Aaliyah Bilal didn’t have an agent or any publishing connections to speak of when she sent six stories to Simon & Schuster in 2021, after an open call for submissions. The publisher, impressed, offered her a book deal, and those stories became part of “Temple Folk,” her debut collection, which follows Black American Muslims who were members of the Nation of Islam around the 1970s.
Published in July, “Temple Folk” was named a finalist last week for a National Book Award.
Bilal, 41, grew up in a working-class Sunni family just outside Washington, D.C., and her grandparents had belonged to the Nation of Islam, a Black nationalist group. Her grandfather once told her that he hadn’t learned Arabic as a member, so couldn’t read the Quran at the time. So why, she asked, had he bothered to join?
“His face got really hard, and he said, ‘Don’t you know that white people were killing us and lynching us and calling us the N-word in those days?” she recalled. “‘What would you have done?’ And it silenced me, because I didn’t know what I would have done.”
“Temple Folk,” which grapples with that era of the Nation of Islam, is her answer. Its 10 stories touch on modesty and sexuality, abuse and family, responsibility and faith.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you find your way to writing?
My mother lives in Cairo and she has amazing taste in books, so she has this ample library. I spent a couple of months there in 2007 reading incessantly, and that was where my writing education began. I spent three years really teaching myself to read like a writer. Then around 2010 I felt confident enough to start trying to write.
Did any works in particular make an impression on you at the time?
Some of the books that I read multiple times that were very important to me were “The Bluest Eye,” by Toni Morrison, “Maud Martha,” by Gwendolyn Brooks, and “Lost in the City,” by Edward P. Jones. But especially Edward P. Jones, because every page in his work, to my sensibility, was perfect. I really felt like I’d met my teacher when I read that book.
I feel like this is good advice for any writer: If you spend enough time with a story, it will reveal all of the secrets of its construction.
Why were you drawn to explore the Nation of Islam in your first book?
This is part of my family history. I think the thing that disturbs some people is the idea that I can be of such a mixed mind about it, because I don’t like racialized thinking, and at the same time I understand, in its historical context, how inevitable it was that a movement like this would emerge. I have some pride, frankly, associated with the fact that my grandparents were brave enough to assert, in an environment where they were taught to hate themselves for being Black, that they should take pride in being Black. So I have pride attached to this personal history and I also have a lot of critique around the things the nation said and did.
How did you channel your “mixed mind” into the tone of the stories?
However unpopular it is to say, the Nation of Islam has a lot of cachet in Black America. Even among people who are not members, the organization is perceived as powerful and strong and righteous. So if you put somebody in the position of having to talk about it in Black spaces, there’s a lot of pressure to say glowing things. I feel like my family members clam up. Nobody felt like they had the freedom to actually talk about the abuses they endured without being made fun of or yelled at or put down in the Black community. I was like: No. I’m a writer — there’s some deep indignation that I have about any kind of self-imposed silencing.
What did you hope to accomplish with these stories?
Everything of note that has ever been written about African American Muslims has been academic or some kind of journalistic nonfiction. So the whole conceptualization of the world needed to be epic in a way, but it also needed to be comprehensive. I felt that if I were to divide this world into various stories, it would be like visiting different rooms in the same house — you’d get a survey of the world.
The book is very rigorous in engaging with the good and the bad. The book pulls no punches when it comes to pointing out the questionable things that have happened, that continue to happen in these spaces. But it’s also lovely and loving, and these are people — they’re just human beings.”
How are you responding to the positive critical reception?
I don’t really have a sense of how this world works because I have no contact with the literary world outside my editor and my agent. I don’t have writer friends. It’s me and my page, my editor and my agent. That’s it. I don’t know what this reception means because I’m very new to this world. I’m very, very grateful, but I’m waiting to see what it means.