out characters that we haven’t really seen before, and I want to write Muslim girls and Middle Eastern Girls, people who represent me and my experiences. And it’s hard, because it’s a business, and nobody is going to hand you millions of dollars for a movie to star some girl that nobody has ever heard of. The problem is, there aren’t that many A-List actresses that are Muslim or Middle Eastern that age that people would be willing to green light a movie for. Obviously, people want authentic representation too, so it’s a really difficult challenge – so casting directors also need to do a better job of getting out there and finding people from all around the world.
I guess that’s why there’s so much more need for open call auditions from all around the world?
Yes, that’s a conversation I’ve had where I’m in meetings and a question that’s always repeated is, how could we cast this? What about casting? It’s almost like a double-edged sword because when they do take a chance, but the actor isn’t perfectly representative of that character, people will get upset – because people are allowed to want proper representation.
But the executives will then got spooked, thinking they shouldn’t do anything then. Where they’re already so terrified of getting a foot wrong, but also scared of spending money. Like I said, it comes back to the casting – I think we are making baby steps but it just needs to happen faster.
You also created the Crescent List which highlights Muslim TV writers in Hollywood, so why do you think it was important to highlight them? (You kind of touched on this with the acting side)
So, many writers were asking, how can we find other writers like us? How can we champion writers, that maybe nobody has even heard of? So, Twitter became a great mobilising force for underrepresented writers to put their foot forward. So I decided to put together a list of Muslim TV Writers, because I wanted to connect with other writers like me. So, I put a call out on Twitter for people to send me their bios and links to their scripts, and I put together this list. Which is exciting, because now you can kind of get yourself out there.
I think that’s really cool, and I can’t wait to hear more about them, so as you are a TV Writer – just to round this off – could we ever see a TV show or Movie of All American Muslim Girl, or a branching of the story?
Thanks so much to Nadine for agreeing to be interviewed, it was so much fun to chat to her and her answer to the final question was so exciting! And thank you so much for reading this interview. Let me know what you learned from Nadine and check out her links below!
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