New Year, New Page: 2016 in Review


2016 was a year of struggle and resistance. A year of heartbreak and heartache. A year of tragedy and horror. A year of fighting, fighting, fighting. A year in which trauma ripped me away from solid ground. But it was also a year of grand adventure and steadfast love. It was a year of strengthening and growth. I’m looking towards 2017 now, not with empty optimism, but with resolve and grit.

In 2016, the majority of the books I read were written by women of color authors. In 2017, I resolve to amplify marginalized voices even more. I resolve to use my meager platform the best I can to raise & rise. I’m ready.

2016 Book Stats

Total Books Read: 89 (90 authors)

Books by Women Authors: 80/90 (89%)

Books by Authors of Color: 62/90 (69%)

Books by Women of Color Authors: 54/90 (60%)




#GirlsLeadingOurWorld Library Wish List


Empowerment, imagination, and accessibility. These things are important to girls and young women all around the world—including in my under-resourced Moroccan community. To make a real grassroots difference where it matters most, the students in my Girls Leading Our World (GLOW) Club are building a community library.

Morocco has an extremely low reading rate. On average, Moroccans read a quarter of a page a year (not counting schoolbooks or the Quran), compared to the American average of 11 books a year. The root of the problem is access. Our community is full of bright and curious minds, but we do not have any accessible libraries or affordable options. —GLOW

If you would like to support girl leaders, literacy, and grassroots development, please consider sending us something from our Library Wish List! You can also help by sending us recommendations to put on our list, with priority for Muslim/Arab/Amazigh/North African stories written by #ownvoices authors. Contact us at for a mailing address.

English Language Library Wish List

  • Ms. Marvel (Volumes 1-5), by G. Willow Wilson
  • I Am Malala, by Malala Yousafzai
  • Extraordinary Women from the Muslim World, by Natalie Maydell and Sep Riahi
  • The Moor’s Account, by Laila Lalami
  • Deep in the Sahara, by Kelly Cunnane, ill. by Hoda Hadad
  • The Flag of Childhood: Poems From the Middle East, selected by Naomi Shihab Nye
  • The Librarian of Basra: A True Story from Iraq, written & ill. by Jeanette Winter
  • Ruler of the Courtyard, by Rukhsana Khan
  • Yassmin’s Story, by Yassmin Abdel-Magied
  • The Butter Man, by Elizabeth & Ali Alalou
  • The Hakawati, by Rabih Alameddine
  • A Map of Home, by Randa Jarrar
  • The Complete Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi
  • Amina, by Mohammed Kabir Umar
  • Night of the Moon, by Hena Khan
  • The Conference of the Birds, by Alexis York Lumbard, Demi and Seyyed Hossein Nasr
  • Emails to Scheherazade, by Mohja Kahf
  • Salaam, Love anthology
  • Love, Inshallah anthology
  • Any book by: Paolo Coelho

Arabic Language Library Wish List

  • Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling

To donate or learn more, visit the GLOW fundraising page here. 



Five Ramadan Reads: Own Voices in Islam

Ramadan is a time for reflection, patience, and spiritual discipline. Although people like to focus on the empty-stomach aspect of Ramadan, this month is also all about mindfulness. While this manifests differently for everyone, one of my Ramadan goals this year was to read only Muslim voices for the entire holy month.

Because of my busy work schedule, I didn’t read as many books as I would have liked this month, but my Ramadan Reads list was curated to be as diverse as possible. These authors engaged with their Muslim identities in many different ways. Their faith and spirituality were incorporated into their works in many different ways and to varying degrees. I read memoir, literary fiction, historical fiction, contemporary adult, young adult, fantasy/science fiction, and poetry. The authors were Turkish, Moroccan, Pakistani American, Black American, and Somali American.

I had too-optimistically put a dozen books on my Ramadan Reads list, but only ended up reading five. Perhaps it was maktub (fate), because five is such an important number in Islam. Five pillars. Five prayers every day. Five principles of Zakat. The khamsa or the Hand of Fatima, with its symbolic five fingers.


