You Can’t Tell by Looking by Russell J. Sanders
Harmony Ink Press
Cover Artist: Aaron Anderson
Scattered Thoughts and Rogue Words is happy to host Russell J. Sanders here today on tour for his latest story, You Can’t Tell by Looking. Welcome, Russell.
One World by
When I taught high school literature, one of my objectives was to explain what a tragic hero was. For those who may have slept through my lesson, a tragic hero is one who is basically good but through a character flaw is brought down. Think Macbeth, for Shakespeare’s play of the same name is the one where this lesson came. Anyway, my students were tasked with writing an essay about some well-known figure they thought was a tragic hero. This was back in the 90s, long before Saddam Hussein was deposed. But we knew he was a ruthless dictator. I had one young woman, a bright and sunny personality, who chose Hussein as her example. I questioned her choice, but she explained that to her people—she was an Iraqi immigrant—Saddam was a beloved leader until his quest for power got the best of him. I was not sure that was the case, but it was evident she understood the assignment and what a tragic hero was.
And why am I relating this tale now? Lemme ‘splain, as Ricky Ricardo said to Lucy. I prided myself on loving and accepting all my students no matter what their backgrounds were. My job and my desire was to make each and every one of them feel like they mattered, like they had worth. I was supporting my gay students long before being gay was anywhere near acceptable in our school, and in actuality, before I felt comfortable and safe in coming out to them.
I look back, firmly confident I was a good teacher, and yet something was missing. I’d spent a lifetime studying religions, but I’d confined myself to the Judeo/Christian traditions. I could tell you all about the various Protestant sects. I could explain a lot of Catholic practices. And I was quite versed in Judaism. But I knew nothing about Islam. That was as foreign to me as was Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, or any other ism that wasn’t mainstream America. I knew I taught Muslim students, and I was proud that I treated them no different than any others, but I am ashamed to admit that I knew so little of their customs, beliefs, and traditions.
Then the world changed. I found myself surrounded by adults I had thought were sane and rational spouting hatred for Muslims. Wanting to annihilate them before they “got us.” Wanting to exclude them from our country before they could take over. None of this fit my worldview, no matter how narrow it was in regards to Islam.
So I started reading. I started watching documentaries and movies about Muslims. I had to fill myself with as much knowledge about this “exotic” religion as I could. And I found it’s not so strange after all. It’s tenets echo those of every faith. It is, in fact, an Abrahamic religion. What’s that, you say? Abrahamic religions are rooted in Abraham in the Bible. Yep, the Jewish and Christian religions are Abrahamic religions.
Like with every time I fill myself with knowledge, I have a desire to write about it. I explored polygamist cults, and from that was born my novel The Book of Ethan. I became interested in the heinous act of child sexual abuse, and thus Colors was born. My love for Chicago and my desire to examine whether the rich are really different led to Thirteen Therapists. My own teen years and my fascination with the 1960s era birthed All You Need Is Love. A trip to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and a visit to the Titanic Museum there was the basis of Titanic Summer. Special Effect grew out of the lifetime I’ve spent in the theater. It seems whatever I become obsessed with makes itself into my writing.
And so it was with all these things I learned about Islam. I wanted to know if a Muslim teen could be gay and his family be okay with it. I wanted to know if he himself could be okay with it. I wanted to know what would happen if someone in his family was not okay with it. And mostly, I wanted to know what would happen if an outsider, a Protestant boy, fell in love with this Muslim teen.
All that became You Can’t Tell by Looking. I don’t pretend to know everything about Islam. I’ll leave that to the scholars and the practitioners of Islam. There are some who might say it is presumptuous of me to even take on the topic. But my novels reflect the real world, and in this society, we encounter followers of every religion. We may not know we are interacting, but we are. And why is it that we may not know? Because you can’t tell by looking.
Yes, a woman who chooses to wear a hijab or a burka instantly labels herself as Muslim. Other than that, we don’t know if the guy at the checkout counter is Muslim, Catholic, or a Jehovah’s Witness. We make assumptions, and often those assumptions can be wrong. It is only when we get to know the persons we come into contact with that we know their backgrounds and belief systems.
That not knowing and those wrong assumptions are the barriers we live with. The barriers that keep us from being one world. The barriers that create the fear that is insidious. We’ve heard so many times, I’m not racist because my neighbor is African-American, and he is a lovely person. We hear people decry they are not homophobic because one of their friends is gay. Familiarity is a great leveler. But knowing one black man, one gay man doesn’t necessarily mean you are free from prejudice. As loving as I think I am, I, from time to time, feel my own long-repressed, deep-seated prejudice rearing its ugly head.
So many people, terrified of the bombings that have plagued the world, those strikes by crazed Islamic fundamentalists, want to put every Muslim into the same basket. But none of us neatly fits into a basket. We all have our quirks and peccadilloes that set us apart. And yet, the members of the human race are basically good. I truly believe that.
With You Can’t Tell by Looking, I set out to tell a tale where living near Muslims is right and normal, where a Muslim can be gay and unafraid, where we learn from our mistakes, and rejoice that we can embrace each other. That is what You Can’t Tell by Looking is all about. It is not about being Muslim or Protestant; it is about loving each other the way we are.
More about You Can’t Tell by Looking
Gabe Dillon’s life changes when he gazes across his new school’s commons and spies handsome Kerem Uzun, and he wants to know more. Kerem is senior class president. He is mostly very well liked. He comes from a family of doctors, is of Turkish heritage, and he is Muslim.
At first Gabe doesn’t understand the ritual he sees Kerem performing. But as the boys bond, Gabe is eager to learn about Islam. He’s falling in love with a boy who may or may not be gay, a boy whose religion may condemn Gabe’s open homosexuality.
