Interview: G. Willow Wilson on Ms. Marvel and the Muslim-American Experience

Originally published November 14, 2016 on Comics Bulletin. Enjoy!

I conducted this interview a few weeks before the US elections took place. As a black Canadian Muslim woman, I’m fearful for the marginalized groups in America right now and what this means for the world. Many of my friends are scared, sad, angry, distressed and some are even hopeless. I wish this interview with G Willow Wilson – writer of the popular Marvel series Ms. Marvel – will distract you, reinvigorate you, console you or remind you that you are real. Your stories matter. You matter. You make a difference.

The idea of fighting is hard right now so take care of yourself mentally, emotionally and physically. Your existence is resistance.

Ms. Marvel #3 cover art by Jamie McKelvie and Matt Wilson.

After debuting with a roar in 2014, Ms. Marvel cultivated a fanbase before a single issue came out, and now the collections are fixtures in book stores. I wanted to talk about Islam because as a Muslim reader, I wanted to get to the heart of one Marvel’s biggest superheroes; a teenage Pakistani-American Muslim girl from Jersey City.

We started off talking about creating Kamala Khan…

Ardo Omer: I know you’ve talked a lot about the popularity of Kamala and what the moment was like after you said yes to writing the comic (the media buzz and fan excitement) but I wanted to know specifically about that moment after you were approached and said yes… that moment right after where you’re like, “Alright. I now have to sit down and create and craft this sixteen year old Pakistani-American Muslim girl from New Jersey who writes fanfiction. I need to create this person.”

G. Willow Wilson: Actually, none of that was set in stone. We wanted create a teenage American Muslim superheroine and for a while, I thought about making her a Somali-American and setting it in Seattle…

AO: Oh! Interesting…

GWW: …it’s kind of local to me and so it took a little bit to sort of land on Jersey City and that particular community and to make her background Pakistani. So it was completely up in the air at the beginning. There was just no… it was just the most abstract idea. It was really about going in and really creating a character from scratch. 

AO: Okay. I literally have two questions right now: 1) Somali Muslim is hilarious because I’m actually a Somali Muslim. Canadian-Somali specifically so that’s exciting… [laughs] Oh my god.

GWW: [Laughs] Almost…

AO: Almost Somali…

GWW: I guessed from your name because it’s more of a Somali name. Yeah. I just… I felt like… there were really a couple of reasons. I felt like we’re still in the middle, right now, of like first generation Somali narratives that are just coming out. We have Warsan Shire in the UK and a lot of other people and so I feel like it’s important right now to highlight those voices and not to kind of step on them by sort of superimposing fiction onto that narrative. Whereas with the Pakistani community in New Jersey, it’s been there for two and three generation in some cases and so there are a lot of diasporic literature that’s already out there and there’s a lot of sources to draw on. So I felt like coming in as an outsider to that community like, you know, there’d be less of a risk of me kind of superimposing this fictional character on voices we hadn’t heard from yet. Whereas with the Somali community, I feel like that body of literature is just now coming out and so I think it sort of behooves the rest of us to sit and listen rather than fictionalize it. That was kinda of my thought process.

Photo of G Willow Wilson by Amber French

AO: That’s so interesting. I’m so… [laughs] It’s like the start of the interview and I’m like, “I don’t have words. They’re gone.”

GWW: [Laughs] No. Don’t worry about it. 

AO: Oh my god. Oh. Wow. That’s really interesting and it’s interesting that you brought that up because it’s something I’ve noticed. It’s weird that I haven’t actually questioned Somali representation in media in terms of those actively creating but also characters being featured in it. It wasn’t something I thought about until just recently which says a lot but I guess from the original question: What were the quieter feelings after that initial yes and sitting down and doing the work?

GWW: I guess I just really felt that I had to get this character exactly right. That there was no margin for error because she was going to be under such close scrutiny and I think it was very important for me – and I know it was for Sana [Amanat] and Adrian [Alphona] as well – for the series to feel very authentic. 

[Note: Wilson mentioned the comic’s editor, Sana Amanat, and founding artist, Adrian Alphona, in the interview, but I also must add that Alphona’s art helps realize the vision of Kamala and her complex experience as a Muslim teen girl. It merits acknowledging the other artists who’ve maintained the vision of Kamala while adding their own spin as well as colourist Ian Herring and letterer Joe Caramagna who’ve been on the book since the beginning.]

I think there was sort of two camps in terms of expectations of what the series would be. One camp was like, “Oh, it’s gonna be token diversity. It’s just going to be a model minority book. People are going to forget about it after five issues.” So there was kind of that and then on the other side there was, “Oh, it’s going to be Islamic propaganda. It’s going to promote sharia law in the USA. It’s part of like the global conspiracy of Islamic jihad” or whatever. So you know there were those two extremes and what we wanted to do was something completely different. Something that felt very authentic and I think we would not have been able to get there if there were not two Muslim women involved. I think it could not have happened in the way it happened without Sana.

