Hope on New Year’s Eve

I once had a tradition of writing yearly New Year’s Eve posts; I titled the five that I wrote after the books Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhicker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy. I skipped the past few years, but it’s a tradition that seems worth revisiting. I’ve been thinking a lot about the long arc of history and hope for the future, especially how to balance the knowledge of humanity’s horrors and goodness. There is no utopia, but there is also no complete defeat. There is still hope.

I recently watched Rogue One, the latest installment of the Star Wars film series, and it hit me viscerally. We know that this film takes place before Episode IV, telling the story of the team that obtained the plans of the Galactic Empire’s Death Star for the Rebel Alliance. The characters are some of the previously unknown and unnamed people who made the mission to destroy the Death Star and (later) the defeat of the Galactic Empire possible. They are fictional version of people who are rarely in history books but whose work made the big events possible.

None of us will see the better future that hope for, but I’ve never felt that quite as acutely as I have this year. I’ve had the privilege in my life of receiving the benefits of the hard work of people long dead; I’ve seen victories and changes that I’m certain will go in the history books of the future. But I’ve also lived in a time of great horrors and I have known that there is still much work to be done. Progress isn’t inevitable and it can be reversed. It can be fought for, but (despite what I would like to be true) maybe it can never permanently be won. Even as Rogue One helps the Rebels win one battle, Episode VII tells the story of the next generation fighting against the First Order.

After a year of fearing the future and remembering the horrors of the past, as we see the resurgence of attitudes we hoped had been buried or relegated to the margins of society, this film seemed all too relevant. We had hoped we could look to a future where we could build upon the victories of the past. We face instead the need to hold the line and prevent, at best, the loss of decades of work while also working for something better in a future that we ourselves will never see.

I try not to think too despairingly about mortality and the briefness of a human life in comparison to the long history of humanity and the much longer history of the universe. We are here, and we matter, no matter how short the timeframe. We try do what we can while we are here on this little planet in our little corner of the universe. Focus more on this life and what we can do now, and maybe someone else’s life will be affected for the better, maybe our descendants will see a better future

There are people who came before us who worked hard to give us a life better than what they had and the hope that a better future. Our job is to keep that hope alive for the next generation.

Happy New Year.

In Praise of “Far Beyond the Stars”

“You can pulp a story, but you cannot destroy an idea. Don’t you understand? That’s ancient knowledge. You cannot destroy an idea.” (Benny Russell)

“You are the dreamer, and the dream.” (Preacher)

“For all we know, at this very moment, somewhere far beyond all those distant stars, Benny Russell is dreaming of us.” (Benjamin Sisko)

In the Star Trek canon, there are (thus far) over seven hundred episodes and twelve films. It’s difficult to choose a favorite, but there is one episode that I think encapsulates what I think Trek is all about. That episode is “Far Beyond the Stars” from season six of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.[1] I just rewatched it a few days ago, and my high opinion of it was reinforced further. Let me tell you how much I love this episode and why.

The framing of “Far Beyond the Stars” is that most of the episode is a vision of Captain Benjamin Sisko of Deep Space Nine. Captain Sisko is the Emissary of the Prophets, and he’d had visions from the Prophets in prior episodes. At the beginning of the episode, Sisko has received news about the destruction of the USS Cortez, which was captained by a friend of his named Quentin Swofford; the Defiant searched for six hours but found no survivors from the destruction of the vessel. Sisko feels despair and doubt due to the repeated deaths and setbacks in the Dominion War; he doesn’t know if he can take it any longer and considers leaving Starfleet. He then starts seeing weird things and then finds himself in 1950s New York as Benny Russell, a science fiction writer for Incredible Tales of Scientific Wonder. The Deep Space Nine characters have counterparts in this 1950s storyline. Albert Macklin (Miles O’Brien), Kay Eaton (Kira Nerys), Julius Eaton (Julian Bashir), Herbert Rossoff (Quark) are also science fiction writers at Incredible Tales. Douglas Pabst (Odo) is the editor of the magazine, and Darlene Kursky (Jadzia Dax) is his secretary and a fan of science fiction. Roy Ritterhouse (Martok) is an illustrator at the same magazine. Cassie (Kasidy Yates) works at a diner, which she’s hoping to buy, and is Benny’s fiancée, hoping to settle down with him. Willie Hawkins (Worf) is a baseball player for the New York Giants. Jimmy (Jake Sisko) is a friend of Benny’s, and Benny is concerned that Jimmy is involved in some criminal activity. Burt Ryan (Dukat) and Kevin Mulkahey (Weyoun) are police officers who harass civilians, and especially target African-Americans. The Preacher (Joseph Sisko) speaks the word of the Prophets, and Benny encounters him several times. An unnamed news vendor (Nog) sells science fiction magazines. A major theme of the story is the discrimination faced by Benny and other African-Americans during the 1950s, with a message about the importance of equality and hope for a better future.

