Wajahat Ali is a journalist and blogger who helped launch Al Jazeera America, as well as an award-winning playwright who wrote the play "The Domestic Crusaders" immediately after 9/11. He spoke at the Global Engagement Fair at the University of Wisconsin-Madison the week after Donald Trump won the presidential election. I interviewed him afterward about his youth, how he became a writer, and the election.
Q: Tell me about your background.
Wajahat Ali: I grew up in California, the son of Pakistani immigrants. My father came here after the 1965 loosening of the visa restrictions. I was born in 1980, the only child, which is very rare in South Asian families. Preschool is the first time most people of color realize that they are the outsider or the other. For me, it was "How come no one else is brown, how come no one else is eating with their hands, and how come no one else has lentil stains on their shirt?"
You could make a decision at that point. Many people try to assimilate; they give up the idiosyncratic multi-hyphenated part of their identity. Other people wear many different hats: I'll be Pakistani for my Pakistani audience, Muslim in the mosque, and as American as possible for my American friends, just to fit in.
But I think I just give off this vibe, no matter how hard I try--I couldn't give up my Muslim-ness and my Pakistani-ness and my American-ness, for lack of a better explanation. So the decision I made, unconsciously, which has actually propelled my career, was not trying to be something I'm not. Often times, I was the only brown kid in school, and often times people's only Muslim reference, for years. I was forced to engage those folks who had never seen a person like me or encountered my type of American.
I remember in sixth grade when we were learning world history. I was so excited because for the first time I saw that thick textbook, I saw Islamic history, and I went, "This is amazing! We're actually in the books! We're protagonists in the story!" And then my teacher told me, "Yeah, we skip over all of that. We just focus on Roman mythology, Greek history, the enlightenment, Europe and North America."
I was excised from the story.
Q: Your writing was stepping outside the tradition for you. It wasn't what a Pakistani immigrant family's son would normally go into.
Ali: I always joke that there's a hierarchy, a trinity of occupations, for many immigrant kids. The highest station belongs to doctor. If you're a doctor, you're...