Fawziyyah Emiabata introduces prolific Islamic fiction writer Jamilah Kolocotronis.
JLK: I was born in St. Louis, Missouri and grew up in a neighbourhood outside of the city. I’m the oldest of four girls. Three of us were born within five years, and the fourth came along when I was nearly twenty-two. My parents were fairly strict, especially when it came to proper behaviour and having good manners. They also helped each of us develop our talents and pursue our interests. I attended a Christian school up until eighth grade and then went to a public high school.
FE: Were you born a Muslim?
JLK: No. My mother’s family was Lutheran and my father’s family was Greek Orthodox. They decided to raise us as Lutherans.
FE: How did you become a Muslim?
JLK: I could write pages to answer this, and have in the past. But I’ll try to keep it simple. My first exposure to Islam was through a new international student, a Muslim from Thailand. He had good manners, and often mentioned God, and I thought it was a shame that he would go to Hell just because he wasn’t a Christian, so I set out to convert him. I did tell him about Christianity, and took him to church, but he used every opportunity to tell me about Islam. After a few years I decided to read the Qur’an so I could show him the mistakes in his holy book. But I didn’t find any mistakes. That experience, and a few other things, prompted me to search all religions extensively, looking for a place where I might belong. The final thing that kept me from becoming a Muslim was the need to make wudhu before we pray, but that explanation came to me suddenly one night during Ramadhan. I made shahadah a few hours later (and a year later, I married that Muslim from Thailand.)
FE: What is your day like as a writer?
JLK: This is a difficult question because my schedule changes depending on my family’s activities and, especially, my health. On a good day, I write a bit, especially in the afternoon and evening, and go out a little – to the library or the store. But if I’m sick, I can do little more than surf the internet and watch TV. I read at night, before going to bed. Overall, I have more energy, both physical and mental, in the latter part of the day.
FE: What other things would you like people to know about you?
JLK: I have a condition called Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS). This causes me to be very sensitive to my environment and to become sick from any chemically-related exposures. Because of MCS, I can’t go to the masjid or attend any gathering of Muslims due to the fragrances many wear. There are also some stores I can’t enter, and sometimes I get sick even after going to the library. On bad days, MCS nearly “paralyses” me – not literally but to the point that I can’t think clearly or do much of anything. Those are the days I spend the most time on the internet.
FE: What book(s) are you currently reading?
JLK: Right now I’m reading a light novel called ‘The Castaways.’ I have more serious reading lined up for later, and I’m especially looking forward to reading ‘Quiet’ by Susan Cain. This book discusses introversion and illustrates how introverts have often made great contributions. I’m an introvert and so are three of my six sons.
FE: Which book/personality has influenced your life most?
JLK: Of course, the Qur’an has changed and influenced my life the most. Beyond that, it’s hard to pinpoint one particular book or author, though Nikos Kazantzakis has been a favourite of mine since I was a teenager.
FE: Do you have a favourite author?
JLK: There are a few, including Nikos Kazantzakis, of course. Others are Jodi Picoult and Orhan Pamuk.
FE: How and when did you start writing?
JLK: I wrote quite a bit when I was in high school but never had anything published. College and my earlier adult years kept me busy with term papers, marriage, children, and teaching. I wanted to write a novel but never had the time and energy to tackle such a project. Then in September 2001, we all watched in horror as the World Trade Center came down. I was a teacher then, at an Islamic school, and the school had to close for the week because of bomb threats. In the days following the attacks, as I watched the continuing news coverage, it occurred to me that “life is too short.” I wanted to be a novelist, so I should be a novelist. That following May I quit teaching, and when my sons went back to school in the fall I sat down to write my first novel.
FE: What was the first book you wrote and what inspired you to write it?
JLK: My first novel, entitled ‘Innocent People’, is about an American Muslim family and how their lives changed in the year after 9/11. I had to write this book first. There was quite a bit of anger against Muslims here, and I wanted to show that Muslims are just normal people, trying to raise their families and get through life. I also wanted to give hope to other Muslims living in this country.
FE: Are your stories really true or are they all fiction?
JLK: ‘Innocent People’ contains some true incidents and some that were fictional. The rest of my books are all fiction, but are based on truth. These are not events that happened to me or even to someone I know, but I do know that they’ve happened. I want to show the Islamic way of dealing with challenges we encounter in life.
FE: Which has been the most challenging of your books to date, and what is the hardest part of writing your book?
JLK: The hardest book for me to write was ‘Silence,’ the last in the Echoes Series. One of my sons, who often served as an advisor, told me I should kill off one of the main characters. I tried to do that, but it never worked. After many attempts, I was able to see what did work and go with that.
The hardest part of writing any book is producing a satisfying ending. I don’t like sad endings, but I also don’t like endings that feel artificial or forced. I spend more time contemplating, writing, and rewriting the ending to make it work just right.
FE: In which other genre do you dabble in your free time, and what projects are you working on at the moment?
JLK: I would like to write suspense, and I have started a project, but right now I don’t think I’m quite ready. My main focus remains on families. I do have a new book in the works. I’ve finished the rough draft and have started working on the revisions.
FE: Can you share a little of your current project/book with us?
JLK: My current work-in-progress has the working title, ’Mary.’ That won’t be the final title though. Naming a book is sometimes one of the last things I do. I won’t say much about this book. The main character is a 60-year old woman who lives with her husband in a small town in Missouri. They have two daughters – the oldest is married and has two children, and the youngest is still single. Early in the book, the woman, Mary, faces a special challenge and when her daughters return home to help, they learn things about their mother they never expected.
FE: Is there a message in your books that you want readers to grasp?
JLK: The most important message in all of my books is that Muslims are people with the same joys and difficulties as everyone else. I think this is an important lesson for Muslims and non-Muslims. I also write characters that are flawed in some way. Even if a person has made serious mistakes, it’s possible for him or her to repent and come back into the Ummah.
Thanks very much to Sister Jamilah for her time. The Echo Series is available through many retailers, such as Amazon and Islamic bookstores. To find out where to purchase Kolocotronis’s books and follow her current works, visit her website www.jamilahkolocotronis.net
First published in SISTERS magazine January 2013 Issue