This episode is clearly one of the special episodes about an important issue that many television shows attempt to include every once in a while. Episodes of this type are notoriously difficult to pull off, in my view; it’s too easy to be overly simplistic or too cautious or too preachy, despite good intentions. Even in a story like Trek, in which many episodes have some sort of theme or message, when the creators consciously try to create an episode which very obviously addresses a current controversial social issue, the results are mixed. Even in a story that generally has a theme of people who are different being allies and working together, attempts to include obvious real-world equality messages can end up being unsuccessful. (There are, for instance, Trek episodes which attempt to address LGBT issues; to the frustration of many fans, myself included, the results ranged from half-heartedly decent attempts to frustrating failures that seemed sometimes to imply the opposite message of what was intended.) One of the reasons I love “Far Beyond the Stars” is because it’s a special important-issue episode that manages to do it right—in fact, not just right, but wonderfully right. It’s not just good compared to the other okay episodes of this type, but is one of the best in the canon.

“Far Beyond the Stars” is effective in showing that when a society has institutional discrimination against certain people, that discrimination can manifest in many different forms. There is horrendous violence done against people based on race, including by police officers who killed Jimmy and brutally beat Benny. There are also various forms of discrimination, and reminders that others think less of you, all throughout one’s life. A group photo of the writers of Incredible Tales is planned, but Kay Eaton (who writes under the name K.C. Hunter) and Benny Russell are not included, so that the audience doesn’t find out that Hunter is female and Russell is African-American. Benny’s story about a space station is not published because the main character is a black Captain. The baseball player Willie Hawkins, in response Cassie asking him why he continues to live in Harlem when he could afford to live in a different neighborhood, says that white people wouldn’t want an African-American living among them; where he lives right now, he’s respected, but if went to live in a predominantly-white neighborhood, his neighbors would look down on him. In this world, it’s understandable why someone would be doubtful that things will get better. As Jimmy says when Pabst doesn’t want to publish Benny’s story, “I told you you were wasting your time. A colored Captain! They only reason they’ll ever let us in space is if they need someone to shine their shoes. […] Today or a hundred years from now, it don’t make a bit of difference. As far as they’re concerned, we’ll always be niggers.” A future like the one in Benny Russell’s story seems far-fetched, but it’s one that he holds on to, even when the magazine’s publisher decides to pulp the issue rather than put out an issue that includes a story with a black Captain.

The episode also subtly prompts viewers to consider our own biases. Throughout the story, the justification given for the discriminatory decisions at the magazine is the audience. This is the same justification often given today for being exclusionary when deciding which stories are worth publishing and filming. As fans, the episode encourages us to look at ourselves and what we choose to read. The question is brought up of who is ultimately responsible for these discriminatory actions, both in the story and in our own world. People never want to blame themselves; the editor blames the publishers and the readers, the publisher blames the readers, and the readers claim they’re not actually discriminating while they keep receiving and reading content that caters to their biases. There is a seemingly never-ending cycle of discrimination, as the way things are becomes a justification for continuing to do what we have always done. Things can only improve if someone stands up and says something, if writers and readers want a better future. Just as Benny Russell keeps up hope, so does Benjamin Sisko on Deep Space Nine, deciding that he’s going to stay and finish the job he started. In response to his decision, his father Joseph Sisko says to him (referencing 2 Timothy 4:7), “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the course. I have kept the faith.”

In addition to the more serious themes, there were also some humorous and fun scenes; I enjoyed scenes and dialogue that make references to Star Trek and other science fiction. The fictional science fiction writers in the 1950s read Benny Russell’s story and comment on their counterparts in the twenty-fourth century; Kay Eaton likes Major Kira Nerys, because she thinks science fiction could use more strong female characters, while Darlene Kursky finds the idea of Jadzia Dax having a “worm in her belly” (the Trill symbiont) interesting but disgusting. Julius Eaton comments in one scene, “We’re writers, not Vikings” (a reference to the “I’m a doctor, not a …” catch phrase of Trek physicians). Some of the fictional science fiction writers have reminded viewers of famous writers, and there are also overt references to various famous writers of the time period when the writers at Incredible Tales are discussing the latest issue of Galaxy. The fact that Kay Eaton writes under the name K.C. Hunter is a reference to female writers, including C.L. Moore, who wrote under initials to hide their identity; in fact, there have been female writers of Star Trek who’ve done the same thing, including D.C. Fontana, who wrote for The Original Series. These scenes provide some amusement, while also adding to the commentary on the episode’s own series and genre.

Another reason why I think this episode was well done was that it is connected with the rest of the story, rather than seeming out of place in the way that some special important-issue episodes sometimes do. Because the 1950s portions of the episode are a vision of Captain Sisko, we see how the vision affects him and inspires him. Rather than being a random episode interrupting the larger narratives of the series, the episode is built into Sisko’s story arc, connected with several other episodes with visions or historical references, in addition to showing him dealing with the loss of his friend and the despair of fighting in the Dominion War with repeated setbacks. The vision of Benny Russell influences his decision and inspires him, just as the story of Deep Space Nine is Benny Russell’s vision of a better future and gives him hope.

