Why My Stories Feature Characters from Racial, Religious, Sexual, and Ethnic Minorities

July 26, 2018

All of my published novels, short stories, and other works have featured characters with some kind of minority background: Latino, African-American, Jewish American, Asian-American, Arab Christian (i.e., Christians living in predominantly Muslim countries), gays, etc.

While I don’t identify as a sexual minority, I can imagine some of the challenges they undoubtedly face. My romantic comedy, Sex in the Title, features a rather diverse cast of minority characters, including an Afro-British man who realizes he’s gay before he’s figured out how to “come out” to his group of close (but straight) guy friends who regularly serve as each other’s wingmen for New York bar-hopping and clubbing in search of women.

In some ways, left-handed people are also a minority: they’re supposed to operate in a world that has mostly been designed with right-handed people in mind. Perhaps I should explore that issue in a story some day as well.

One other minority perspective that I have yet to write about is neurodiversity, since people with autism (for example) undoubtedly experience life rather differently than most, and the world responds to them in a uniquely challenging way that surely defines their experience of the human condition.

So why have I featured so many minority perspectives in my stories? I think there is something intrinsically interesting and soul-defining about being outnumbered in the world. That condition simultaneously promotes a feeling of weakness and vulnerability while demanding the inner strength and confidence necessary to thrive in what may often be a hostile environment.

I’m also fascinated by how a minority in one place can suddenly join the majority in another place and vice-versa. When I went to Asia for the first time, I became an ethnic, linguistic, and religious minority the minute I stepped off the plane and onto Thai territory. Suddenly, none of the people on the billboards or TV ads looked like me or even spoke my language. It’s almost surreal how suddenly someone can go from comfortably fitting in as part of the majority to feeling dramatically outnumbered and lost in a different society.

By taking a flight from China to Greece, a Chinese woman living as a majority member of the world’s most populous country can — within hours — become a social, linguistic, racial, and religious minority in the relatively tiny country of Greece (which is quite homogeneously Greek). That jarring transition produces a “fish-out-of-water story,” and it can happen in both directions: a Greek man who relocates to Beijing will have a similarly eye-opening and disorienting experience.

So being a minority is entirely a function of circumstance in many cases (i.e., where a person happened to be born and raised). Later in life, when more active choices about where to live become possible, being a minority can be a choice, although for countless people, relocating away from their minority status is not an option for a variety of practical, financial, familial, and other considerations.

In my novel Anissa of Syria, I chose to highlight the plight of Syrian Christians firstly because I deeply empathized with their suffering and vulnerability. Here is an utterly powerless Christian minority living at the mercy of the Muslim majority around them. For decades, they enjoyed lives of relative prosperity and security, despite their religious minority status, until the Syrian War broke out in 2011. When the ensuing sectarian conflict fed the rise of the Islamic State and other radical Islamist groups, the Christians and other religious minorities in Syria were suddenly living on borrowed time — marked targets precariously waiting for that awful day when fate arrives at their door.

But, as Schindler’s List and so many other true stories have shown, there are always righteous members of a majority willing to take the greatest personal risks to help a persecuted minority. In my novel, the main character (Anissa) is able to escape the Islamist massacre of her family thanks to the courage of their Muslim neighbor, who hides her from the attackers and ultimately risks his life to shuttle her to the airport, as part of her nail-biting escape from Syria. And courageously defying many others is also a kind of minority story: it takes tremendous courage to oppose or otherwise act against the majority or those in power. When, in elementary school, the entire class is bullying the new, funny-looking student who doesn’t have any friends, it takes formidable strength of character to resist the bullies and reach out in a supportive way to the bullied student.

I also found it interesting how Christians — the world’s largest religion — can still find themselves very much in the minority. According to the Pew Research Center, Christians “had an estimated 2.2 billion adherents, nearly a third (31 percent) of all 6.9 billion people on Earth in 2010…Islam was second, with 1.6 billion adherents, or 23 percent of the global population.”