Complicating the budding relationship is Timur, Kerem’s cousin, who has grown up alongside Kerem as his brother. A family tragedy left Timur homeless, and Kerem’s parents took him in. But as Kerem grows into his own way of looking at life and how it fits into his devout practice of his faith, Timur is becoming more fundamental in his practice of Islam. And he isn’t the only one opposed to the friendship between Kerem and Gabe. Can they forge a lasting relationship amid so many challenges?
“That is the most gorgeous creature I’ve ever laid eyes on!”
Did I say that out loud? Or did I just think it? Whatever. I’m standing here, at the end of the first day at my new school, gazing across the commons at a guy who is mesmerizing. His slender stature—straight and tall like a soldier and muscled like one as well—says he has the confidence of a lion. His jaw is square, his closely cropped black curls shine, and even this far from him, I see eyes as black as midnight that sparkle as he laughs with his friends. I can’t look away from him.
“So how was your first day?” I hear my cousin’s voice, and I want to respond, but I am entranced by this magnificent specimen across the way. “Gabe?” Shaun is almost shouting in my ear, but I continue to ignore him. “Earth to Gabriel, Earth to Gabriel.” Shaun’s call pounds into me, but it doesn’t break my concentration.
Not taking my eyes off the god I’ve just discovered, I say, “What, Shaun?” trying to keep the annoyance out of my voice.
“What’s up, Gabe? I’m trying to get an update on your first day here, and you’re blowing me off.”
Shaun is right, and to be fair, I shouldn’t be doing this. But my eyes don’t want to leave this vision. They’re glued to the guy.
“Oh, I see, you’ve discovered our resident towelhead.” His use of that disgusting slur rips me away from the object of my attention for a moment.
“Shaun, you know as well as I do name-calling is lower than low. I’m surprised at you.” My cousin and I have never been close, but we’ve been raised in the same family with the same values—or at least I thought so. I’m reasonably certain my aunt, my dad’s sister, would not like hearing her son say what he did.
“Look, Gabe, I’m only calling it like it is. That guy you have the hots for is a Muslim. Is that the term you’d rather I use? Either way, he’s just one jihad away from blowing this school sky-high.”
“Are you kidding me? You really believe that about all Muslims?
That they are all waiting for the chance to strap on a bomb and take out the world?”
“Gabriel, my man, this ain’t the little town you spent your life in until now. We don’t leave our front doors unlocked. We don’t ask just anyone into our lives. We’re cautious. And when someone like him, the one you’re drooling over right now”—he points to the object of my fascination—“is around, you need to be on your guard. No telling what’s going on in his mind.”
I truly want to go off on Shaun right now. He’s being blatantly bigoted, and it pisses me off, but Shaun has been so good to me this past summer. When my dad announced we were moving here and I wouldn’t be graduating from my school back home, leaving the friends I’ve always known, Shaun took it upon himself to make the transition easier for me. He spent the entire summer texting me and skyping with me, trying to get me ready for the day I’d just spent. I stayed with Gram and Pop while Mom and Dad moved here at the beginning of summer.
I’d spent the last three summers teaching little kids how to swim at the Y, and I wasn’t about to give that up. So my parents told me I could live with my grandparents while they got the new house set up and Dad started his new job. He was an insurance salesman in our hometown, but now he’s working at his company’s headquarters here in the city. A big promotion for him. So I didn’t raise much of a ruckus when I was told I’d be moving. And Shaun’s wrong about our “little town.” It has a hundred and fifty thousand residents, give or take a few, so it’s not a tiny place; granted, it’s not as big as this ginormous city.
Anyway, given my status as the new kid and my cousin’s eagerness to make me feel welcome, I had no right to deal with his attitude at the moment. That might come later, if he kept it up.
About the Author
Russell J. Sanders is a man on a quest. In his travels all over the world, he searches out Mexican restaurants. A lifelong Texan, raised on Tex-Mex, he wants to try the enchiladas and other delicacies that pass for Mexican food in the far reaches of the world. He has been pleasantly surprised in Tokyo and Indonesia and left wondering in Rome and a few
other places. Sometimes what the menu says and what you are served is not what is expected. But the joy is in the quest.
Russell’s also on a quest to spread a very important message: love is found in many forms in this world, and being gay or lesbian or bisexual or any other variation is normal, healthy, and wonderful. He wants his novels to bolster the confidence of gay teens and change the minds of or educate further all the others who may stumble upon his prose.
Russell’s writing joins his long career of acting, singing, and teaching, adding to his passions for cooking and reading. He has won awards for his acting and directing and has taught theater to hundreds of teens. He has also taught additional thousands of teenagers the art of writing and the love for literature. He is always in the middle of a good story, whether
reading it or writing it. And he can whip up a delicious meal in minutes.
He does all this with the support of his husband, a man he has loved for over twenty years and married a few years ago. They live happily in Houston, Texas.
Visit my website: www.russelljsanders.weebly.com
Follow me on Facebook at Russell J. Sanders, author: https://www.facebook.com/Russell-J-Sanders-author-514666448554674/
Follow me on Twitter: @russelljsanders
Visit my author page on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Russell-Sanders/e/B00AVXOY80/ref=ntt_dp_epwbk_0
View my book trailers: (all book trailers use free use public domain images and music)
You Can’t Tell by Looking: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gHRoe4bBWDU&feature=youtu.be
Special Effect: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DrVphGxgXqc&feature=youtu.be
The Book of Ethan: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A6IBm1CBINg
All You Need Is Love: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qsQUwQUoUzs&feature=youtu.be
Titanic Summer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tVqWvlOP-PQ