Finally, of course, there are the fans watching the show and our acute awareness of what we are seeing. We are watching the story of an African-American science fiction writer who is told that his story can’t be published because the Captain is black, but that story is part of a television series with a black Captain. Things in our world have improved, but at the same time, we are closer to the 1950s United States than the twenty-fourth century of Deep Space Nine. This episode is one of the ones that address real-world problems of inequality in a show that often promotes diversity and inclusion in metaphors. This is also an excellent example of how having a diverse cast of characters can reinforce the messages of equality that is found in the metaphors. Because Deep Space Nine has a diverse cast of characters, the real-world diversity and metaphorical diversity reinforce each other for a good message. In this episode in particular, that is shown very well through the story. We look at our recent past and a fictional far away future, seeing a past world in which a story about aliens and robots can be accepted but a story about a black Captain is unacceptable, in contrast with a future in which Earth is united and part of the United Federation of Planets, with humans working together with people from hundreds of planets. And we despair just a little, because we recognize in our own society the problems of the past. But there is also hope. “Far Beyond the Stars” represents what Star Trek is at its best, what it aspires to be. Like Benny Russell, we hope for a better future—not just one with starships that let us visit other planets and meet people from other planets, but one in which things are better for more human beings.

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Acknowledgements

With thanks to Foz Meadows (@fozmeadows) and Kate Elliott (@KateElliottSFF), with whom I participated in a fun Twitter conversation about Star Trek: Deep Space Nine back in October 2013.

[Originally written: 2 March 2014]

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References

[1] The Memory Alpha wiki entry about “Far Beyond the Stars” can be found at http://en.memory-alpha.org/wiki/Far_Beyond_the_Stars_(episode).

Religious Privilege and Social Justice

When the topic of religion and social justice movements is brought up, progressive religious believers are quick to point out that there are many believers who support equal rights. This is true; I was a progressive believer myself, so I know this from personal experience. However, I have a problem with the ways in which religious believers from established organized religions are privileged in these settings, the ways in which religious arguments are given preference while secular arguments that point out how religion has contributed to injustices are treated as intolerance. This bothers me as a secular person, a non-religious person, and as an ex-Muslim. In this essay, which contains thoughts that have been in the back of mind for a long time, I aim to explain why.

Religious progressives are on the right side of many issues, favoring equality and human rights for people from many marginalized demographics. However, this doesn’t stop some believers, especially those from established and organized faiths, from taking advantage of their religious privilege to be the main voices in social justice movements, centering religious apologetics in the arguments that are made and emphasizing the compatibility of religion with equal rights. An aspect that makes this situation even more frustrating is that believers will then turn around and say that religion is necessary for justice and morality; repeatedly remind non-religious people (as if we don’t already know) that many religious historical figures were at the forefront of equal rights movements; that allying with religion is a practical step because religions have experience in organizing people for causes. Perhaps the reason you believe that religion is necessary for justice and morality is due to religious privilege and bias. Perhaps the reason you only know about the religious historical figures who fought for equal rights is because religious privilege made them more acceptable to the mainstream in their time periods and helped them be disproportionately represented in history books – the same history books that leave out non-religious people who fought for equality (or leave out their non-religious views) and that attempt to paper over the parts of religious history that inspired bigotry. Perhaps the reason it seems like a practical choice to shape arguments in away that caters to religion is because of religion’s privileged status in society, not because it’s inherently more likely to support equal rights or better at advocating for equal rights than secular groups. In other words, maybe religious progressive are using the existence of religious privilege in larger to society to argue in favor of continued religious privilege within groups that are supposed to be about challenging privilege.

Secularism is essential to equality, because it’s the only position on religion that is truly neutral. Religious progressive realize this when religious conservatives try to insert their religion into all aspects of society. Those of us who favor religious freedom and secularism (whether we are personally religious or not) argue endlessly that secular is not the same as anti-religion; secularism is the neutrality that’s required for everyone’s religious freedom to be protected. It’s high time that religious moderates and progressive realize that this applies to their attempts to insert religion into all aspects of society as well. Some of the things that religious progressives think are neutral really aren’t neutral or welcoming to all. For instance, a prayer that’s basically Abrahamic monotheism with the serial numbers filed off isn’t really inclusive; it’s just inclusive of the dominant strands of established religion, which leaves out a lot of people (not just atheists, but also believers who don’t associate with those religions). Including prayers or invocations by people from minority religions might be inclusive of those who favor those interpretations of those religions, but it’s still not all-inclusive – and it’s especially not inclusive of those who’ve been alienated from those religions due to bigotry. Of course, a private event is not the same as the government, so it does not have to be religiously neutral; however, if you are having an event that purports to be welcoming to all, then secularism should be the default, with religion or atheism-focused events or talks being clear in their intention. Religion shouldn’t be the focus of every event, meeting, or discussion by default. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that religious believers shouldn’t be accepted or included in equal rights movements; I’m saying that these movements shouldn’t privilege established organized religion while pushing people of non-religious views or personal religious beliefs to the side.

