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In conversation with Stephen Henighan, author of “How I became a Muslim”

University Affairs web editor Tara Siebarth talked to Stephen Henighan, a professor of Spanish-American literature at the University of Guelph, about writing fiction, the inspiration behind his short story in this month’s issue, and the difference between academic and creative writing.


How I became a Muslim.

What was your inspiration for “How I became a Muslim”?

For me, inspiration for short stories can come from all sorts of weird moments – you never know when a story is going to creep up on you.

In this case, I happened to be in the University of Guelph library one day when I saw a young woman who was working at the checkout counter, dressed in relatively traditional Muslim clothing, and flirting outrageously with a male student. This struck me as interesting. Human impulses are always there, whatever the rules are supposed to be. And then a couple of days later I saw the same young woman in the cafeteria having lunch with the same guy. She became the inspiration for the secondary character of Khadia in “How I became a Muslim.”

From there, I began to think about rules and impulses. University life can be quite a frightening transition for people, perhaps especially for young women. And I wondered what would happen if a young woman tried to protect herself through self-imposed rules? That is how the protagonist, Janet, came into focus. I thought about how these two characters, Khadia and Janet, could play off of each other.

Is this the first time you have written in the female voice?

No, it isn’t. I also narrated in the female voice in my short story collection A Grave in the Air. I also have a whole novel, The Places Where Names Vanish, that’s narrated from the woman’s point of view, albeit in the third person. I don’t think men should write only about men or that women should write only about women. As long as you can find an imaginative point of sympathy with the character, then you can write from all sorts of points of view.

Obviously, I can’t write about all women. But I can’t write about all men either because I don’t understand all men. You have to let the imagination wander free. And it’s great if you suddenly find that you do have a way of expressing the dilemmas of someone of a different gender or a different race or culture. It’s a discovery of the world.

However, sometimes you start to write from a certain character’s point of view, and you realize, no, I don’t understand enough about this character to go on. You often get to that point when you reach a key scene. You realize you don’t know enough detail about the character’s life, and that prevents you from creating believable scenes. But there’s also a deeper problem, when you realize you aren’t getting their reactions right. By “right,” I don’t mean correct; I mean plausible, with the right mix of personal contradictions. That’s when you realize it’s not working. Possibly that’s more likely to happen if you are writing about a character from another culture, or of the opposite gender, because the challenge is greater, but it can happen with any character.

Describe the difference between academic and creative writing.

Creative writing is very different from academic writing. When working in fiction, I find a lot of dramatic tension is caused by contradictions in people’s personalities. In most academic writing you’re trying to find patterns or work out whether a certain theory applies to a certain case. So I suppose writing fiction is the ongoing outlet for my irrational side – which seems to be increasingly dominant as time goes on. However, I want to be clear: I don’t just grind out the academic stuff because I feel I am supposed to. I do it when I come across something I am interested in. I do academic writing to discover things, too.

Stephen Henighan is a Spanish-American literature professor at the University of Guelph, and the author of A Grave in the Air, The Streets of Winter and four other books of fiction. Read How I became a Muslim.

Tara Siebarth
Tara is the web editor for University Affairs.
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