Screen Shot 2016-04-14 at 1.13.54 AMWith The Muslim Protagonist (an annual symposium by the Muslim Students Association in which panelists will discuss issues of race, religion, gender identity, and the way literature can affect societal change) coming up this weekend, Bwog Staff Writer Nikki Shaner-Bradford reached out to speak with two of the organizers, Sania Khalid and Fatima Kholi, both BC ’17, to talk a bit about the program. This year’s theme is (Re)writing Home: Shifting Sites of Belonging. 

Nikki: For those who haven’t heard of it, can you give a brief overview of what The Muslim Protagonist is and what’s happening this weekend?

Fatima: The Muslim Protagonist is an annual literary symposium where we bring together muslim and minority students and artists to discuss how we can use literature as a means of social intellectual and spiritual change. It’s called The Muslim Protagonist but it’s open to people of all backgrounds regardless of race, religion, and gender identity. That’s a brief description, but every year there’s a different theme. One of our main goals is to provide a platform for new and emerging artists.

N: How are you involved with The Muslim Protagonist, and what is your role within the conference?

Sania: I’ve always been involved with MSA, and I’m a very active member. Last year was my first year going, and it was amazing, and I love being a part of it.

F: Two years ago I volunteered at The Protagonist, and it was more than inspiring, it was just so interesting to hear the different conversations going on around me because they were so much more complex than the others going on around campus or those who I had heard before. It was really relevant because of the context we live in and who we are as college students as we’re looking at identity and gender and race. Last year I was sort of involved because I was VP of MSA, and The Muslim Protagonist is a sub branch. I wasn’t able to go last year but I really regretted it. This year I really wanted to be part of the planning process and be sure we were continuing to push the MP. We want to be sure to keep pushing boundaries. So [this year] I’m Co-chair of the protagonist.

N: When you say you want to continue pushing boundaries what do you mean by that?

F: One is the fact that a lot of the conversations happen during this weekend, but they stop there, they don’t continue on. Our goal is to continue these things throughout the year, whether it’s monthly or more, just to have follow up events to continue these conversations so they aren’t something solely in a vacuum.
S: This year we are offering discounted and high school tickets.
F: A lot of us, when we were in high school, weren’t aware of these conversations. I hadn’t even heard the term people of color before coming to college. We think it’s really important that the youth are also given access to these kinds of events and conversations. By no means is our event the only way, there are so many other ways that they can find out about these conversations about oppression and race and gender identity.

N: How do you think the conference will be different this year in comparison to previous years?

S: I think every year is different when you do the themes. I think this year’s theme is extremely relevant considering the Syrian refugee crisis and Donald Trump’s prejudiced rhetoric. Something different this year is that we are moving away from just having novelists. This year we have playwrights, filmmakers, artists. We’re expanding within the arts.

N: What do you think will be the most heated or popular conversation this weekend?

S: All of the panels are going to be very heated as all of our speakers are very active their fields.
F: I don’t want to miss any of the panels, and I know I’m going to be running around organizing but I’m going to want to be at all of them. The last one is Nostalgia & Memory, which is especially relevant to people of Diaspora. For the Present panel we are also asking about what it means to negotiate between who you are writing for and what do those audiences expect. How you negotiate that and find a balance so that you’re still staying true to the identities you’re writing about but being part of the field you need to be in. The future panel is going to be super interesting because we will be imagining what the future will look like.
S: It’s really interesting because our separations are Past, Present, and Future, but they all connect so well. We’re having all these different panels and discussions but they all fit together.
F: When we were figuring out panels and speakers we realized many of them could work on any panel. This year I think we spent a lot of time deliberating where to put each person and where they would work together, because while the themes would work well across each panel, each panel is still very unique.

N: How do you attempt to create a welcoming event for everyone when many of the conference’s topics (like trauma and refuge) are so diverse and sensitive?

F: I think because the whole symposium isn’t just based on the idea of trauma, it’s based on the idea of home, which can be a side of trauma, but that’s not the only focus. The way we’re talking about these things especially with themes of nostalgia, memory, and imagining alternative futures. These are all relevant conversations to really everyone – especially  people of color and people of Diaspora because these conversations are especial relevant in these communities.
S: You can define home in so many ways. It can be a feeling, it can be a location. We want to explore these different definitions of home.”
F: When we did our photo series and asked people what home meant to them we got a very diverse group so it’s not something that’s too limited.

N: Can you tell me a bit more about the photo series?

S: I asked people to write on a white board what home meant to them. It was really interesting to see what people wrote. I thought many would write locations because that’s what you think first when you think of home. But a lot of people wrote down feelings. It was interesting to see how people framed those, like one person wrote down “home is the undeniable sense of security” and I’d never thought of it that way. So I took the photos and printed them and I’m going to set up a photo gallery for the symposium where people can view them.

N: How do you incorporate this idea of “literature as an agent for social, intellectual, and spiritual change” into the symposium?

F: So all of the conversations focus on this… it’s more of a subtle way of talking about it because all the individuals are doing their work and using art to create change. The [panelists are] political so when they do work that touches on identity or race they are already creating change. The goal is to continue talking about the themes that are present in their work. Having these conversations is what is going to lead to change. Art especially is something that allows for change to happen in different ways that people might not be receptive to otherwise.
S: Art is so much more accessible, I don’t want to say it’s easier, but when someone sees a piece of work they can look at it and take away what they want to take away from it. It can mean so many different things.
F: People can find things to relate to in art and that’s why it has so much power.

N: Which speakers are you most excited to see?

S: All of them, literally, all of them. I’m so excited. Every speaker we’ve had even the year before have been incredible.
F: I’m excited for all of them but I’m particularly happy for Haris A. Duranti on the Future panel. He was a founder of The Muslim Protagonist so it’s like he’s coming full circle.
S: I’m excited to see how some of the workshops will turn out. There’s one that’s going to be run by Tasleem Jamila el-Hakim. It’s called Healing Through Art, and I’m really excited to see how she engages with the art, and I’ve talked to her about what she’s planning to do, but I can’t wait to see how she works with the audience.
F: Everyone’s been so helpful in the sense that one of our speakers put us in touch with the writer at The Chronicle, without her help we wouldn’t have been able to get her.
S: You’re building this community where you get to know people and their work, it’s almost like a little networking thing. You’re solidifying your community and it’s really important – especially in the Muslim community as we face a lot of hate crime and hate speech and we need to build up our community instead of always being apologetic.
F: it’s so important for everyone, especially high schoolers, to see Muslim people in the arts.
S: We’re there, we just need to make our community visible.

N: How do you think The Muslim Protagonist fits into and benefits the CU community?

S: I mean, it’s community building.
F: I think it’s important not just for Muslim students but also for other minority students to attend, because these topics are relevant to all of us. It’s beneficial to the community because we’re so unapologetically doing what we do that its a sense of empowerment for the rest of the community
S: This is not just for muslims, we need other people to come in solidarity. Different groups who have been oppressed and faced this racism in the world.

N: Is there anything else you’d like to say about the program this weekend?

F: It’s all about highlighting marginalized narratives and what’s really important to us is not only having these conversations but also the art itself, which is why we have the open mic and the workshops. This year we focussed a lot on student performance because these are our future artists and we have to give them a platform as well.
S: the open mic is a great way to tell your peers how you feel and you’d be surprised a lot of us feel the same way.
F: One of our biggest goals is that people write and talk about their own stories after the symposium.

To learn more and purchase tickets for this weekend, head to Columbia MSA’s The Muslim Protagonist website. Also, check out Bwog’s event reminder.

Flyer Image via the Muslim Protagonist Facebook page