Kalima

Representation: bridging creative gaps, its importance and what it really means


by Annie McCann

As an unapologetic “geeknerdigan” who is the founder of a network of readers established in 2009, the co-founder of a network of Muslim writers in 2020, an avid reader, emcee and blogger, I have spent my fair share of time in the world of pop culture and books. Always in search of great reads yet often struggled to find content I could really connect with. For years, I browsed shelves and read books which took me on great adventures but sadly lacked representation. In fact, I was an adult before I first saw a hijabi in a TV commercial, saw Ramadan and Eid greetings in shopping malls, found dedicated Halal sections in a supermarket and encountered more diverse and inclusive stories.

If I can take you on my journey for just a moment…

Imagine you are of mixed heritage, proud to be born to an Indonesian mother and Australian father, blessed to have thebest of both worlds yet people around you only see you as one or the other, not both. Too white to be Indonesian yet you aremore Indonesian than those who reject you based on the colour of your skin. Add to that, your Islamic faith, something you hold so close to your heart but as a minority in the face oflimited information presented through biased media reporting, you are labelled something you are not. So, you start to question where do you truly belong? What is your purpose?

Yes, this was my truth. But the tide is slowly turning as the concept of diversity, inclusion and representation is now coming to the forefront like never before.

Accurate, authentic and positive representation in the content we consume in the western world from books, TV, film, graphic novels and pop culture has a profound impact, particularly on underrepresented communities where individuals, particularly the younger generation who are struggling with their own identity development and trying to find their place. 

In a world lacking representation or worse, misrepresentation, leads to the rise of negative perceptions, misconceptions and stereotypes often leaving individuals feeling isolated and invisible. Inclusion and accurate representation moves to breakdown the stereotypes, enable mutual respect and understanding as well as validating everyone for who they truly are. It changes the course of history, positively influences mindsets and creates a world where everybody feels safe and has a seat at the table.

It is as the old saying goes: You cannot be what you can’t see.

Representation goes beyond culture and faith. As a proud culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD), Muslim woman, I can only speak for myself and my own lived experiences but recognise everyone comes from all walks of life with their own lived experiences which should be equally reflected in content available to the world.

Representation is a very powerful thing.

For too many years, I woke up to news headlines reporting atrocities committed in the name of my faith by strangers from across the globe. With the barrage of negative media, lack of representation in content and the only representation we saw in movies were villains dressed in Abayas and Turbans with long beards, the unfortunate misconceptions about the Muslim community made sense – if you tell a lie long enough, people start to believe it. It took a lot of the Muslim community including myself to speak out to the point of exhaustion while being subject to Islamophobia due to ignorance and leading to hijabis like me questioning the safety of wearing hijab outside of the house.

The year was 2018 when I first discovered Muslim superheroine Ms Marvel: Kamala Khan existed on the printed comic page. It was 2022 when I first saw her come to life on TV. To this day, I wish I can meet G. Willow Wilson and give her a warm hug in thanks for bringing Kamala Khan to the world. Kamala Khan, a Pakistani-American Muslim teen is asuperheroine with body-morphing abilities. She goes to school, hangs out with friends, goes home to her family and holds Islam close to her heart all while becoming a superheroine by night. 

My emotion and excitement for her went beyond her being Muslim. It’s what she represents.

Ms Marvel: Kamala Khan was a pivotal moment, not just for me but I am sure for a lot of the Muslim community because for once, in western media, WE ARE THE GOOD GUYS! 

She may be only one character in an entire Marvel Universe, but it only takes one to make a difference and shape the future of storytelling. For the first time in my life, I found a character I can connect with, a character who smashes the myths, stereotypes and misconceptions around the world. We finally have a story centred around an intelligent, talented, caring and strong Muslim female from a traditional Muslim family whose power lies in her intelligence and caring nature.

As an avid reader, I spend a lot of my days reading fantasy fiction and have a love for stories derived from or inspired by cultural legends from around the world. When diverse and inclusive stories were on the rise, I still found my culture invisible on the bookshelves, particularly in fantasy fiction. The year was 2019 when I thought, why not me? After a futile search for fantasy books which captured the folklore, legends and mythology of Indonesia, I started to write my own stories.

My debut short story Twisted Elegance of the Deep Green Seaa retelling of the West Javanese, Indonesian legend of NyaiRoro Kidul is published in anthology This Fresh Hell. This was the first time West Java, Indonesia was ever represented in a fantasy story published in western media. My full-length Middle Grade (MG) novel: a fantasy, time travel, adventure story, featuring an Indonesian-Australian Hijabi that iscurrently in the works, pays homage to my ancestor Prabu Raja Siliwangi – a prominent king of Pajajaran (present day West Java), my culture and family, which will be a first for the MG space. 

As I see my stories getting published in western publications, I finally feel validated, included… seen. A feeling I am sure many others in underrepresented communities feel when they finally discover a book, show or movie featuring someone that represents them.

Writing an own voices story or taking a stand to help drive change is terrifying. You will question whether your creativity will be accepted by a wider audience. But, as the lyrics to one of my favourite songs by my all-time favourite entertainer: Michael Jackson, goes: 

“If you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and make a change.”

Change starts with you. 

The tide is turning but there is still work to be done. Don’t be afraid to be the first to write that story or produce that content that puts your community on the map. 

Be the change you want to see.

Representation Matters…

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About the author:

Annie McCann is an Indonesian-Australian Muslim, born and raised in the western suburbs of Sydney, NSW, Australia. An avid reader, book blogger, emcee and writer, Annie created a network of readers called Read3r’z Re-Vu in 2009, co-founded a network of Muslim writers called The Right Pen Collective in 2019 and is one of the Australia Reads Ambassadors endorsing wide reading for all ages. You will also find Annie emceeing celebrity and literary panels every year at conventions such as Supanova, Comic Con, Book Fair Australia and many more. Passionate about diversity, inclusivity and representation, Annie works tirelessly to lead by example in ‘bridging the gap’ through her networks, showcasing diversity in content, breaking down misconceptions and shining positivity to connect the wider community. Annie was one of the winners of the ‘Women Acknowledging Women’ Creative Arts Pioneer award in 2021. Her short story, ‘Twisted Elegance of the Deep Green Sea’ a West Javanese, Indonesian legend retelling can be found in ‘This Fresh Hell’ anthology. Annie is also in collaboration with US Publisher, Fictional Frontiers, which means we can expect more stories from Annie soon.

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