The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak

40rules Julie: On the recommendation of several trusted sources, I began Ramadan with Shafak’s melodic novel. My love affair with Sufi poetry began when my university library supervisor, a Persian woman, gifted me a book of Hafiz poems. After that, I could never drink enough ghazals. I thirsted for Hafiz and Rumi and more. I can’t believe I’d never picked up a Shafak work until this year. Magical and universal and particular all at once. I was far more into the story of Rumi and Shams and the people they encounter than I was the story of Ella. Without giving spoilers, I was particularly disappointed by Aziz Zahara. Ultimately though, Shafak tells a story of a mythical figure that is very human and very moving.

Official book synopsis: In this lyrical, exuberant follow-up to her 2007 novel, The Bastard of Istanbul, acclaimed Turkish author Elif Shafak unfolds two tantalizing parallel narratives—one contemporary and the other set in the thirteenth century, when Rumi encountered his spiritual mentor, the whirling dervish known as Shams of Tabriz—that together incarnate the poet’s timeless message of love.

Ella Rubenstein is forty years old and unhappily married when she takes a job as a reader for a literary agent. Her first assignment is to read and report on Sweet Blasphemy, a novel written by a man named Aziz Zahara. Ella is mesmerized by his tale of Shams’s search for Rumi and the dervish’s role in transforming the successful but unhappy cleric into a committed mystic, passionate poet, and advocate of love. She is also taken with Shams’s lessons, or rules, that offer insight into an ancient philosophy based on the unity of all people and religions, and the presence of love in each and every one of us. As she reads on, she realizes that Rumi’s story mir­rors her own and that Zahara—like Shams—has come to set her free.

Secret Son by Laila Lalami

secretsonJulie: This is my third Laila Lalami book—and the second one set in modern Morocco. As an outsider living here, it’s a curious feeling reading Lalami’s work… It’s at once very familiar and very strange. The same settled/unsettling fluttering I get when I look outside my window. Intimate yet separate. Home away from home. I recommend every Lalami book highly. 

Official book synopsis: Raised by his mother in a one-room house in the slums of Casablanca, Youssef El Mekki has always had big dreams of living another life in another world. Suddenly his dreams are within reach when he discovers that his father—whom he’d been led to believe was dead—is very much alive. A wealthy businessman, he seems eager to give his son a new start. Youssef leaves his mother behind to live a life of luxury, until a reversal of fortune sends him back to the streets and his childhood friends. Trapped once again by his class and painfully aware of the limitations of his prospects, he becomes easy prey for a fringe Islamic group.

In the spirit of The Inheritance of Loss and The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Laila Lalami’s debut novel looks at the struggle for identity, the need for love and family, and the desperation that grips ordinary lives in a world divided by class, politics, and religion.

An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir


Julie: Young Adult Fantasy is a genre that will forever be close to my heart. And YA fantasy that is not whitewashed? Sign me up, always. Tahir’s novel is fast-paced, thrilling, and unique. She takes a well-worn genre and makes it exciting, which is an incredibly difficult task. And as someone who studied classics in university, I was very into the Roman Empire allusions. I can’t wait to get my hands on the sequel, A Torch Against the Night!

Official book synopsis: Laia is a slave. Elias is a soldier. Neither is free.

Under the Martial Empire, defiance is met with death. Those who do not vow their blood and bodies to the Emperor risk the execution of their loved ones and the destruction of all they hold dear.

It is in this brutal world, inspired by ancient Rome, that Laia lives with her grandparents and older brother. The family ekes out an existence in the Empire’s impoverished backstreets. They do not challenge the Empire. They’ve seen what happens to those who do.

But when Laia’s brother is arrested for treason, Laia is forced to make a decision. In exchange for help from rebels who promise to rescue her brother, she will risk her life to spy for them from within the Empire’s greatest military academy.

There, Laia meets Elias, the school’s finest soldier—and secretly, its most unwilling. Elias wants only to be free of the tyranny he’s being trained to enforce. He and Laia will soon realize that their destinies are intertwined—and that their choices will change the fate of the Empire itself.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X


Julie: Malcolm X’s autobiography has on my list for a long time, but kept putting it off. But a Ramadan Reads challenge was the perfect time to learn more about one of the most famous American Muslims. His famous charisma absolutely shows, even on a static page. I think this is a required read for anyone who is engaged with social justice in the United States. It is fascinating and revealing—and like always, it’s the best choice to learn from #OwnVoices on any topic.

