|WNHH Radio Host Mubarakah Ibrahim with author Mariam Azeez. Lucy Gellman Photo.|
Through the sun-soaked gates of the Gratitude Garden. By the Field of Forgiveness. Along the generous, lush edge of Camp Kindness. Never a moment to stop over in Belly Acres Farm, where things might go awry. Soulful Sydney and her new friend are on a roll.
That’s the roadmap Mariam Azeez and Terry Murphy envisioned for Soulful Sydney Explores Diversity, the first story in a new series intended to teach diversity and inclusion to readers across both Connecticut and the United States. After releasing the book in May, the two are working to spread the word this summer, in the hope of breaking through a partisan divide with a buoyant, brightly illustrated tale of friendship.
In the soulful world, the story opens on our bright-eyed, perpetually smiling heroine Sydney, her face pressed to the window as a new family moves in next door. She gets her first glimpses of them: a woman in a long red dress and headscarf, her daughter strolling through the front yard to check out the neighborhood. A tight purple scarf is fixed around her head and shoulders.
|Screenshot from the book.|
Sydney bounds outside to meet them. Her summer sundress flaps in the wind. But she has a problem: from the lawn, her dog Max turns angry, and growls. His fear of unfamiliar things, Sydney explains to the neighbor, sometimes gets the best of him. In an attempt to help, the neighbor begins to explain the headscarf.
“A hijab can seem like something strange
But talking about it helps people—and dogs!—to change!”
For the duo, the story began in the real world with the birth of Murphy’s granddaughter Sydney, Mariam’s budding interest in poetry and writing, and a meeting of the minds at the Al Hedaya Islamic Center. While Murphy had had the character in mind for a while—she and a friend had dreamt up the “Soulful Forest” some time ago—it wasn’t until she met Miriam that she had a sense of where to go with the book, and who to write the prose with.
An 11-year-old from Newton, Conn. Azeez is Muslim, and wears a tight-fitting hijab and long-sleeved clothing for religious reasons. Murphy is resident of Southbury, who visited the center for the first time over a year ago. Raised Catholic, she recalled a certain level of discomfort on that first visit, walking into a world she hadn’t known before. It melted away when she met Azeez’ mother, who runs programming at the center and offered to answer her questions.
The two became fast friends, Murphy learning about Mariam’s interests in poetry as she got to know the family. Just months later, she and Mariam had become email pen pals, sending lines of prose back and forth during the coldest weeks of the year. For Mariam, who has been writing seriously since 2015, it led to a sort of satisfaction she hadn’t experienced before.
“I believe children are not filtered the same way adults are,” she said of writing through a young girl’s lens. “Children don’t care what you look like. They just want to play with you.”
They had a system: Mariam would send a few lines to Murphy, Murphy would ping her back, and Mariam would send a few more lines. When they felt like there was enough for a manuscript, they brought in Murphy’s sister Deborah Clarke, a teacher in Maryland, for editing help and feedback.
While both consider the theme nonpartisan, Murphy said that exploring religious diversity seemed to fit, in part, because “Muslims are being beaten up” across the country, and barred from its borders on the basis of their faith. From a Muslim main character, she and Mariam also wrote in students at “Diversity University” of Jewish, Bahá'í, Buddhist and other backgrounds.
From a societal point of view, I can’t stay quiet anymore,” she said by phone in a recent interview. “Everyone has a way of saying their truth, and this is my truth as a Caucasian Christian woman with a certain level of privilege.”
After gathering steam in January, the two finished a manuscript in April, and had the first copies in their hands by May. In an effort to spread its message, they have sent it to several politicians on both sides of the aisle, receiving recognition from U.S. Sens. Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal.
Earlier this month, the two also gave copies of the book to March For Our Lives founding member Emma González, who visited Newtown in August as the last stop on a March For Our Lives tour. After watching González take a stand against gun violence in the wake of last year’s school shooting in Parkland, Flo., Mariam had written her into the book. She said that meeting her, which ended in a hug and photo session, has been one of the best experiences to come out of the book.
Now, the two are working on a second book “about kindness” with Soulful Sydney and a young male protagonist who is Black and Latino. As a young woman of color, Mariam said that character comes from her own recognition that incidents of racism and discrimination, on the rise in this country, are “not just about Muslims—it’s about anybody that looks different.”
Murphy said she’s also thinking about the real-life Sydney—and the example she wants to set for her.
“I want to leave behind a world that’s better than I got here,” she said. “It’s important for me to leave behind a series … that my grandchildren are going to believe in equality, justice, and freedom."
Click on or download the audio below to listen to Mubarakah Ibrahim interview Miriam on her weekly radio show "Mornings With Mubarakah" on WNHH Community Radio.