Religious privilege can be detrimental, not just to atheists, but also to those of minority faith backgrounds and those who have personal religious beliefs without membership in a particular religion. I grew up in the United States of America (a majority-Christian country) in a Muslim family and doubted organized religion from a young age. Growing up queer in the United States, I couldn’t help noticing that queer equal rights arguments focused on Christianity to a great degree. It really bothered me that so many mainstream arguments regarding queer equal rights were religious interpretation arguments between conservative Christians and liberal Christians. Why exactly should my rights be based on interpretations of a religion I don’t believe in? I saw issues of queer equal rights within Islam largely ignored by Western equal rights groups and websites, because liberals of Christian backgrounds were focused on changing Christianity specifically and their priorities were treated as the movement’s priorities. They might sometimes bring up the issue of including Muslims in queer rights events, due to a desire to be interfaith, but weren’t allies with those of us who expressed more critical views of the faith, in case that alienated the Muslims they wanted to be allies with. Related to the problem with one-sided intersectionality that privileges religion, it felt as though even those who attempted to be interfaith were willing to hold white never-Muslim Christian-background queer people accountable for bigotry against Muslims and other minority faith groups but weren’t willing to hold Muslims and other minority faith groups accountable for bigotry against queer people or women. It bothered me that organized established religions received this special treatment of their inclusion being considered more important than inclusion of people (both believers and nonbelievers in gods) who’ve been alienated by them.

There is the whole argument regarding religious arguments vs. secular arguments for equal rights. The actual content of these arguments (and why I think the secular ones are better) is the topic for another essay, but I do want to briefly address the meta/background arguments that focus on tactics of movements. Believers will often say to atheists that equal rights should be more important to atheists than convincing people to leave religion. Well, I can turn that back around: Equal rights should be more important to believers than converting people to their faith or convincing those alienated from religion to return to it. The status quo seems to prefer arguments that emphasize the compatibility of religion with equal rights rather than holding religious institutions and traditions accountable for bigotry (i.e. saving religion’s reputation is treated as a major goal). Arguing that believers who favor bigotry are “not true believers” is used to dismiss valid criticisms of religion’s role in perpetuating bigotry. There are many of us who believe it is important to discuss the role that religion plays in the discrimination that we face, and it’s not right to tell us to stop sharing our experiences and stories in order to privilege the experiences and stories of those who feel that religion is more beneficial than harmful. Ignoring the role of culture, including religious aspects of culture, in perpetuating bigotry helps it to continue; if some of the most powerful institutions supporting bigotry receive a pass because of their power and influence, that’s a big impediment to improvement. I understand that progressive religious believers will try to argue the religious case for equal rights within their faith, but please realize that arguments regarding whether your religious tradition or holy book is compatible with equal rights should not be the basis of the entire movement, which includes people with varying views on religion. By comparison, secular arguments are relevant regardless of religious belief.

I understand that, for many people, religious belief is a source of great comfort. It was for me as well; I believed that God loved me no matter what anyone else thought. I don’t make fun of religious people for having an “imaginary friend”, because for years my belief in my “imaginary friend” God gave me the strength to keep up hope despite bigotry and other family problems, gave me hope for a better future. This was an entirely personal belief. I considered joining some religious denomination or group, but never felt comfortable enough to sign up; participation in organized religion reminds me of bullying by conservatives, as one person or group is placed in charge of sermonizing, rather than allowing individual belief. I found solitary prayer more fulfilling and comforting. Believing in God does not mean that a person will feel comfortable at an event that privileges certain religions or that includes sermons or prayers. Personal comfort from religion does not justify including organized religion or public displays of religion in every aspect of a movement, and it does not justify exempting incredibly powerful established organized religions from criticism that other powerful societal institutions receive from the same equal rights movements.

In conclusion, I believe that challenging religious privilege is part of social justice, just like challenging other types of privilege. Privileging established organized religion in social justice movements is counter to the idea of being more inclusive and intersectional, because it leaves out many people who don’t believe in the religions or religious interpretations whose believers have appointed themselves as the leaders. If we’re trying to be more inclusive, then we can’t perpetuate religious privilege in movements that are supposed to be about supporting equal rights for the marginalized.

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Acknowledgements and Recommended Reading

This is an essay I’ve been meaning to write for a long time, but recent conversations on Twitter with Alex Gabriel prompted me to finally write it.

Alex Gabriel writes a blog,[1] including the following essays that came up during the conversation: “I’m sorry today’s atheist movement has inspired abuse. Are you sorry your religion has?”;[2] “Jesus was not a queer ally: why I can’t take LGBT-affirming Christianity seriously (and why queer spaces must remain secular)”;[3] and “Why I Still Need The Atheist Movement”.[4] Gabriel makes important points about religious allies in queer spaces, bad apologetics, and the importance of secularism.

Greta Christina, on her blog,[5] wrote “Being an Atheist in the Queer Community”[6] and “How To Be An Ally with Atheists”[7] offering the view of someone who’s been involved in both the queer and atheist communities.

Heina Dadabhoy, on their blog,[8] offers an ex-Muslim perspective on this issue in “It Shouldn’t Have to Be So Hard to Be a Queer Atheist” explaining how bizarre it is to hear all praise and no criticism of religion at an LGBT event.[9]

[Originally written: 01 November 2015 – links have been updated]

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References

[1] Alex Gabriel’s blog Godlessness in Theory can be found at https://the-orbit.net/godlessness/.

