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Kansas Novelist Laura Moriarty Defends Her Controversial 'American Heart'

Meg Kumin
Laura Moriarty's fifth novel, 'American Heart' is set in a future when Muslim Americans are sent to camps.

Over the past several months, Kansas novelist Laura Moriarty has found herself in a firestorm.

Her fifth novel, "American Heart," is scheduled to be released on January 30. But readers who received advance copies, and those who only read a synopsis, have already expressed fury over the fictional world this white, non-Muslim writer imagined; her status as a white non-Muslim was one point of contention.

The premise of the novel, set in the near future, is that after a series of Muslim-perpetrated terrorist attacks, the United States ordered that all Muslim Americans register with the government. Upon registering, those Americans are sent to "safety zones" in Nevada, which are nothing more than detention camps.

A white teenage girl named Sarah-Mary encounters a Muslim woman, Sadaf, whose husband and son have escaped to Canada and who needs help traveling to join them. Sarah-Mary — so-named because that's what Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn called himself when he left his camp to gather information dressed as a girl — grudgingly agrees to escort the woman to safety. This set-up was another point of frustration for some readers who said Moriarty employed the "white savior" trope.

Moriarty told me she disagrees with these strikes against her novel and said she hopes readers of all ages and from all backgrounds will read her book and find that it reinforces American values such as freedom of religion and mutual respect between belief systems.

KNIGGENDORF: What moved you to tackle the subject? It's huge.

MORIARTY: I think a lot of people are concerned about the way our culture talks about Muslim Americans. Even before this last presidential campaign, there was this big debate about whether Barack Obama was Muslim: "Is he, is he not, I don't think he is" — as if it should matter, right? We have freedom of religion here, but it's treated as if it's this horrific thing to follow a religion that has a huge following throughout the world.

KNIGGENDORF: Why did you decide to make this a young adult book? All of your other books are written for adults.

MORIARTY: I didn't set out to write it as a young adult book, and I'm still not sure that's what it is exclusively. I just wrote it. And I think the reason I made her the age I made her is because I had been reading Azar Nafisi's "Republic of Imagination." Her first chapter is all about Huck Finn. And so that novel was very much moving through my mind as sort of the immigration story, and what we think of as this very American story and a story of prejudice and a story of coming out of prejudice and awakening from prejudice. So, I was very much thinking of Huck Finn and that's why Sarah-Mary is the age that she is.

KNIGGENDORF: And the name that she has, right?

MORIARTY: Exactly, exactly. And why it's set in Hannibal.

KNIGGENDORF: Sarah-Mary is 15, she's grown up in Missouri and you say she's really never left the area. I think she's been to two states before.

MORIARTY: Yeah, and only because they're so close. She lived in Joplin, which, you know is close to Arkansas and Oklahoma. But that's pretty much her world.

KNIGGENDORF: Like Huck Finn, she's very poorly educated and she's neglected and abandoned by her mom, same as Huck Finn. But you pair her with this Iranian woman, Sadaf, and she is really the exact opposite: She's very worldly, she's older, she has a PhD in electrical engineering and is a university professor, and she's a mother to a small child. Why did you decide that this 15-year-old would be a good sort of person to help this older, worldly woman to safety?

MORIARTY: Well, the only thing Sarah-Mary really brings to the pairing is her flat Midwestern accent and her ability to move through this extremely xenophobic society easily — much more easily than Sadaf can. I mean, Sadaf, as you mention, has every advantage over Sarah-Mary: She's more educated, more worldly, she's wealthier, she has everything going for her. The only thing is that she cannot pass as a native speaker in the way Sarah-Mary can. And so that's it. That's the only thing that Sarah-Mary brings to her. But Sadaf brings so much to Sarah-Mary, as you mention.

KNIGGENDORF: Early reviews came in and a lot of readers were unsettled and sometimes even angry about the content. What sort of responses to the book are you receiving already?

MORIARTY: The big flood came from people who were just angered by the premise. Then a lot of people were angry because they assumed it was going to be a white savior narrative, which I would say, no, if you read the book, she doesn't end up saving her. She couldn't do it on her own.

And also I would say, when I think of white savior narratives, I think that would be if Sarah-Mary would travel to some other part of the world and save people via her whiteness, whereas this is her country as much as Sadaf's and she's fighting for it. So I would say it doesn't fall into that trope.

I was careful to avoid that also by making Sadaf have so many advantages over her, or above what Sarah-Mary has. But, a lot of people were angry about the premise and by the fact that I was non-Muslim. There was a lot of anger from people who feel strongly that people outside a minority culture should not be writing about those issues. Now, I feel that non-Muslim Americans very much can write about Islamophobia. The book isn't about the Muslim experience in the United States — I wouldn't write about that. But, it's about Islamophobia which is very much a non-Muslim experience.

KNIGGENDORF: So, you knew it would hit some kind of nerve.

MORIARTY: Oh yeah. Right.

KNIGGENDORF: But initially, what nerve did you think you were going to hit?

MORIARTY: Well, you know, it's not like you sit down to write a book about Islamophobia in today's political climate and think that everyone's going to like it and everyone's going to be happy with me and no one's going to be upset. Of course I knew that. But, I hoped to spur conversation. And I wanted to do something to start up a conversation about the Muslim Americans that I've been lucky to know.

And also, even larger than that, what America is supposed to be about. You know? It's supposed to be about freedom of religion, and diversity, and respect for other people, and knowing that not everyone has to think like you and worship like you.

KNIGGENDORF: You mentioned diversity. As the two characters hitchhike to Canada, they run into pretty much a who's who of religious backgrounds. So, you've got black Baptists represented, a Mexican Catholic, Jewish brothers, a very wealthy Republican woman who identifies as Christian but has hateful bumper stickers all over her car, and an Amish family. So why did you choose that particular grouping as the people who help them along?

MORIARTY: Well, I thought about who might be picking them up. You know, who would be, especially in different regions, like who would be where? I couldn't get everybody in…

KNIGGENDORF: You tried, though.

MORIARTY: I hope that it's an optimistic novel, which sounds strange because it's a dystopian novel. But I want it to be a celebration of what I think most people, you know, barring the extreme right and the extreme left, would champion as positive American values that I think most people want their kids to be reading and want to celebrate themselves.

Follow KCUR contributor AnneKniggendorf on Twitter, @annekniggendorf.

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