The Taqwacores is a novel that was photocopied, sold from the trunk of a car, and passed around in the DIY tradition of punk zines for at least five years before seeing formal publication from Soft Skull Press this past winter. It’s centered on Muslim punk youth culture in Buffalo, NY, and when readers came looking for the scene, ready to dive in like so many teenagers and so many music-based subcultures that have come before, they found it existed only in the mind of author Michael Muhammad Knight. So they began to form their own Islamic punk bands and the taqwacore movement moved from page to life. But Knight is far more than a flash in the scarred pan of scene-making — Soft Skull has released two more books, an exploration of Islam in America and his coming-of-age memoir, and another novel featuring Taqwacore characters, Osama Van Halen , will be out this summer.
His memoir, Impossible Man, is the hub around which his other books, and his status as a leading nontraditional scholar of Islam, all turn. The Impossible Man of the title is at once Knight himself, his mother performing the roles of both parents, and a comic character created by his paranoid schizophrenic father. He describes the slow series of revelations about that absent father that came throughout his childhood, and how these informed the search for identity and belonging we all undertake as adolescents.
This is the book’s strength — though most of us have never lived through the violent histrionics of an unmedicated paranoid schizophrenic, at least three legal name changes, or converting from our parents’ religion to Islam before we had our driver’s license, we have all embarked on that search for self and felt the same yearning to influence the world around us. Knight’s straightforward tone, and his mother’s patient observations about his development, make his story entirely sympathetic.
The zeal with which he approaches his conversion is present also in his relationship to elements of pop culture that will be familiar to readers born in the late ’70s and early ’80s — WWF, Public Enemy, Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, and later, punk rock, of both the straight-edge and working class drunk varieties. Rather than dramatizing the uniqueness of his experiences, Knight makes them accessible to all of us. This is as much a memoir of a childhood that many of us share, beginning with Hulk Hogan and ending with a professor, at a loss for any other meaningful activity, continuing class as the Twin Towers fall, as it is a portrait of non-violent American Islam.
Opium Magazine‘s Literary Death Match seems like the perfect venue for the Impossible Man, who was kicked out of one college for instigating bloody backyard wrestling matches on campus; tonight at Pianos on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Michael Mohammad Knight faces off against Emmy Award-winning TV writer Alan Zweibel, and novelists Rivka Galchen and Josh Weil. They’ll be judged on high by Ben Greenberg of Grand Central Publishing, Chris March of Project Runway, and comedienne Chelsea Peretti.
Doors at 7 p.m., smackdown at 8 p.m.! Hollah @flavorpill if you’re there.