[2] Gabriel, Alex. “I’m sorry today’s atheist movement has inspired abuse. Are you sorry your religion has?” Godlessness in Theory, 17 November 2014. http://the-orbit.net/godlessness/2014/11/17/im-sorry-todays-atheist-movement-has-inspired-abuse-are-you-sorry-your-religion-has/

[3] Gabriel, Alex. “Jesus was not a queer ally: why I can’t take LGBT-affirming Christianity seriously (and why queer spaces must remain secular)”. Godlessness in Theory, Posted on 7 December 2014. http://the-orbit.net/godlessness/2014/12/07/jesus-was-not-a-queer-ally/

[4] Gabriel, Alex. “Why I Still Need The Atheist Movement”. Godlessness in Theory, 31 October 2015. http://the-orbit.net/godlessness/2015/10/31/why-i-still-need-the-atheist-movement/

[5] Greta Christina’s Blog can be found at http://the-orbit.net/greta/.

[6] Christina, Greta. “Being an Atheist in the Queer Community”. Greta Christina’s Blog, 15 December 2008. http://the-orbit.net/greta/2008/12/15/being-an-atheist-in-the-queer-community/

[7] Christina, Greta. “How To Be An Ally with Atheists”. Greta Christina’s Blog, 16 December 2008. http://the-orbit.net/greta/2008/12/16/how-to-be-an-ally-with-atheists/

[8] Heina Dadaboy’s blog Heinous Dealings can be found at http://the-orbit.net/heinous/.

[9] Dadabhoy, Heina. “It Shouldn’t Have to Be So Hard to Be a Queer Atheist”. Henous Dealings, 8 December 2014. http://the-orbit.net/heinous/2014/12/08/lgbt-religion/

For Kamala Khan

Kamala Khan, the superhero known as Ms. Marvel, has gone from being a curious announcement to one of the most beloved characters in the superhero pantheon. For more than a year now, I’ve been reading and reviewing the third (now forth) volume of the Ms. Marvel comic series, in which Kamala Khan[1] is the title character.

There are myriad reasons why I love Kamala, many of which I’ve detailed in my reviews. But one of the most important is this: Kamala’s story is her own story; she is the main character in her own life. This may not seem particularly revolutionary or different, but it is for a character from multiple marginalized demographics. It’s good representation precisely because she gets to have an individual story that treats her as a person. An important part of this is that her story gives her (and by extension, many of us) a voice. The story isn’t being used to do apologetics for those who want Muslim teenage girls to act in a certain way (whether non-Muslims who want Muslims to assimilate or conservative Muslims who want Muslims to follow their interpretation without challenging problems within the religion). Kamala’s story calls out everyone. Her family, religious leader, classmates, and fellow Inhumans all have certain expectations of her and have opinions on what decisions she should make. In this story, when someone’s actions affect Kamala, we see the situation from her point of view and are meant to empathize with her, showing the experience of a groups that is often talked about but rarely get to have their say in conversations that are about them.

For this reason, I think this is a good book for challenging the status quo among both Muslims and non-Muslims with regards to Muslim girls and women. Much of the media coverage about the series has focused (understandably) on the fact that Kamala is Muslim, and the potential for this book to give representation to Muslims and hopefully help non-Muslims understand Muslims better. For me, my feeling of relating to Kamala is even more specific than that: Part of the reason why she’s so important to me is specifically because she’s a female South-Asian American Muslim teenage child of immigrant parents who has experiences similar to my own experiences growing up – including being a fangirl, among many other things. There are the many different challenges teenagers face. Stories that only address one aspect of this complicated experience only address a small fraction of my life. Ms. Marvel has storylines and themes that address anti-Muslim bigotry and racism, sexism within outside of the Muslim community, the challenges of being part of the Millennial generation, disagreements with parents on culture, finding inspiration in popular culture, and so many other things. There are expectations that we face from both the larger society of never-Muslims in the United States and also from our own parents and religious communities. This is a good book to read to get an idea of what it’s like to be in this situation that so many of us are in: different groups of people have certain expectations of us, because they want us to agree with their culture entirely and reject others’ culture entirely. We’re trying to find our own way and make our own decisions when our choices are seen as a battlefield in a competition between the people who are trying to influence us in their fight with each other. Somehow, in all this, we have to try to figure out who we want to be.

I’m a nerd who processes things in my own life by reading stories. Kamala has given me a story that has helped me think about and deal with some of my own experiences, including things that happened in my life more than a decade ago. There are parts of my life that I’m seeing portrayed for the first time in Ms. Marvel. This series has literally made me tear up, because Kamala thinks and feels things that I’ve thought and felt. She is braver than I ever was, standing up for herself in ways that I wish I had the courage to do when I was her age; she is more than a decade younger than me, and yet she is my hero. Kamala has given me the words to express things I’d never said. My reviews of this series contain thoughts I’ve long had but often struggled to explain; Kamala’s story gave me a way to say, This is what it’s like. This is what I mean.