Ms. Marvel #5 cover art by David Lopez.

I’ve tried to do stories involving the experiences of Muslim women and Muslim American women before and typically if you got a non-Muslim editor, there’s this almost unconscious shifting of the narrative like, “Oh, don’t you think that, you know, the scarf really works this way?” or “Islam is really this thing.” It’s kind of under the guise of concern; this pushing of a certain narrative that I don’t even think they’re consciously aware that they’re doing. And that can really really cause the story you’re trying to tell to stumble and fall and hit the wrong notes because it’s being shaped by and you’re being pressured by someone with no direct experience of that community or of that faith. So I think the fact that Sana was there editing and knew exactly what the story is about and exactly where we could go with it and how to approach certain issues… that’s why this story feels the way that it does. It’s because there are two people involved who live in these communities and who’ve experienced not all but some of the issues that Kamala faces. So it was all about trying to hit that note and trying to make her representative of the experiences of real life Pakistani-American girls and that went into all of the little details that we sort of decided in that development process. 

I thought from the beginning that she should not wear the hijab. I mean she wears it in the mosque obviously and at certain cultural functions but I did not want to make her like a hijabi in her day-to-day life simply because the majority of teenage Pakistani-American girls do not wear a hijab. So even though I wear a hijab – I’ve worn the hijab for most of my adult life – I thought, “You know what? Let’s make this representative. Let’s not, again, do some sort of model minority book or make her sort of this perfect caricature of what we think a Muslim girl looks like. 

And stuff about her family. We didn’t want to shy away from conflict but at the same time we wanted to show love and affection. Just the basic day-to-day family scenes that we don’t see a lot of in depictions of American Muslim families. Where it’s not always politically charged stuff. There’s a diversity of thought and opinion. That not everybody in the same family believes or acts in the same way and that was very important. That was at the heart of shaping her civilian identity.

AO: It’s interesting that you mention Kamala not wearing the scarf because the problem with getting on the path to representation is that you’re going to have to create the one

GWW: Right

AO: …and until we have the many, the one is going to carry the burden of representation which means people are looking for the ideal. 

Fun fact: That first issue of Ms. Marvel… I read it and it didn’t sit well with me specifically because Kamala makes a joke about bacon. That “Mmm… infidel meat” moment and immediately in my head, I’m like, “A Muslim wouldn’t say that. That makes no sense. Why would we ever say, ‘oooh, pork smells amazing or bacon does.” It wasn’t until I read issue two and let some time pass that I realized what I wanted out of Kamala was an ideal. I wanted her to be the perfect Muslim so that… less for me because I myself am not the perfect Muslim. I don’t wear the hijab and I personally struggle with that in terms of what that means to me. So I’m definitely not the perfect muslim and it was weird to expect that from Kamala. Then I realized it [the ideal] wasn’t really for Kamala or even for myself but mostly for other people because Kamala was supposed to tell other people, “Look, this is what a muslim is. We’re not terrible.”

GWW: We’re not supposed to be flawed.

AO: Yeah.

GWW: There’s so much scrutiny on the community that it’s like you can’t put a foot wrong. You have to be the perfect American. The perfect Muslim. Never question anything. Do the right thing always and I see people breaking under that pressure because it’s not fair. Especially younger kids who’ve grown up in the post-9/11 world. It’s like they’re carrying the honour of the whole community on their shoulders. They always have to be upright and be the perfect Muslim. It’s something to me… we had to push against it somehow. We have to make it okay to be flawed. You shouldn’t have to be a perfect Muslim or a perfect American to feel safe. You should be allowed to be flawed. An important part of creating Kamala was to say… She’s not flawed in the sense of being morally flawed but flawed in terms of having things that you do well and having things that you do not so well. It’s a big issue and there is that burden of representation where you’re sort of… there’s this pressure to lose particularity of experience to get to some sort of universality that doesn’t actually exist.

