As we embark on the new year, we're sharing a series of stories about the artists, musicians, writers, entrepreneurs and more who are poised to do big things in 2017.
In the past year, Queens native Romaissaa Benzizoune has gone through the typical rights of passage for late teens: she applied to college, graduated from high school, completed her first semester at NYU, and began sorting through her identity as a young adult. At the same time, she's done something most teenagers haven't—namely, stepped into the public eye as a promising young writer with bylines in the New York Times and McSweeney's, chronicling her life as a young Muslim woman at the dawn of Trump's America.
"Not everyone know what it means to be like a Hijabi or a Muslim woman, but everyone knows what it's like to be in high school." —Romaissaa Benzizoune
Benzizoune articulates the complexities of being a Hijabi in a time when prejudice appears in both subtle, insidious social interactions and speeches by political leaders who declaim Islamophobia rhetoric. In the uncertain year ahead, Benzizoune's wit and wisdom will be vital. We chatted with her about how she hopes her words will make a difference, and what we can see from her in the New Year.
Why did you start writing about your life in such a personal way?
I've always been writing. I've always been a bookworm, and I was always that girl in elementary school walking up the stairs with a book in her face, in danger of falling. But I first started to write really personal pieces when I started wearing the hijab and noticed how differently I was perceived by the world. Suddenly, I wasn't this little girl anymore, but this political being. When you wear the headscarf or when you're visibly Muslim. I think that's why I started writing personally and started trying to just grapple with my identity, religious or otherwise.
"I'll never write a piece that isn't genuine, because I wouldn't even know how to do that."
The work that I've been the most proud of is my column for McSweeney's, titled "Hijab in Plain Sight." I try to explore what it's like being a teenage girl and having crushes and going to prom and this and that, while also getting called a terrorist and Trump being elected to the presidency. It's me trying to explore my multifaceted being and, at the same time, trying to explore how other people perceive me, and how these two identities may be different—who I am and who other people think I am. That's the root of what I write about.
Your column is also really funny. What role do you think humor plays in talking about such serious topics?
People are tired of reading about these terrible things that are going on in the world. They want to be entertained. Not everyone knows what it means to be a Hijabi or a Muslim woman, but everyone knows what it's like to be in high school. When you're talking about these grand things that some people might dismiss or might not understand emotionally because they've never been in your position, the best way to get them to appreciate where you're coming from is if you have something in your writing that sticks out to them as true to their experience as well.
Benzizoune reads her slam poem, "Run Rabbit Run."
In one of your pieces you wrote, "Am I really a writer, or do I just have a compelling story to tell a white audience—and is there a difference?" How do you think that conflicting feeling has influenced your approach to writing?
It comes up all the time. Just a couple of weeks ago, I was telling one of my friends about this new writing opportunity, this new publication that wanted me to write for them. They were like, "Yeah, that's great. That's great, but they only want you to write about Muslim shit, right?" I was like, "Well, yeah. I suppose I never really thought about it, but, yeah, that's what they want me to write for them."
"This is something that I feel every person of color thinks about, even if they're not writing personally."
I'm grateful that who I am has sparked such an interest in my writing, but I'm also slightly concerned about it. The thing that comforts me in the end is that I'll never write a piece that doesn't ring true to me. I'll never write a piece that isn't genuine, because I wouldn't even know how to do that.
Recently, I've been reading a lot of Toni Morrison because she's wonderful and I want her to be my grandmother, but in one of her essays, she talks about how the white literary canon has defined literature for so long and how every time we're reading a book, we're positioned as if we're white. This is something that I feel every person of color thinks about, even if they're not writing personally.
"I don't see myself writing another mystery story or sitcom or whatever starring an all-white cast doing all white things. That's just not how it works in my world."
So much of my existence and my work is defined by how the white audience sees me. It's only natural that I would write about and explore those things. But I'd also like to start writing fiction again, start writing poetry, and maybe do some screenwriting. Part of that desire is proving to myself that I can also do other things, not just talk about my identity, and still be successful. Inevitably, who I am will play into that. I don't see myself writing another mystery story or sitcom or whatever starring an all-white cast doing all white things. That's just not how it works in my world.
In another piece, you talk about "Never Ever Words"—words that are oftentimes considered taboo because they might incite hateful comments from Islamophobes. How do you think word choice can be used to best impact readers?
I think for me, it's less about choosing the words while I'm writing—I don't really look at words and say, "Oh, people might be offended." That being said, once I'm done with the piece, which is always 100 percent uncensored me, what I ask myself is, do I want this to be published?
"When you're Muslim, you're so much more likely to be attacked for any mistakes that you make. Not because you're Muslim, not because of your religious identity, but because you represent everyone with your religious identity."
Whatever you decide to put your name to, you've got to be really careful, especially when you're Muslim—because when you're Muslim, you're so much more likely to be attacked for any mistakes that you make, because you represent everyone who also has your religious identity.
At the same time, I have this public interest. I have this platform that I can use and people that I can engage with it, but I have to be very careful, because part of me feels like that could come crashing down if I say the wrong thing at the wrong time, or if people misinterpret my words.
What do you think teenagers specifically can do to make a positive impact in the next four years?
Listen to what your peers say and connect with them more. When a group of people agrees to listen to each other's hopes and fears and wishes, and then decides to do something about it, that's even more important. That's how things start at the more nuclear level, and then it expands into a protest or a petition.
"At the end of the day, they should see that I'm just as human, imperfect, vulnerable, making my way like everyone else."
It's also important to stay in the loop. Sometimes it's really hard and you don't want to hear it, but you have to force yourself to read the news. Just a little bit. People shouldn't punish themselves or feel guilty about reading about like, Kylie's new feud or whatever, but they should balance that with something else. Like, "OK, I'm going to read a little bit of the tabloids, but I'm also going to open the Wall Street Journal and read five headlines today." That could be a start.
What can we look forward to from you in 2017?
I definitely want to write for a few more publications, diversify a little bit more, and also hopefully write for the Times. I want to be a good college student. Survive my second semester. Do well in all my internships and obligations, and find some people worth keeping at the end of freshman year—some really solid friends.
What do you hope readers will take away from your work?
That I'm just a person like they are. If they're a high school student reading my work, I want them to see that I was just a high school student just like they were, grappling with the same issues. Likewise, if they're reading my Times stuff as a college student. At the end of the day, they should see that I'm just as human, imperfect, vulnerable, making my way like everyone else. That's something that people don't necessarily see when they see someone with a headscarf, you know?