Kamala, like all of us, is simultaneously similar to and different from her peers. She gets to have fun and participate in fun retellings of common superhero tropes. She gets to participate in the traditions of the genre and the medium and reinvent them at the same time. There are so many superhero tropes that we fans have seen many times over the years, but to see characters from marginalized demographics have those experiences sends a message of inclusion. There are parts of her story that people of any demographic will be able to relate to and also parts which are specifically related to her own background – often in the same passage of the story. She is simultaneously an individual and a character who so many can see themselves in. The creative team treated Kamala and her story with respect, with excellent writing and artwork that convey so much in each and every issue.

Falling in love with this book series has been such a wonderful experience. Growing up, I desperately wanted to love characters who were from the same demographics as me, but they rarely ended up being my favorite characters; this was often because they were (at best) side characters who didn’t get much of a story. How could I count them among my favorites when I knew almost nothing about them? There were rare exceptions to this (several female characters or nerds or fangirls among them) – but until Kamala, no female South Asian-American Muslim fangirl (or even Muslim or South-Asian American) characters were on that list. Growing up part of a demographic that is often underrepresented and poorly represented in media, one learns to accept steps in the right direction while hoping for better books at a later date. There are often stories of which one can say that it’s great they were created, since they’re an improvement compared to previous efforts. One can appreciate the creators who worked on them and took a chance by portraying a character of a marginalized demographic, even if the stories weren’t great. One starts to get the feeling that the truly great stories are reserved for the white, straight, male characters and that the best the rest of us can hope for is a somewhat decent portrayal. Recommendations often come with the caveat of: It’s not great, but it’s a step forward; it’s better than previous portrayals. Being able to say, of the Ms. Marvel series, This is totally frakking awesome – that’s so great. I can say, for the first time, that a character who is like me in so many ways is one of my favorite characters ever.

For Kamala, who is the embodiment and symbol of so many of our hopes and dreams, I’ll say: “We will be the stars we were always meant to be”[2] – and you are one of the stars who lights the way.

[Originally written: 6 December 2015]

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References

[1] Essays in the “Kamala Khan” category at Homeworld Journal can be found at https://homeworldjournal.wordpress.com/category/kamala-khan/.

[2] DeConnick KS, Rios E, Lopez A, Bellaire J, Caramagna J, et al. Captain Marvel Vol. 7 #6. Marvel, 31 October 2012.

Book Review: Ms. Marvel Vol. 3 #19 “Last Days, Part Four”

WRITER: G. Willow Wilson

ARTIST: Adrian Alphona

COLOR ARTIST: Ian Herring

LETTERER: Joe Caramagna

EDITORS: Charles Beacham, Sana Amanat, Axel Alonso

“If the world thing you do is sneak out to help suffering people – then I thank God for having raised a righteous child.” (Disha Khan to Kamala Khan, Ms. Marvel, Vol. 3 #19)[1]

“Like, even if things are profoundly not okay … at least we’re not okay together.” (Kamala Khan, Ms. Marvel Vol. 3 #19)[2]

It’s the end of Marvel Multiverse as we knew it, and also the end of Kamala Khan’s first story volume. This issue starts with the conversation that started at the end of the previous issue.[3] Kamala’s mom has managed to do what so many parents in fantasy and superhero stories often don’t: noticed that her child’s sneaking out of the house in the middle of the night. Let’s be honest: for many of us with conservative parents, they’d totally figure it out if we were superheroes. We can hope that our parents would be as supportive as Kamala’s mom.

Kamala has conversations and interactions with most of the other major characters in the story, to wrap up plot threads that started at the beginning of the series. She speaks with her parents first. Her mother is really adorable, and there’s a cute hug. Her father, who does not know that she’s Ms. Marvel and who plays the part of the character who says that it’s not like the world is ending when the world is about to end). Zoe Zimmer apologizes for her behavior earlier in the series and admits that she was jealous of Kamala – a nice passage showing that even the people who were popular and might have been mean to us in school had their own insecurities. People can grow up and reflect on their earlier actions. Kamala reconnects with her best friend Nakia Bahadir, who was upset that Kamala’s been busy and ignoring their friendship. They hug, and it’s adorable. Kamala even has a moment of mutual connection with her brother. The ending reveals that Bruno and Kamala are both romantically interested in each other, but Kamala says she doesn’t want to be in a romantic relationship right now so she can focus on being a superhero. This seemed to me both convenient and relatable. It’s a convenient way to split the difference between those who wouldn’t want a female Muslim character to date a non-Muslim and those who want the character to challenge her conservative family’s views. At the same time, it was incredibly relatable to me, as someone who is interested in dating and romantic relationships but never acted on those feelings. There are many girls and women from conservative families who focus on education and careers (and in the Marvel Multiverse, being a superhero is Kamala’s career) in order to gain independence first, before getting into romantic relationships. The characters are at Coles Academic High School, which has been set up with resources for those taking shelter including: a welcome booth, a random assortment of food supplies (coffee but no evaporated milk), a non-denominational nonjudgmental prayer area (which I found really sweet), water, blankets, medical assessment, and a dance party to face to the end of the world.