From Ms. Marvel #19 (October 14 2015)

AO: Yeah and it shows up really well with Kamala’s parents. Kamala is… I like to think of her as the new Peter Parker in the sense that she is an outsider but she’s even an outsider within an outsider group. She’s a Muslim girl. She’s a woman of colour. She’s an outsider to other Americans but at the same time, she’s dealing with generational views on what it’s like to be a Muslim or culturally… because culture plays a role also like it’s not just pure islam. She’s the ultimate outsider right now. Ms. Marvel came out during a time of islamophobia that’s only gotten more intense in the last two years that Kamala has been around and part of islamophobia is this conflation of race and religion. When we talk about Muslims in the media as being bad people for the most part, it’s people who are brown and Muslim or sometimes just brown and people assume they’re Muslim. I wanted to talk to you about what it’s like writing Kamala who is someone occupying both spaces in terms of being a brown Muslim and your role in writing that. Do you see yourself with limitations because you are a Muslim and you’re a woman but you also have white privilege. I wondered what that was like. You did mention Sana and I assume she played a role in this as well.

GWW: Yeah. Absolutely. It’s something I tried to be conscious of because I tell people that I did not grow up as Kamala. I grew up as Zoe [a Ms. Marvel character]. If I had a clone character in the series, it’s her. I mean… I hope I wasn’t that much of an a-hole. [laughs] She’s kind of a caricature at the beginning and certainly, I was never that skinny. It’s that kind of thing where you… and I’m paraphrasing somebody who said this before more eloquently. I kind of grew up in an age where a lot of middle class white people assumed that racism is kind of over because none of us would ever say the N word but because of that, you kind of absolve yourself of the microaggressions. The comments that you sort of put out there under the guise of concern or trying to be friendly really passive aggressively. That’s part of the Zoe and Josh narrative at first. Although, they kind of begin to redeem themselves down the line. That privilege is something that I wanted to put in the series knowing that it was going to piss people off to see themselves caricatured in that way as kind of like the mean girl but it’s something that I think is important especially because of my own background. To it put out there and to acknowledge it because I think it’s too easy to absolve ourselves of that stuff. It’s too easy to think because you think racism is bad that you’re immune to it somehow. That’s something that we really didn’t want to shy away from at all in this series. 

It’s funny when Sana and I conversations about this. I’m always just a little bit hesitant to push the envelope with regard to Kamala’s family life. I never wanted to show her dad getting angry ever. I was like, “No! Don’t! People will take it the wrong way” and she’s like, “Nope, nope. We’re going to show this stuff.” When it came to characters like Josh or Zoe, I wanted to go over the top and say those really cruel passive aggressive microaggression type things that kids legitimately say in high school and in those kind of situations, she’s like, “Maybe we should tone it down” and “I’m like, “NO.” We all have those places we’re kind of afraid to go. I think it’s nice especially on a book like this where you have people of such varied backgrounds working on it. That we’re all able to sort of collaborate in that way and really push those limits because you have those different perspectives in there.

AO: Yeah. Watching Kamala’s dad get mad, I’m like, “Yup. That’s my dad.” [laughs] When you mention Zoe and Josh… I recently caught up on the latest issues of Ms. Marvel and it was great to see characters like Zoe and Josh grow because people misunderstand when we complain about microaggressions and racism. They misinterpret it as we never want them to be better or that we always want them to be the villain and it’s the opposite. I was so happy to see that Zoe was growing and acknowledging that there are things she needs to learn. Seeing that is just as important as seeing a Kamala, I find. 

GWW: I’m glad you think so. I think people respond better to those kinds of criticisms if they feel like they have some sort of route to change.

AO: Yes.

GWW: Some sort of way that they can get better so that they don’t shut down and say. “Well, I won’t even try if everything I do is bad then. I’m not even going to try.” Often times it’s just about overcoming that impulse to shut down. It’s about overcoming that need to become defensive and really listen and saying, “You know what? There’s stuff I don’t know, there’s stuff I screwed up on and I’m going to try to be better. Maybe I don’t even know the extent that’s going to take or the shape that’s going to take but I’m going to try.” It’s nice in a comic format when you have so many giant cosmic things going on and the world is ending every five minutes. It’s easy to build those things in because there’s a lot of turning points where a character can really take stock of themselves and say, “You know what? Maybe I don’t want to be the awful mean girl anymore. Maybe I want to do something else. Maybe I want to try to repair these relationships that I’ve destroyed by being insensitive.” I think it is important to have some kind of outlet for those characters to grow in some way.

From Ms. Marvel #4 (February 10 2016)

AO: What makes Ms. Marvel such a great comic is what you were talking about in terms of the cosmic level events because Ms. Marvel doesn’t live in a bubble. The book does have to interact with the rest of the Marvel universe but it’s done so in a way where regardless of how big the event is… when you read Ms. Marvel, you don’t feel confused if you haven’t read anything else but there’s also weight to it. An opportunity is being taken and it pushes Kamala and her supporting cast further. 

On top of that, you have her culture as the most interesting thing about her. It’s the religious aspect. It’s the Pakistani cultural elements to it. It’s what makes her – as a superhero – engaging. There’s a piece at Women Write About Comics that talks about Ms. Marvel being taught at a school and the students found the cultural elements more interesting than regular superhero stories. I thought that was so fascinating. 

