13 Things To Know About Prize-Winning Author Aaliyah Bilal: Author Of NOI Family Stories ‘Temple Folk’

13 Things To Know About Prize-Winning Author Aaliyah Bilal: Author Of NOI Family Stories ‘Temple Folk’


Photo via website

Aaliyah Bilal’s 2023 debut literary collection “Temple Folk” has captivated readers and critics alike. From its humble beginnings as a submission to Simon & Schuster without an agent, to it becoming a National Book Award finalist, Bilal’s work offers a moving exploration of the Black American Muslim experiences within the Nation of Islam.

Drawing inspiration from her own family history and upbringing, Bilal, 41, delves into the complexities of identity, faith, and community all the while weaving in the stories of other members.

Here are 13 things to know about prize-winning author Aaliyah Bilal.

1. No Agent, No Problem

Bilal didn’t have an agent or any publishing connections when she submitted six stories to Simon & Schuster in 2021, after her sister saw an announcement for an open call for submissions. Despite this, her work caught the attention of the publisher, leading to a book deal for her debut collection, “Temple Folk.”

Bilal sent in “a little manuscript” of 27,000 words. “That’s all I had,” Bilal told Vanity Fair. “That was worth sharing, I should say.”

2. Bilal: National Book Award Finalist

Published in July 2023, “Temple Folk” has already made waves in the literary world. Named a finalist for the National Book Award, Bilal’s collection has garnered widespread acclaim for its exploration of the NOI.

3. Family Inspiration

The inspiration for “Temple Folk” stems from Bilal’s own family history. Raised in a working-class Sunni Muslim family with grandparents who belonged to the Nation of Islam, Bilal draws on personal experiences and anecdotes to craft her poignant narratives.

In an interview with The New York Times, she recalled her grandfather once telling her that he hadn’t learned Arabic as a member, so couldn’t read the Quran at the time. She asked him why then had he joined the NOI.

“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 to The New York Times. “‘What would you have done?’ And it silenced me, because I didn’t know what I would have done.”

4. Bilal Opens A Window Into History

Through “Temple Folk,” Bilal offers readers a window into the tumultuous era of the 1970s, exploring themes of modesty, sexuality, abuse, family dynamics, and faith within the context of the Nation of Islam, according to Oberlin College.

5. Bilal Is A Self-Taught Writer

Bilal’s journey into writing began during a transformative period in Cairo, Egypt, where she immersed herself in her mother’s extensive library. Spending months reading voraciously laid the foundation for her writing education.

“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, Bilal told The New York Times.

6. Literary Influences

Influenced by literary giants like Toni Morrison, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Edward P. Jones, Bilal honed her craft by studying their works.

“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,” she said.

7. Exploring Complex Histories

Bilal’s decision to explore the Nation of Islam in her debut book reflects her complex relationship with her family’s history. While acknowledging some of the organization’s flaws, she also recognizes the courage and pride her grandparents exhibited in asserting their Black identity.

8. Navigating Complexities

Despite the NOI’s revered status, Bilal did not shy away from addressing its shortcomings.

“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,” she said to The Times. “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.”

9. Breaking Silences 

Through her stories, Bilal aims to allow others to understand the experiences of former Nation of Islam members.

10. Comprehensive

“Temple Folk” presents a comprehensive view of NOI experiences.

“However unpopular it is to say, the Nation of Islam has a lot of cachet in Black America,” she noted to The Times. “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.”

11. Rigorous Engagement

Bilal’s book examines both the positive and negative aspects of NOI history in a way that is reader-friendly. 

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,” she explains. “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.”

12. Who is Bilal?

She was born and raised in Prince George’s County, Maryland. Bilal earned a master’s degree at the University of London School of Oriental and African Studies. According to her website, her work has appeared in The Michigan Quarterly Review and The Rumpus. She also has a forthcoming graphic memoir, “Cloud Country: A Black Life in East Asia.”

13. A Reverence For Readers

Critics have said that Bilal approaches her writing with a deep reverence for her readers, striving to offer them a nuanced and thought-provoking experience. She seems to trust in the intelligence and discernment of her audience, allowing them to engage with her stories on their own terms.

Photo via website, https://www.aaliyahbilal.com/