It’s all incredibly heartwarming. I’m glad the finale focuses on the relationships between the characters and Kamala as person, rather than on a big fight scene. When you’ve done all you can do, fought the good fight, and now the Multiverse is about to end, how do superheroes cope? By being there for each other. Superhero comics, for all their fun fantastical elements, are appealing because of the themes of doing the right thing; persevering in the face of daunting odds; finding bravery that you didn’t know you had; and working together with other people when you can’t do something alone. Kamala’s story contains those themes throughout.

Reading this series has been such a wonderful journey for me, and I’m very excited for more of Kamala Khan’s story in the years to come.

[Originally written: 6 December 2015]

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References

[1] Wilson GW, Alphona A, Herring I, et al. Ms. Marvel Vol. 3 19 “Last Days, Part Four”. Marvel, 14 October 2015.

[2] Ms. Marvel Vol. 3 #19.

[3] EAS. Book Review: Ms. Marvel Vol. 3 #18 “Last Days, Part Four”. Homeworld Journal, 5 September 2016. https://homeworldjournal.wordpress.com/2016/09/05/book-review-ms-marvel-vol-3-18-last-days-part-three/

Book Review: Ms. Marvel Vol. 3 #18 “Last Days, Part Three”

WRITER: G. Willow Wilson

ARTIST: Adrian Alphona

COLOR ARTIST: Ian Herring

LETTERER: Joe Caramagna

EDITORS: Charles Beacham, Sana Amanat, Axel Alonso

“A lot of people think you’re something special, and now I see why.” (Carol Danvers to Kamala Khan, Ms. Marvel Vol. 3 #18)[1]

“Good luck, Ms. Marvel. For what it’s worth – I’m proud of you.”

“Thanks, Captain. For everything.”

(Carol Danvers and Kamala Khan, Ms. Marvel Vol. 3 #18)[2]

“I have something to tell you. I’m telling you now because I might not ever have a chance to tell you again, and I don’t want – I don’t want to die without telling my Ammi. I don’t want the last thing the angels write in my book to be a lie…I am Ms. Marvel.”

“Oh, beta…I know.”

(Kamala Khan and Aisha Khan, Ms. Marvel Vol. 3 #18)[3]

I love stories about mentorship, and this issue was such a wonderful portrayal of a mentor-and-student story. Stating where the previous issue left off,[4] Kamala and Carol rescue Aamir from Kamran’s experimental attempt to activate his genetic Inhuman powers. After escaping from Kamran’s gang, the three of them head back to Coles Academic High School to try to get help for Aamir and to wait for the end of the world to occur.

There’s a passage in this issue, near the beginning, in which Aamir says to Kamran that he doesn’t blame Kamala for Kamran’s actions. Kamala is surprised, because she thought that Aamir hated her, but Carol reminds her that Aamir’s her brother. The reader can tell that this scene was an attempt at the usual resolution of sibling rivalry that often happens in family stories, and in some ways, it was incredibly sweet. On the other hand, it does sidestep the issues that were a source of disagreement between the two of them. Aamir is a self-described Salafi (an adherent of a very conservative interpretation of Islam).[5] Aamir and Kamala’s rivalry earlier in the series was not just a couple of kids arguing over some silly disagreements that siblings have; they were due to his interpretation of Islam, including his views on gender[6] and religion[7] in relationships. There’s also this moment in the issue when Aamir says he doesn’t want superpowers, since he’s happy as he is, and that he will turn to his faith to help deal with these new powers that he has due to Kamran’s actions. It was an odd blend of respectable and also sadly reminiscent of people trying to pray away aspects of themselves they don’t like. As a reader of superhero comics, one can’t help siding with Kamala on this one. Still, their interactions in some ways were very relatable, as even siblings can be very different from each other. One of the things I really appreciate about this series is that it shows Muslim characters with differing views. It also shows how dedicated people can be to defending family members who are in danger, even though they might disagree with each other.

Fortunately, the interactions between Kamala and Carol in this issue are incredibly heart-warming and made this one of my favorite issue of the series. Kamala gets to meet the person she admires for the first time. This issue shows how much it means to kids and teenagers to have adults in their lives who understand what they’re going through and who are willing to be on their side. When Carol tells Kamala that a lot of people think she’s special, one can’t help thinking that it has a double meaning: referring both to the readership that Kamala has gained since her debut and (because of that readership) the place she’s earned among her fellow heroes in her universe. There’s also a nice acknowledgement in the issue that the mentors and students both gain something from the relationship. Carol gives Kamala a gift (a necklace that also functions as a GPS locator), and it’s a touching gesture that Kamala really appreciates. With the end of the world about to happen, the reader can’t hope that somehow the superheroes will be able to find each other, and especially that the adult superheroes might be able to help out the younger generation heroes. Kamala’s going to join the Avengers after Secret Wars,[8] and I’m incredibly excited to see further interactions between her and her favorite superheroes.

I had so much fun reading this issue, and it ends with a nice surprise that made me smile and eagerly anticipate the finale.

[Originally written: 27 November 2015]

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References

[1] Wilson GW, Alphona A, Herring I. Ms. Marvel Vol. 3 #18 “Last Days, Part Three”. Marvel, 9 September 2015.

