In “American Heart,” a young adult novel by Laura Moriarty, the United States government is rounding up Muslims and relocating them to internment camps in Nevada.
Fifteen-year-old Sarah Mary, a white girl from Missouri, meets an Iranian immigrant named Sadaf and – in a deliberate nod to “Huckleberry Finn” – travels north with the woman in an attempt to help her escape to Canada.
“I was concerned about a lot of the political rhetoric I was hearing” during the presidential election, says Moriarty, a best-selling author and associate professor at the University of Kansas.
“I think most people know that’s wrong and that’s not what America is about,” she said. “I wanted this book to be a celebration and a reinforcement of what I think most Americans really believe in and champion.”
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But when advance copies of Moriarty’s novel began circulating last year, much of the chatter on social media and in online reviews was brutal.
“(Expletive) your white savior narratives,” wrote one reviewer on GoodReads.com, referencing a literary motif in which a white character rescues people of color from their plight.
“The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and that’s pretty much how I feel about ‘American Heart,’” wrote another. “This book does a substantial disservice and harms the Muslim-American community.”
The novel, published by Harper Teen, will be released later this month, although copies are available now at Watermark Books in Wichita. Moriarty is scheduled to appear for a reading and signing at Watermark at 6 p.m. on Jan. 30.
Furor over the novel peaked last fall when Kirkus Reviews, a well-known book review magazine, praised “American Heart” and gave it a starred review, its marker for exceptional works.
Four days later, Kirkus retracted the star and replaced the original review with a new one that says, “Sarah Mary’s ignorance is an effective worldbuilding device, but it is problematic that Sadaf is seen only through the white protagonist’s filter.”
In a statement posted online, Kirkus editor Clayton Smith said a Muslim woman of color “well-versed in the dangers of white savior narratives” wrote the initial review but agreed to take a second look.
“The issue of diversity in children’s and teen literature is of paramount importance to Kirkus, and we appreciate the power language wields in discussion of the problems,” Smith wrote.
“While we believe our reviewer’s opinion is worthy and valid, some of the wording fell short of meeting our standards for clarity and sensitivity, and we failed to make the thoughtful edits our readers deserve.”
Moriarty, who is white and not Muslim, said the outrage over her new novel wasn’t entirely unexpected, given its controversial subject matter.
“You don’t sit down to write a novel about Islamophobia and think, ‘Oh, I bet everyone will like it.’ I did know what I was getting into,” she said.
But much of the criticism is undeserved, she said. She says she wrote the novel to highlight the existence of white privilege and the need for native-born Americans to acknowledge the plight of immigrants and people of color.
“I was interested in the psychology of someone who grows up in a culture with bad morality,” Moriarty said, referring to her white protagonist, who overcomes her own prejudices against Muslim Americans.
“In the book, the people Sarah Mary and Sadaf meet … are what America really is about and should be about and could be about again. This (anti-Islam) rhetoric is not what America stands for. We’re better than this.”
Moriarty wrote the book in 2016 and shopped it to publishers the week of the presidential election, she said. During the writing process, she consulted with several Muslim people and immigrants of different faiths who read the book and offered suggestions, she said.
Several publishing houses expressed interest initially but later balked, she said. Some cited concerns about the We Need Diverse Books organization and #OwnVoices – movements devoted to highlighting stories about marginalized groups that are written by authors who share those identities.
“Three houses stayed in the bidding, and one was Harper,” Moriarty said. “I really want to give them credit for hanging in there and doing this when a lot of other houses got scared.”
“American Heart” is Moriarty’s fifth novel. Her previous novel “The Chaperone,” a New York Times bestseller, imagined the life of a Wichita matron who accompanied silent film star Louise Brooks to New York City in 1922.
Some local proponents of diverse literature say novels like “American Heart” can be well-intentioned but still problematic.
Steve Maack, an English teacher in the International Baccalaureate program at East High School, said he hasn’t read the book but understands how some might bristle at the concept or encourage readers to opt for alternative works by more authentic voices.
“We’ve been privileging narratives by white people about people who have very different experiences … forever,” he said. “So I don’t feel like it’s unreasonable that a writer who does try to write a perspective other than their own receives criticism for that writing.”
Novels such as “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “To Kill a Mockingbird,” thought to be examples of the white savior narrative, continue to be lionized – perhaps undeservedly, Maack said. Meanwhile, students need and appreciate diverse literature.
“Having books on the shelves that students can choose themselves that are both by and about people that look like them is of paramount importance,” he said. “Students react best and enjoy reading more when they see themselves and their experience represented in books.”
He pointed to “The Hate U Give,” a young adult novel by Angie Thomas about race, class and police brutality, and books by Matt de la Pena, who won the 2016 Newbery Medal for “Last Stop on Market Street.”
Moriarty said she hopes the pre-publication controversy surrounding her new book won’t dissuade people from reading it and judging for themselves.
“People are entitled to their opinions. If someone doesn’t like a book of mine, that’s fine,” she said. “I would never dream of silencing a critic, but we also shouldn’t silence someone who likes it.
“I hope readers come to it with sort of an open mind and think, ‘How do I as an individual respond to this book – as an individual American, an individual reader. How do I personally respond to this book?’” she said. “That’s my hope for it at this point.”