Official book synopsis: From hustling, drug addiction and armed violence in America’s black ghettos Malcolm X turned, in a dramatic prison conversion, to the puritanical fervour of the Black Muslims. As their spokesman he became identified in the white press as a terrifying teacher of race hatred; but to his direct audience, the oppressed American blacks, he brought hope and self-respect. This autobiography (written with Alex Haley) reveals his quick-witted integrity, usually obscured by batteries of frenzied headlines, and the fierce idealism which led him to reject both liberal hypocrisies and black racialism.

Vilified by his critics as an anti-white demagogue, Malcolm X gave a voice to unheard African-Americans, bringing them pride, hope and fearlessness, and remains an inspirational and controversial figure.

Nejma by Nayyirah Waheed

nejma1Julie: What an absolutely perfect way to end my Ramadan Reads list. My core is twined with the stars and the roots of Waheed’s words. It is bound and boundless. Irrefutably tied to the experiences of people of color and euphonious as fuck. Every line, every lilt, every letter-tilt. All magic. I first read salt. in 2013 when it came out, and it changed my life. Nejma was another soul-altering experience.

Nayyirah Waheed on her work: “appreciate. from afar. from behind the boundary. it is that simple. people of colors’ cultures. realities. lives. histories. are sacred. and rife with boundaries. as all sacred things are. decentralize and simply appreciate. the assertion that i do not want non POC engaging with my work is false. engagement is fine. it is the defining of what engagement means. which becomes the issue. what i do not want is non POC appropriating my work. my culture. my experiences. my heritage. my people. and i will not allow salt. or nejma. or for any of my work. to be whitewashed. exploited. exoticized. or to become an educational manual on who we are. these are my boundaries. if anyone is unclear. i wrote salt. and nejma. i write. for the health. the breath. the bone. and the flower. of people of color. and so i simply assert that my work be appreciated and respected and honored as someone else’s truth. when you engage a POC work. the first thought should be about what it means to that POC. what it might mean to their communities. their cultures. their histories. that should be processed. first. the work in the context of themselves and their world. then. and only then. can your next thoughts be informed properly. then. and only then. when your being. comes into the interplay. from behind the boundary of this person first. and you second. can your perspective be honest. and aligned correctly. decentralizing. involves removing yourself from the center. and appreciating someone else’s reality. someone else’s art. as it is. for what it is. leaving alone what you can not touch. or access. and not engaging for what it can give you. what you can take from it. how you can alter it to serve you. but engaging as an honoring and appreciating. of accepting it. for exactly what it is. exactly as it is. exactly who it is. ”

Of course, I’ll still be reading Muslim voices for the rest of the year as well! I’m still eager to finish the original Ramadan Reads list I made. As a non-Muslim who has lived in a Muslim country for two years now, I believe it’s my responsibility to be conscious and respectful of my neighbors. One of the best ways is to engage in #OwnVoices works.

A few days ago, on Lailatul Qadr, the Night of Power, I was gifted a English language Quran, which is a sign that I should start reading it more thoroughly for understanding. Lailatul Qadr is usually celebrated on the 27th night of Ramadan, and it is the night that Muslims believe the Quran was revealed.

Well, I’m off to a full day of feasting and merry-making! Wishing everyone a lovely day. Eid Mubarak!



Four Badass Feminist Literary Heroes From My Childhood


These four (actually, six characters from four authors) literary loves of mine played vital parts in my young feminist awakening. Plus, they are steeped in nostalgia. I haven’t read these books in years, but they’re all seared in my mind.

Note: these are four white women authors. While I adore all of them, it would be remiss of me as an intersectional blogger not to comment on this fact. I have four things to say about this.

1) This is a systemic failure. Why was it so difficult for me as a little girl of color to find books written by authors of color?

2) It just goes to show that kids of color have always related to white characters. Why isn’t it possible the other way around? (IT IS.)

3) One of these books has characters of color, written by a white author. And while I adored it as a kid, I wonder what it’d be like to re-read it again as an adult, through a more conscious lens? Non-marginalized writers CAN write beautifully about marginalized people. But we can’t ignore the power differentials.

4) Again, people can be critical AND celebratory. This is a post about books that made a difference in my life. Books I loved to my core. I’m not popping my own bubble by commenting on the lack of diversity—I’m complicating and elevating the dialogue.

So, introducing… Julie’s childhood feminist faves!

