I missed out on a lot of things in elementary school. My name was never the same as a character in one of our story time books. I never basked in the temporary fame that came in the form of a mass classmate stare-down as the teacher read my name aloud from a book. Santa Claus never brought me presents and the Easter Bunny never brought me chocolates.
I hung on to the Tooth Fairy for dear life, but she was the most minor of gift-givers amongst my age demographic, and therefore had little street cred. On Heritage Day in the 3rd grade, I was accused of making up the country of Pakistan by a bunch of mean 8-year-olds. I went home that day wishing everyone knew where Pakistan was (20/20 hindsight: be careful what you wish for).
As I became older, the things that didn’t fit turned into the question of identity, which followed me through my teenage years. Raised at home with very Pakistani sensibilities while navigating my very American life, I walked a razor thin line, a balancing act I became a little too adept at navigating. By day, I hung out with the Goth kids and the drama geeks. By night, I was the top-performing little bookworm, studying my way into my parents’ affections, making them proud with straight A’s and AP classes. I began to wear my individuality in both realms as the badge that set me apart, but the two identities rarely met.
Maybe that’s why I secretly thought I was a superhero.
Most people see science fiction, fantasy, and comic books for the external weirdness: the bizarre world of superheroes and supervillains, of magic and warlocks and fantastical creatures and powers that don’t exist. They see it as arrested development if you still indulge in these ‘cartoons’ as an adult. Yet if they probed a little deeper, the critics would see that sci fi/fantasy books, TV shows, and movies delve much more into character development than they appear to at first glance. Scratch the surface and you’ll find universal stories: isolation, alienation, curiosity, and yes, identity.
As with most things, reading became my foray into the genre. I picked up the “Lord of the Rings” series in the 6th grade and worked my way through the “Wrinkle in Time” and “Dragonriders of Pern” series by 9th grade. And for a brief time in between, my staple was comic books: short, sweet, and chock full of cliffhangers and questions of identity. Is Batman a lawless vigilante or a millionaire playboy? Will Superman’s rigid moral code and rigorously high standards ever allow for a vulnerability that allows him to relate to humans?
These characters were misfits with dueling identities, but beyond that I had little in common with these superheroes. So it was with a deep sense of satisfaction that I welcomed Marvel comics’ big news this week:the new Ms. Marvel will be a Pakistani Muslim girl from Jersey, penned by a female convert to Islam who recently won one of the most prestigious awards in the science fiction/fantasy industry. Suddenly, the genre that I most closely identified with as being close enough to me has introduced a character that is me.
The news has been making the rounds in my circles of Facebook and Twitter friends: the Muslim and the non-Muslim, the Desi and the non-Desi, the nerd and the non-nerd. As a teenager, this character would’ve meant the world to me, but there comfort in the knowledge that the young women who come after me – the elementary school kids during story time, the teenagers looking for kickass characters who sound like them, look like them, and have names like theirs – will find what they seek in Kamala Khan’s journey as Ms. Marvel.
Her identity issues will mirror their identity issues. To quote the New York Times: “’Her mom is paranoid that she’s going to touch a boy and get pregnant. Her father wants her to concentrate on her studies and become a doctor.’ Next to those challenges, fighting supervillains may be a respite.” Whoopi Goldberg once spoke about Nichelle Nichols – the actress who famously portrayed Lt. Uhura on the original Star Trek series – and how seeing her on the bridge of the Enterprise made her realize her own potential. “[At nine years old] I went screaming through the house, ‘Come here, mum, everybody, come quick, come quick, there’s a black lady on television and she ain’t no maid!’” Goldberg said. “I knew right then and there I could be anything I wanted to be.”
And what does this news mean to me? A grown woman who long-since ceased to ponder the angst-ridden question of identity? The answer came to me in the form of a message from the husband of one of my oldest friends. He is as quiet as she is effusive, and they complement each other in that rare and wonderful way some couples do, but he and I didn’t really connect until we got to talking about nerd pursuits over dinner this past summer. He messaged me a few days ago with a link Marvel’s announcement.
“I couldn’t help but think of you. Wonder what it might have meant to teenage you if this had happened years ago,” he wrote. “I was such a huge nerd, I could never hide it. But I did, at some point, feel ashamed of it. It’s corny, but the X-Men showed me that people are sometimes excluded because of what makes them awesome.”
With his words, it suddenly hit me: for years I’ve been seeking the answer to what parts of my identity define me, when in fact over the years, I have steadily defined and re-defined my identity for myself. I’ve embraced fear and eliminated insecurity, while understanding that some things are still a work in progress. I’ve gained confidence and wisdom as my superpowers. I may not have had a character made in my image during my formative years, but I’ve found my way here nonetheless.
Who am I? I’m the Pakistani-American Muslim girl from Jersey. And I’m a superhero too.
Zainab Chaudary works in politics by day and is a writer by night. Her blog, The Memorist, ruminates upon travel, religion, science, relationships, and the past, present, and future experiences that make up a life. She tweets at @TheMemorist. As “The Geekologist,” Zainab also writes a monthly column for the blog “Love, Inshallah.”