A writer with a mission to represent minority and marginalized communities
By Ruth Nasrullah
Gabrielle Deonath is a 25-year-old Guyanese-American Muslim writer and author of the new book “Shukr: An Inspirational Dua and Gratitude Journal for Women” (Ulysses Press, 2022). Each of its five sections, whose titles relate to different aspects of daily life, contains a du’a, hadith or Quranic verse along with writing prompts and space for journaling. Her intention is to inspire women and give them a practical way to increase their iman.
I sat down with Deonath and we talked about the hijab, being a writer and the challenge of maintaining a steady level of faith.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Please talk a little about your start as a writer.
A: My career really started without me knowing it at the age of 15. I had been contemplating wearing a hijab full-time for almost a year. I had been wearing it for about four days when my aunt sent me a post from suhaibwebb.com, in which she said, “I think you should start your own blog.” But she sent me the submission page to their website, so I thought she meant for me to submit it there.
I sat down on my bed around 11:00 p.m. and just wrote about my hijab journey. Never thinking it would ever be published, I sent it off. To my surprise, they really loved it and told me that they were going to publish it. Later, I published another essay with them about my hijab decision. My career as a writer really started from there. I continued writing personal essays about the experience of navigating the world as a Muslim teenager. At Brown Girl magazine I was on the entertainment beat. In college, I shifted from personal essays to cover the more niche topic of Islam.
Q: Can you share some details of your “hijab journey”?
A: I haven’t met a lot of Guyanese Muslim women who wear the hijab. I didn’t really know what its purpose was until I started attending a sisters halaqa here on Long Island. That was where I met Hamida Khan, to whom the book is dedicated.
It was in this class that I learned the “why” of many things we do as Muslims. Why do we pray five times a day? Why are women encouraged to wear the hijab? Why do we fast, not even drink water, for so many hours? And upon learning the answers to these “whys,” I became more invested in my faith and decided to wear the hijab just before my 16th birthday.
Sister Hamida taught me that hijab is about being valued for your qualities and talents as a person, rather than what you look like. As a teenager going through a period of self-discovery and also looking for a deeper connection to Islam, there is nothing that could have been more intriguing. I thought to myself, What will I discover about myself if I do this?
So I spent eight months really thinking that decision through. I knew it would be a lifelong commitment if I decided to do it. Eventually I told my family and talked with them about it. Right as the school year ended, I decided I would take the summer to kind of adjust, ease into it and then introduce it to everybody once the school year began.
Q: Fast forward a few years to “Shukr.” The book is divided into sections: “Belief & Worship,” “Relationships,” “Growth & Progress,” “Health,” and “Community.” How did you decide on those topics for each section? How did you select the verses and hadith?
A: Just from thinking about what is important to me and women like me. Every section is structured with prompts for journaling. The first question is “What does this ayat, dua or hadith mean to you?” The second is “How does this relate to your daily life?” Third question: “What are three things that you can express for today?” and then the final question is “What is one thing you need today? How would it help if Allah granted it to you?”
After coming up with those questions, the next step was searching online. I used the Clear Quran translation [by Dr. Mustafa Khattab] because it’s very accessible. Even for me, as born Muslim, most translations I have had to read multiple times to understand. I would look through the index for keywords related to the section topics. I also went online to look for authentic sources for hadith, which I then asked a local imam to authenticate. So that was the process. It was educational for me to read through these things, and the way that I picked them was just by asking “Which ones resonate with me? Which ones do I feel that people need to hear today?”
Q: Do you feel you have a mission?
A: One of my goals as a writer is to represent minority and marginalized communities. I think the representation of Muslim women is increasing on television, in movies and books, and that is amazing. For example, I am looking forward to the release of a film adaptation of a book by Uzma Jalaluddin, which features a female Muslim character. However, there needs to be a middle ground. A lot of books deal with external struggles – prejudice and discrimination – and that is something we face. Although those are important stories to tell, the internal struggle is also important. I want to write novels with Muslim main characters and tell stories about the gray area; prejudice and discrimination – and that is something we face. Although those are important stories to tell, the internal struggle is also important. I want to write novels with Muslim main characters and tell stories about the “gray area” – where we struggle with how to live a balanced life and still do the things that we are supposed to do as Muslims. It can be challenging not shaking hands or being a teen and going to parties. Sometimes we struggle with prayer and fasting, sometimes not understanding Allah’s wisdom. I want to write stories about Muslims who aren’t perfect, who struggle with their faith.
Q: So what’s next? Do you have an idea for another book, or have you started working on another one?
There are three projects I have in the pipeline. I don’t want to slow down; I want to keep exploring things that I haven’t done before and completing more of that mission as a writer. It’s been a very busy time but I’m very grateful for all of it.
Read more by and about Gabrielle at https://bygabrielled.com/
Ruth Nasrullah is a freelance writer (https://ruthnasrullah.com/).
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