Yet Christians are some of the most vulnerable minorities on Earth — particularly in Muslim-majority countries. Raymond Ibrahim actively blogs about the grim reality that Christian minorities face. For anyone interested in the persecution of Christians at the hands of Muslims — a tragedy that is global and extends back centuries — his book Crucified Again is a sobering must-read.

Muslims are the fastest-growing religious group in the world, according to the Pew Research center. What will that mean for social cohesion and tolerance? How will host countries that experience a substantial growth in their Muslim populations treat this growing minority? And how will the increasing number of Muslims treat their fellow religious minorities (Jews, Hindus, etc.) and sexual minorities (those from the LGBT community: lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender)? As Muslims take on a bigger profile in their host countries, will they try to impose their beliefs on the majority in any way? Or will they assimilate and gradually become more secular and less religious (as has happened with many religious minorities in the US)? These are all interesting questions that will have a huge impact on the societies where they are answered, and only time will tell.

The challenges of surviving as a minority can also happen on a state or national level. The Armenian Christian minority suffered a genocide of about two million at the hands of the Ottoman Turks. Today, the Armenians have a small country surrounded by two hostile enemy states: Turkey and Azerbaijan.

The Kurds are another historically persecuted people that have struggled at the national level, fighting to gain their independence after Saddam Hussein massacred about 150,000 Kurds, including with chemical weapons. While the Iraqi Kurdistan government respects the rights of religious minorities and women — a rarity in the Middle East — the world has yet to give the Kurds a state and they are continuously thwarted by neighboring powers like Turkey, Iran, and Iraq.

Anissa of Syria mentions the plights of both minorities (Kurds and Armenians). Book two of the series (Anissa of Antioch), also touches on the Yazidis, who are arguably one of the most vulnerable religious minorities in the Middle East, because of their frail numbers.

Perhaps the most famous case of a minority at the national level is the Jewish state of Israel, which is vastly outnumbered and surrounded by Arab and Muslim hostility (although some Sunni Muslim states are gradually warming up to Israel as they realize that it poses no threat, unlike the theocratic Iranian regime, with its nuclear ambitions, regional expansionism, and support for terrorism). At the United Nations, where there are about 50 Muslim-majority countries, the one Jewish country is guaranteed to lose virtually every vote at the UN General Assembly (UNGA). For example, in 2015-2016, the UNGA adopted 20 resolutions criticizing Israel (which has just 8 million people and is the size of New Jersey), and only 3 resolutions on the rest of the world combined (that’s 193 countries and 7.6 billion people)! So Israel is very much the bullied kid on the global stage.

Yet despite these and countless other challenges, Israel has managed to build a vibrant and resilient democracy that respects women, religious, ethnic, linguistic, and sexual minorities; upholds the rule of law; and enjoys a burgeoning market economy based on technology and innovation.

Thus, as I considered the plight of persecuted Arab Christians — in Syria, Egypt, Iraq, and nearly all of the Middle East — I imagined them fighting to establish a new state where this large religious minority could find shelter and ultimately thrive in dignity. The classic novel Exodus tells the story of how the Jewish minority managed to accomplish such a feat by establishing the State of Israel, despite every conceivable challenge. So, that epic saga is referenced in Anissa of Syria, when Anissa meets Michael Kassab, a young Arab-Christian political activist who draws inspiration from Exodus, and its tale of Jews building a state against all odds, and in a dangerously hostile neighborhood.

Of course, Anissa of Syria is more than just a story about a member of the persecuted Arab Christian minority who becomes a refugee in New York and works to establish a state for her people. Her journey is complicated by a variety of inner and outer conflicts, from overcoming trauma and trust issues to navigating her way through a delicate love triangle involving Michael and her billionaire professor who has deep issues of his own but uniquely possesses the prodigious resources and connections needed to advance the dream of an Arab-Christian state.

There is one more reason I like to feature members of outnumbered communities in my works: minorities make our world — and the stories in it — more colorful and complex. If conflict is at the heart of drama, and difference is what leads to conflict, there should be even richer and deeper conflicts when racial, religious, ethnic, linguistic, and/or other differences are added into the narrative.

Do you like reading stories that feature characters of minority backgrounds? Why? Which titles stand out for you?

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