9/11. Say those two numbers, and everyone knows exactly what you’re talking about. If you were alive on that day, you can remember what you were doing and what you thought when the twin towers came down. I vividly recall watching the Today Show as the plane went into the building, wondering what was happening and then being horrified as the truth unfolded. And another thing I will never forget is how so many Americans vilified all Muslims for the act of a few crazed terrorists. At the time, I knew very little about Islam and though I was reluctant to blame an entire religion, I was disgusted with myself for being so ignorant—and I almost could understand those who are narrow-minded and bigoted for their ignorance. But I wanted to do something about it, if only in a small way.
I have always been a student of religion. I grew up with a marginal Baptist upbringing, but the more I grew and read, I realized there are a multitude of ways to believe in God (and, indeed, multiple ways to practice not believing in God.) The one thing most religions have in common, though, is the idea that we should love one another. I knew that from my studies of the Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish faiths. So I set out to discover if this was the essence of Islam, as well. And, of course, it is, for human beings are hard-wired to love one another, even as we let our fears get in the way and, until we get to know each other, sometimes hate. Let it be known I’m talking in a general way, for there will always be those pockets of people who can’t get past their fears.
These fears are the essence of discrimination against the LGBTQ community. Being gay, I know that all too well. And thus, I suppose, I had a predisposed empathy with Muslims of the world. Southern Baptists can be among the worst offenders when it comes to acceptance of gays, but I think my upbringing and my own experience taught me that love is love is love is love, in the words of Lin Manuel Miranda.
So—if love makes the world go ‘round, as the old song says, then what is Islam all about, and how do gays fit into that? And that was the idea that became You Can’t Tell by Looking. Every novel I’ve ever written started with the “what if?” What if a gay teenager were Muslim? What if a Protestant teen became infatuated with said Muslim? How would this play out in suburban America?
To answer those questions, I had to find out what makes Muslims tick. What are the basic tenets of the religion? What are the rules and regulations these folks live by? What are their practices, their rituals? What are the variations in the religion? So many questions flooded my mind. I turned to research.
I’ve always been the guy who finds his answers in books. My mother’s love for reading and my devotion to her made me an avid reader, and ultimately, a writer. So I began by purchasing several books on Islam. I was fascinated by what I read. But I was also struck by how very similar Islam is to Protestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism. I found all have the same foundation: Abraham. This is the same Abraham in the Bible who almost sacrificed his son because of his devotion to God. With this revelation, I became, more than ever, determined to create a novel that could hopefully erase misconceptions about Muslims.
But did Islam permit homosexuality? Well, I did find that it is not expressly forbidden in the Quran, the holy book of Islam. It is, however, as with many religions, frowned upon. But the interesting thing is that, again like most religions, followers are free to make their own conclusions. Only in countries—mostly in the middle east—where fundamentalist Islam and civil laws are tangled together, is being gay strictly forbidden.
So I had my premise. Yes, a suburban youth could be both Muslim and gay. And that was enough to begin the magic process of writing. The challenge would be enormous. I needed to pack the book with most of the things I learned in my research about Islam, not only to make it authentic but also to show the conflict that could brew from a favored son coming out. I knew I could not just pepper the story with facts like some encyclopedic research paper on Islam. My task was to create a full, rich, vulnerable young man who was devout and also gay and struggling with the seeming disparity of being both. And thus Kerem was born.
Next I needed someone for him to fall in love with. Having already decided Kerem had been a member of his school community for all his life, I didn’t want some guy he’d known forever to just notice him and fall head over heels. So Gabriel moves to town. Gabe is out and proud and totally confident. He is struck immediately by Kerem’s looks, but as soon as he observes Kerem’s prayers, Gabe knows he has to find out more about him, if for no other reason than to decide if he can and should set his romantic sights on this unusual young man.
And of course, every story needs a conflict. I’d already decided that the conflict of religions would be there, but that wasn’t enough. So I birthed Timur. Timur, Kerem’s cousin, has grown up side-by-side with him in the same home and been treated as Kerem’s brother because Timur lost his own family in a series of tragedies when he was much younger. Timur, however, clings to the traditions of his own family, traditions that formed a much stricter version of Islam than Kerem’s family practices. Both devout; each diametrically opposed in many ways.
You Can’t Tell by Looking is an important novel, I think. I suppose most writers feel that way about these literary babies we birth. But I’ve not encountered a young adult novel that tackles these issues before, and these are issues that must be brought to light. Remember, fear=hatred; knowledge=understanding. And we need more understanding in a world where too many people (but still a small minority, for I believe most people in this world are good) harbor that fear that turns into hatred because they know so little about the gay experience and the experience of being Muslim. I’m not an expert on Islam. I’m far from it. But I hope with this novel, I’ve shed a positive light on this subject. And I can only hope that folks are not fooled by the “young adult novel” designation, for I have tried to craft a story that can speak to everyone, old, young, gay, straight. And especially, I hope gay Muslims read my book and get comfort and hope from it.
Gabe Dillon’s life changes when he gazes across his new school’s commons and spies handsome Kerem Uzun, and he wants to know more. Kerem is senior class president. He is mostly very well liked. He comes from a family of doctors, is of Turkish heritage, and he is Muslim.