GWW: Interesting.

AO: Yeah and I completely agree with them. I think there have been two distinct times where I literally teared up or my heart swelled up. The second issue where she mentions that ayah – whoever kills one person, it’s as if he killed all of mankind and whoever saves one person, it’s as if he saved all of mankind – and that’s something I grew up hearing. The other moment was when the imam talks to Kamala about needing to embody the qualities of an upright woman and rather than the stereotypical listing of attributes, he lists off things like courage, strength and self-respect and that really hit me in the feels. 

With Ms. Marvel as a superhero and a Muslim, I wonder if you find yourself negotiating with religion like with particular story elements. Do you go, “Man if I write about this magical mischievous Loki… well, should I?” Because some people could be like, “Ugh, magic”. Magic has this place in Islam… it’s kind of frowned upon. As a Muslim woman who is also a writer, I’ve wondered about that.

GWW: It’s an interesting balancing act and sometimes I’ll get these snarky questions on Twitter like, “How could you be a Muslim writer and write about… in the marvel universe, there are gods…” and I’m like… number one, even within the Marvel universe, the Asgardians don’t consider themselves as actual gods. That’s one. Number two, in Islam, anything with a body that can be killed is by definition not god. I feel like comics are, in many ways, in the vein a lot of classical Islamic fantasies like the Alif Laila [aka The Arabian Nights or One Thousand and One Nights], The Conference of the Birds and a lot of that older stuff where there is sorcery in the world and genies and communing with the unseen. It’s frowned upon but it’s there and it’s also part of something larger. 

It’s always several steps removed from the totality in front of the majesty of Allah so that’s like an interesting thing to kind of play around with. I do write very inspired by those earlier sources in which there’s this kind of, at a surface level, something very syncretic. This was at a time when these big Islamic empires contained like every single religion that there was and ever had been. So only these different people of different faiths are kind of interacting with each other but overarching that is this is a sort of larger mythos especially in the case of the One Thousand and One Nights. I feel like that’s a tradition that has fallen to the wayside in the past century or two in many Islamic traditions but it’s cool because there is so much there and so much to draw on. I feel like as a Muslim writer there are some stories that I would not do but it mostly has to do with the portrayal of the character and the ethical foundation of the series itself. I’m not sure I would do a sexploitation type of a series or a series in which problems would be regularly solved with violence or something like that. I think more about those things and less about, “Does this match up precisely with my own worldview?”

From Ms. Marvel #2 (March 19 2014)

AO: I think questions like these are great as hopefully more and more Muslims emerge… not just Muslims on the page but also Muslims behind the scenes as creators. One of the things that makes Kamala interesting as a character and with the fanbase that she has is… I think I’ve seen someone ask you about incorporating Ramadan into a Ms. Marvel story and I wondered if there have been other similar ideas that you’re going to bring into the mix in the next little bit. I had a friend who said that it’d be interesting to see Kamala go on a few weeks long space mission that happens to line up with Ramadan and how does she deal with that…

GWW: …Yeah like what times do you fast? Do you follow Mecca like they do in Finland or wherever? [laughs]

AO: Exactly. It’s wonderful that a series like this gets people to think up these types of situations. Is there similar situations that you’ve been like, “I can’t wait to explore that in the next few issues.”

GWW: For sure. The Ramadan storyline has been percolating for awhile and at first, I wanted to do one that actually synced up with actual Ramadan which is in June now obviously but just sort of by coincidence, we’ve gone from one giant event in the Marvel universe in the form of Secret Wars to another giant event in the Marvel universe in the form of Civil War 2. So there hasn’t been the kind of empty space between events that would be ideal for a storyline like that but I’m hoping now that those two things are over, we can do more stuff like that because I think that is definitely interesting. It’s another point where one has to ask the question: do we show the idealized experience where it’s like, “Oh, you know, when I’m fasting I feel great. I’m never tired. Everything is fantastic.”

AO: I’d love to meet those people who feel that way.

GWW: They’re not the ones who have to spend three and a half hours cooking iftar. 

AO: Oh yes.

GWW: Or do we show the more nuanced thing of, “Wow. This is an amazing spiritual experience and yet, at the same time, I’m kind of battling my lower instincts of being tired, of being grouchy, and of wanting the day to be over so I can eat and drink again.” That’s kind of another one of those points where you have to decide what route do you take and how do you find that balance between the idealized “nothing is ever wrong and everything is fine” and doing something that’s more reflective of people’s own experiences which are both wonderful and very human and flawed in their own way.

Original Interview on Comics Bulletin