[2] Ms. Marvel Vol. #18.

[3] Ms. Marvel Vol. #18.

[4] EAS. Book Review: Ms. Marvel Vol. 3 #17 “Last Days, Part Two”. Homeworld Journal, 4 September 2016. https://homeworldjournal.wordpress.com/2016/09/04/book-review-ms-marvel-vol-3-17-last-days-part-two/

[5] “Salafi movement”. Wikipedia entry. Retrieved on 27 November 2015 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salafi_movement.

[6] EAS. Book Review: Ms. Marvel Vol. 3 #13: “Crushed, Part One”. Homeworld Journal, 30 May 2016.

https://homeworldjournal.wordpress.com/2016/05/30/book-review-ms-marvel-vol-3-13-crushed-part-one/

[7] EAS. Book Review: Ms. Marvel Vol. 3 #14: “Crushed, Part Two”. Homeworld Journal, 30 May 2016. https://homeworldjournal.wordpress.com/2016/05/30/book-review-ms-marvel-vol-3-14-crushed-part-two/

[8] EAS. Book Review: FCBD 2015 “All-New, All-Different Avengers”. Homeworld Journal, 5 September 2016.

https://homeworldjournal.wordpress.com/2016/09/05/book-review-fcbd-2015-all-new-all-different-avengers/

Book Review: FCBD 2015 “All-New, All-Different Avengers”

WRITER: Mark Waid

ARTIST: Mahmud Asrar

COLOR ARTIST: Frank Martin

LETTERER: Joe Sabino

EDITORS: Joe Moisan, Tom Brevoort, Wil Moss

“Our point is, the Avengers exist to protect people. To preserve innocent life. That is job one.” (Sam Wilson/Captain America, FCBC 2015 “All-New All-Different Avengers”)[1]

Free Comic Book Day (FCBD) is a yearly event held on the first Saturday of May. As the name implies, it’s a day when free comic books are available at participating comics shops. Comics publishers often release specific free comic books for the event.[2] This year, one of Marvel’s FCBD books was an issue that contains two short preview stories for upcoming series: The All-New, All-Different Avengers and The Uncanny Inhumans.[3] Since I plan to read the former, I decided to review the first preview story.

Our new Avengers team features seven main characters: Sam Wilson/Captain America, Jane Foster/Thor, Iron Man, Vision, Kamala Khan/Ms. Marvel, Miles Morales/Spider-Man, and Sam Alexander/Nova. (Whether or not the person inside the Iron Man armor is Tony Stark is unknown and has been the topic of fandom discussion. There’s a side comment in this issue that suggests it may not be him.) The story begins hilariously with Kamala Khan issuing the command “Avengers Assemble!” – followed by Miles Morales wondering if they’re allowed to say that yet. It’s Kamala Khan, Miles Morales, and Sam Alexander’s first day as Avengers.

Our heroes are investigating an attack on Manhattan’s Federal Reserve Bank. Sam Wilson sends the three teenagers inside to find the criminal while the four more-experienced Avengers fight the dragon outside. Unfortunately, things do not go as planned, and the villain Radioactive Man escapes. Initially, Sam is furious at the teenagers, but then they explain that the villain escaped while they rescued a civilian from falling to his death. After hearing this, Sam says that he knows he recruited the right people to join the team, because they gave first priority to saving a person’s life.

It’s a short but sweet story, and one that nicely sums up what it means to be a superhero. It will likely appeal to readers like myself who like superheroes who are trying to be idealistic and do the right thing – characters who are flawed and have seen horrors, but who still believe in good. The younger characters are clearly excited to be Avengers, and the adults are trying to give them advice and train them. The writing is funny and the artwork is bright and colorful. The creators efficiently used the limited space they had (half an issue) to tell a story that does what it’s meant to: get fans excited for the upcoming story about this new team.

The All-New, All-Different Avengers series is going to start after the Marvel Multiverse is finished crashing, burning, and reforming.[4] Despite the fact that the long title makes me laugh, I’m really looking forward to this story. This team consists of characters I’m excited to read more about. I tend to like superhero teams with some adults and some teenagers, because it provides the opportunity for a lot of heart and humor as the older, more experienced superheroes mentor (or try to mentor) the younger ones. This FCBD story has already caused me to start imagining possible stories in my mind.

Avengers Assemble!

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References

[Originally written: 24 May 2015]

[1] Waid M, Asrar M, Martin F, et al. Free Comic Book Day Vol. 2015 “The All-New, All-Different Avengers”. Marvel, 2 May 2015.

[2] “FCBD Site FAQs”. Free Comic Book Day. Retrieved on 24 May 2015 from http://www.freecomicbookday.com/Home/1/1/27/984.

[3] “Free Comic Book Day Vol 2015 Avengers”. Marvel Database. Retrieved on 24 May 2015 from http://marvel.wikia.com/Free_Comic_Book_Day_Vol_2015_Avengers.

[4] “Secret Wars”. Marvel Database. Retrieved on 24 May 2015 from http://marvel.wikia.com/Secret_Wars.