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Butterfly Mosque author G. Willow Wilson discusses identity, comics, and Islam at UPenn

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Willow Wilson“When you turn on the news in America, and you hear any kind of human interest story about Muslims, it’s almost always something that’s gone wrong,” author G. Willow Wilson said to an engaged crowd during a panel discussion at UPenn. “If you were to go solely on what you know from Western media, you think everybody gets up each day and thinks ‘Oh my God, I’m in danger of having my hands or my genitalia cut off, simply for existing.’ And that’s not the way it is.”

Ms. Wilson is a writer and essayist with an impressive list of published work, having written for the New York Times Magazine and the Atlantic Monthly, and was the first Western journalism to interview the current Grand Mufti of Egypt, after his appointment in 2003. It might surprise you to know she’s also written the graphic novel Cairo and the series AIR, both published by DC Comics. The common thread in those disparate pursuits is Ms. Wilson’s faith, and her position as a vocal Western convert to Islam; this made her an ideal choice for “The Post 9/11 Conversation Americans Need To Have,” hosted by both UPenn’s Muslim Student’s Association and the Middle East Center. Recently, she has chronicled her experiences in the book The Butterfly Mosque.

The book, a well-written and vivid account of her life from university days in America to her early struggles living in Egypt, put emphasis on the role that Islam slowly began to play in her life – and the conflicts she wanted to address. “I have to say, when I started writing Butterfly Mosque, which is a memoir – I hate using that word, it makes me feel old when I’m not even 30 – I was hoping it’d be irrelevant by the time it was published,” she said, speaking of her younger self’s hope for increased tolerance in America.

The panel itself was steeped with discussions of modern religious identity, the inner conflicts of second and third-generation Muslims raised in America, the mixed blessings of atheist figures like Richard Dawkins, recent Muslim comics phenomenon “The 99,” Muslim “geeks,” and Ms. Wilson’s beliefs on the misrepresentation of Muslims in the public eye.

Her hope is to have genuine people talking in an accessible manner, rather than “academics talking about postmodernism, postcolonialism, and so on. The majority of Americans are suspicious of that kind of academic language, they don’t understand it, and it doesn’t speak to their experience,” she said. In this case, she feels that pop culture – even something as simple as a comic book - can go a long way towards bridging the gaps. It may not be enough by itself, but when it brings more people to the discussion and helps to expands cultural awareness, that alone is a success.

A video of Ms. Wilson from the event, reading the prologue to The Butterfly Mosque, can be found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=waUvZ_MwA0E. All of her books can be purchased easily through Amazon.com, or local retailers.

Contact Brian Lynch at blynch@philly2philly.com