Jo March from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women


Jo March was restless, fiery-tempered, and idealistic. She was too blunt. Too careless about some things—and about other things, cared so much that her heart nearly burned with the sense of it. She was selfish in the way that dreamers are. She loved literature. She dreamed of being a writer in a world that told her people like her couldn’t be writers. I was Jo March. I still am Jo March.

Alanna from Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness series


Alanna, red-haired and sword-wielding, was probably a feminist awakening for many young lovers of fantasy literature. I followed her through her quartet and beyond, rooting for her as she fought for her knighthood and eventually became a legendary hero. I flipped the pages eagerly for Alanna’s cameos in Pierce’s other books.

Shaharazad and Marjan from Susan Fletcher’s Shadow Spinner


Drawn by the gorgeous cover, I picked this book from the shelf of my library when I was ten, and thus ignited a lifetime of obsession with Scheherazade and the 1001 Nights. This middle grade novel is told from the perspective of Marjan, a disabled serving girl who is drawn into the lives of these legendary figures. As an adult, I breathe stacks and stacks of Scheherazade-based feminist literature, especially written by Muslim scholars. As a kid, I remember relating deeply to Marjan—a fierce but quiet girl who yearned to be a storyteller.

Addie and Meryl from Gail Carson Levine’s The Two Princesses of Bamarre


Before Anna and Elsa, there was Meryl and Addie. These two were the bastions of how badass and feminist sisterly love could be. I always yearned to be a Princess Meryl type—a sword-wielding action hero. But it was Addie who truly taught me what courage meant. Cos being quiet and full of fears does not preclude you from being a BAMF.


Have you ever read any of these books? I’d love to know who are YOUR favorite literary feminists, both now and way back when!


The Inkwell: Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite by Suki Kim

life journaling basics

Review: Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite by Suki Kim


withoutyouthereisnousOfficial Synopsis:

A haunting memoir of teaching English to the sons of North Korea’s ruling class during the last six months of Kim Jong-il’s reign.

Every day, three times a day, the students march in two straight lines, singing praises to Kim Jong-il and North Korea: Without you, there is no motherland. Without you, there is no us. It is a chilling scene, but gradually Suki Kim, too, learns the tune and, without noticing, begins to hum it. It is 2011, and all universities in North Korea have been shut down for an entire year, the students sent to construction fields—except for the 270 students at the all-male Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), a walled compound where portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il look on impassively from the walls of every room, and where Suki has accepted a job teaching English. Over the next six months, she will eat three meals a day with her young charges and struggle to teach them to write, all under the watchful eye of the regime.

Life at PUST is lonely and claustrophobic, especially for Suki, whose letters are read by censors and who must hide her notes and photographs not only from her minders but from her colleagues—evangelical Christian missionaries who don’t know or choose to ignore that Suki doesn’t share their faith. As the weeks pass, she is mystified by how easily her students lie, unnerved by their obedience to the regime. At the same time, they offer Suki tantalizing glimpses of their private selves—their boyish enthusiasm, their eagerness to please, the flashes of curiosity that have not yet been extinguished. She in turn begins to hint at the existence of a world beyond their own—at such exotic activities as surfing the Internet or traveling freely and, more dangerously, at electoral democracy and other ideas forbidden in a country where defectors risk torture and execution. But when Kim Jong-il dies, and the boys she has come to love appear devastated, she wonders whether the gulf between her world and theirs can ever be bridged.

Without You, There Is No Us offers a moving and incalculably rare glimpse of life in the world’s most unknowable country, and at the privileged young men she calls “soldiers and slaves.”


“Sometimes the longer you are inside a prison, the harder it is to fathom what is possible beyond its walls.”
Suki Kim, Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite

I immediately sought this book out after reading this excerpt of it on Ideas.TED. It was gripping to me because it was both so unfathomable and so eerily familiar. As an English teacher myself, I recognized so many of the small moments, which makes it even more heartbreaking to consider the plight of the North Korean people.

To Suki Kim’s credit, she clearly and deliberately notes that her book is not a definitive or all-encompassing account of life in North Korea. I do think that it is an important account though, because so many other Western representations of North Korea are so dehumanizing. To be frank, I’m often disgusted by how Western media portrays North Korea as laughable. An entire nation of people are being horribly oppressed by their government, and the focus is on how “wacky” their oppressive leader’s antics are.

