The Year 7 book club, Radical Readers, have interviewed author and secondary school teacher Muhammad Khan about his first novel “I Am Thunder”. The group, which is run by Year 10 Duke of Edinburgh students, read and discussed the book as part of their fortnightly meetings, then emailed the questions to Khan. You can read his responses below.
Muhammad Khan - “I Am Thunder” interview By Radical Readers (Varndean School Y7 book club)
Did you have a favourite character in I Am Thunder?
Muzna was the character I related to the most. Her character arc was inspirational to me: going from a shy person to a force of nature. I also really enjoyed writing Latifah, Khadijah and Malachy. I think they would make great friends!
Are the characters based on real people?
Having taught in several different high schools, I used that rich experience to inform the personalities of the cast for I am Thunder. I combined people I’d met to create fictional characters. I felt the subject matter was so serious, it needed to grounded it in reality. I wanted the characters to be relatable; people you could actually walk into a London comprehensive and find. So often when you create a character from scratch, you run the risk of exaggerating their traits or going completely the other way and making them dull and generic.
How much were characters in the book shaped by your own beliefs and personality?
I hope not at all. For me good writing is about observation without judgements; holding a mirror up to society. I wanted to showcase how diverse the Muslim community is, to create representation for all the various facets. I also wanted to make it quite clear that though we may belong to different sects and have different degrees of religious commitment, we can all agree that ISIS and terrorism have no place in Islam.
Arif is a complicated, multi-layered character - how do you feel about him?
He’s definitely a tragic character. Arif was basically a nice kid who ended up in a bad situation through a combination of bad luck, exploitation and abuse. He was interesting to write because some of what he said was actually true, while some of it was just rote learned propaganda from his older brother. The dynamic between Arif and Muzna was incredibly interesting to me because at first it seems like he’s the guy with all the answers who can protect her from the ills of the world, but in the end it’s Muzna who steps up and becomes Champion and Protector.
In the book, Arif seems to have been radicalised by Jameel. Do you have an idea of how Jameel might have become radicalised himself?
Yes. I think Jameel fell in with the wrong crowd at uni. After the loss of his parents, I think he was desperate to reassert some control over his life. The allure of becoming a puppet-master and to be seen as a revered holy figure must have appealed greatly to his ego.
Have you experienced anything similar to what Muzna experienced on the bus?
Members of my family have. Some of my students also divulged horror stories about using public transport. And there were harrowing videos uploaded to YouTube of Islamophobic attacks on innocent Muslim commuters who were just minding their own business. The videos in particular got me thinking about what it would be like to get on a bus and end up in a terrible situation where nobody seems to care enough to raise the alarm.
Was there a specific incident that inspired or motivated you to write I Am Thunder?
There were several. One of them was the devastating news about three school girls from Bethnal Green who were radicalised online and ended up going to Syria to join ISIS. There was my own experience at uni of almost being drawn in by charismatic individuals with nefarious agendas. And finally there was the frustration of myself and my students at the media’s reporting of terror attacks. I wanted to write a book that broke the false link between Islam and terrorism while also showing young people how to keep safe.
Do you have a favourite book?
One of my favourite books is Rice Without Rain by Minfong Ho. I also really enjoyed reading Orangeboy by Patrice Lawrence, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins and The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien.
As a Maths teacher, do you prefer Maths or Creative Writing? Words or numbers?!
Good question! I honestly love both as they appeal to different aspects of my personality. I really like helping young people see the beauty of maths and how it needn’t be feared. I also love the power of words. A good story can transport you to another world and make you see things differently.
Last time students from Varndean interviewed you, they asked what Hogwarts House your characters would be in. Which house would you be in?
You know, I once tried the Sorting Hat app and got allocated to Gryffindor. Personally I think I’m more of a Hufflepuff. My mum definitely is and I’m pretty sure I take after her!
Thank you for your brilliant questions! Really enjoyed answering them. 😊
Muhammad Khan’s new book, “Kick The Moon”, has just been released, and both it and “I Am Thunder” titles are available in the Reading Room, or from your favourite bookshops!