At first Gabe doesn’t understand the ritual he sees Kerem performing. But as the boys bond, Gabe is eager to learn about Islam. He’s falling in love with a boy who may or may not be gay, a boy whose religion may condemn Gabe’s open homosexuality.
Complicating the budding relationship is Timur, Kerem’s cousin, who has grown up alongside Kerem as his brother. A family tragedy left Timur homeless, and Kerem’s parents took him in. But as Kerem grows into his own way of looking at life and how it fits into his devout practice of his faith, Timur is becoming more fundamental in his practice of Islam. And he isn’t the only one opposed to the friendship between Kerem and Gabe. Can they forge a lasting relationship amid so many challenges?
“That is the most gorgeous creature I’ve ever laid eyes on!”
Did I say that out loud? Or did I just think it? Whatever. I’m standing here, at the end of the first day at my new school, gazing across the commons at a guy who is mesmerizing. His slender stature—straight and tall like a soldier and muscled like one as well—says he has the confidence of a lion.
His jaw is square, his closely cropped black curls shine, and even this far from him, I see eyes as black as midnight that sparkle as he laughs with his friends. I can’t look away from him.
“So how was your first day?” I hear my cousin’s voice, and I want to respond, but I am entranced by this magnificent specimen across the way.
“Gabe?” Shaun is almost shouting in my ear, but I continue to ignore him. “Earth to Gabriel, Earth to Gabriel.” Shaun’s call pounds into me, but it doesn’t break my concentration.
Not taking my eyes off the god I’ve just discovered, I say, “What, Shaun?” trying to keep the annoyance out of my voice.
“What’s up, Gabe? I’m trying to get an update on your first day here, and you’re blowing me off.”
Shaun is right, and to be fair, I shouldn’t be doing this. But my eyes don’t want to leave this vision. They’re glued to the guy.
“Oh, I see, you’ve discovered our resident towelhead.” His use of that disgusting slur rips me away from the object of my attention for a moment.
“Shaun, you know as well as I do name-calling is lower than low. I’m surprised at you.” My cousin and I have never been close, but we’ve been raised in the same family with the same values—or at least I thought so. I’m reasonably certain my aunt, my dad’s sister, would not like hearing her son say what he did.
“Look, Gabe, I’m only calling it like it is. That guy you have the hots for is a Muslim. Is that the term you’d rather I use? Either way, he’s just one jihad away from blowing this school sky-high.”
“Are you kidding me? You really believe that about all Muslims?
That they are all waiting for the chance to strap on a bomb and take out the world?”
“Gabriel, my man, this ain’t the little town you spent your life in until now. We don’t leave our front doors unlocked. We don’t ask just anyone into our lives. We’re cautious. And when someone like him, the one you’re drooling over right now”—he points to the object of my fascination—“is around, you need to be on your guard. No telling what’s going on in his mind.”
I truly want to go off on Shaun right now. He’s being blatantly bigoted, and it pisses me off, but Shaun has been so good to me this past summer. When my dad announced we were moving here and I wouldn’t be graduating from my school back home, leaving the friends I’ve always known, Shaun took it upon himself to make the transition easier for me. He spent the entire summer texting me and skyping with me, trying to get me ready for the day I’d just spent. I stayed with Gram and Pop while Mom and Dad moved here at the beginning of summer. I’d spent the last three summers teaching little kids how to swim at the Y, and I wasn’t about to give that up. So my parents told me I could live with my grandparents while they got the new house set up and Dad started his new job. He was an insurance salesman in our hometown, but now he’s working at his company’s headquarters here in the city. A big promotion for him. So I didn’t raise much of a ruckus when I was told I’d be moving. And Shaun’s wrong about our “little town.” It has a hundred and fifty thousand residents, give or take a few, so it’s not a tiny place; granted, it’s not as big as this ginormous city.
Anyway, given my status as the new kid and my cousin’s eagerness to make me feel welcome, I had no right to deal with his attitude at the moment. That might come later, if he kept it up.
About the Author
Russell J. Sanders is a man on a quest. In his travels all over the world, he searches out Mexican restaurants. A lifelong Texan, raised on Tex-Mex, he wants to try the enchiladas and other delicacies that pass for Mexican food in the far reaches of the world. He has been pleasantly surprised in Tokyo and Indonesia and left wondering in Rome and a few other places. Sometimes what the menu says and what you are served is not what is expected. But the joy is in the quest.
Russell’s also on a quest to spread a very important message: love is found in many forms in this world, and being gay or lesbian or bisexual or any other variation is normal, healthy, and wonderful. He wants his novels to bolster the confidence of gay teens and change the minds of or educate further all the others who may stumble upon his prose.
Russell’s writing joins his long career of acting, singing, and teaching, adding to his passions for cooking and reading. He has won awards for his acting and directing and has taught theater to hundreds of teens. He has also taught additional thousands of teenagers the art of writing and the love for literature. He is always in the middle of a good story, whether reading it or writing it. And he can whip up a delicious meal in minutes.
He does all this with the support of his husband, a man he has loved for over twenty years and married a few years ago. They live happily in Houston, Texas.
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