The best parts of the book were: 1) The details of Korean immigration stories. Kim shares her own family’s story, as well as many other family’s stories, during the Korean War. Knowing the historical facts is one thing—understanding on a human level about how arbitrary political lines and destructive wars can tear families apart is a whole other thing. 2) The complicated relationship Kim had with her students. Sometimes startlingly lovely, mostly erratic and heartbreaking. The genuine fondness she feels for them is constantly marred by the context of their lives.

After finishing Without You, There Is No Us, I want to read more accounts of North Korea. I’m particularly looking for accounts by North Korean people themselves. I don’t think it’s helpful to read through another foreign lens (Kim is American and South Korean). If you’ve read any memoirs/articles by North Korean defectors, I’m definitely open to recommendations.


The Inkwell: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

The Inkwell is a series of book reviews, or just rambling thoughts on specific books. For more, amble here

Review: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng


Official Synopsis:

Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.

So begins this exquisite novel about a Chinese American family living in 1970s small-town Ohio. Lydia is the favorite child of Marilyn and James Lee, and her parents are determined that she will fulfill the dreams they were unable to pursue. But when Lydia’s body is found in the local lake, the delicate balancing act that has been keeping the Lee family together is destroyed, tumbling them into chaos.

A profoundly moving story of family, secrets, and longing, Everything I Never Told You is both a gripping page-turner and a sensitive family portrait, uncovering the ways in which mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, and husbands and wives struggle, all their lives, to understand one another.

“What made something precious? Losing it and finding it.”
Celeste Ng, Everything I Never Told You

Intricate, intimate, and incredible. This stunning family portrait is rendered so exquisitely that at times I felt as if I were gasping for air. The lake of Ng’s words engulfed me so wholly, I could almost feel the silt and water in my lungs.

The family’s backstory unfolds with manifold strings. In the 1960s, Marilyn, an aspiring doctor raised by a homemaker mother, meets James Lee, a graduate teaching assistant. Marilyn is white. James is Chinese American. In their hearts, they have very different longings. They fall in love. And like the set up of a row of dominoes, they have three children: Nathan, Lydia, and Hannah. How does it happen, that by May of 1977, the Lees’ favored middle child is found drowned at the bottom of a lake?

While reading this novel, I was reminded powerfully of how writing is a craft. Of course that’s something I know, but Ng’s craftsmanship is so sublime and taut that I felt that fact over and and over again. As she weaves in and out of the consciousness of each member of the Lee family, Ng remains deftly dynamic.

One important note of review: I expected the ending, the core truth of what happened to Lydia, to be ambiguous. That would have been the easy way out. But it was not. It was stark and bare. You will not expect it, but it will feel more true than anything you might have imagined from the first page, the first sentence that does not hide: Lydia is dead.

This book starts with a dead teenage girl and a mystery, but it is not a thriller. It doesn’t have loud-gasp plot twists, but it is breathtaking in a slow and quiet way.

Everything I Never Told You is about how we orbit in and out of each others’ gravitational fields in ellipses rather than perfect circles—sometimes closer, sometimes farther. About relationships, but also about the distance between. It’s about the weight of expectation. It’s about fitting in and standing out. It’s about marginalization. It’s about grief. My goodness, I’m still feeling the ache of the prose.


10 Women’s History Month Reading Lists

A compiled list of lists! There are so many great reads out there in honor of Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day. Put all of these on your TBR list ASAP!

  1. So You Want To Properly Celebrate Women’s History Month, via BookRiot
  2. 33 Life-Changing Books in Honor of International Women’s Day, via LitHub & VIDA
  3. Librarian Picks Books for Women’s History Month, via NPR
  4. Recommended History/Social Studies Books for Women’s History Month for Ages 11-13, via Scholastic
  5. Celebrating Women’s History in Pictures: Picture Books for Women’s History Month, via A Mighty Girl
  6. Women’s History Month: A Book List, via Lee & Low Books
  7. 30 Books Every Woman Should Read, via Refinery29
  8. 11 Essential Reads for Women’s History Month, via Off the Shelf
  9. International Women’s Day – A Reading List, via Riffle Books
  10. Staff picks: Feminist books for International Women’s Day, via VersoBooks