Believe Me, You Can’t Tell by Looking by Russell J. Sanders
October 03

Believe Me, You Can’t Tell by Looking by Russell J. Sanders



Like most authors, I love a challenge. In my work, I’ve never shied away from the hard topics. I’ve covered ultra-rich society, falling in love with a mysterious being, polygamist cults, child sexual abuse, the turmoil of the 1960s, denial of rights to transgenders, and in my newest novel You Can’t Tell by Looking, Islam and the gay culture. This perhaps was one of my biggest challenges, for the topic of Islam and its customs was totally foreign to me when I began. As an avid reader, I tend to devour a variety of topics, and when I read a book about one of the most heinous—and I must say, uncommon but still taking place in parts of the world—of Muslim practices, I was hooked. I had to know if what I was reading about was common among Muslims or an aberration born out of messed-up middle eastern logic. I knew that most middle easterners would not do what I was reading, but I also knew there were a lot of crazies in the world, and small groups of terrorists had made many, usually sane and objective westerners begin to label Islam as some sort of evil plot to destroy the world as we know it.

So I set out to find out as much about this mysterious religion as I could absorb. I read about the history of Islam, the customs of Islam, the traditions of Islam, and the variations of Islam. Before even beginning my research, I knew that a group of worshippers who constitute a religion second only to Christianity in this world could not all be evil. I also knew that those who decry Islam will take over the world were operating out of fear and not logic. After all, a religious group this large could have overpowered the world long ago if they all believed like those idiots who were bombing and destroying and taking down skyscrapers.

I found that Islam is not that much different from Protestantism, Catholicism, or Judaism—and that all four stem from the experiences of Abraham in the Bible. They, collectively, are labeled Abrahamic religions. I also discovered that traditions and customs vary throughout the world, as with all beliefs. Some hold to a strict interpretation of the earliest texts, others have adapted more liberally to the modern world.

And so I set out to create characters for the book that remained untitled for a long, long time. The novel was finished before it occurred to me that we look at people on the street, in the mall, at restaurants and we have no idea who they are, what they believe, and how they practice their beliefs. The little old lady who seems so sweet could be a practitioner of the worst of voodoo. The man who mows your lawn could be the most devout Jew. The teen who is at the church every time the doors are open might be the worst hell-raiser on Saturday nights. You can’t tell by looking. And suddenly, my novel had a title.

But I could not have come up with that title without characters. Creating people to populate a story is the hardest task a writer faces. I started with the idea that a Protestant young man would fall in love with a Muslim young man. Seems easy, huh? But who were these young men and how did their paths cross? When you’re writing about teens, high school seems to be the easiest setting. Countless YAs are set in schools, and that’s where we get the stories of the football hero who turns out to be gay, the nerd who saves the day, the hated teacher’s pet who has multi-dimensions, the cheerleader who turns out to be a murderess. 

So with a setting—albeit one that can be hackneyed and overused—I needed to place my guys within it. What would being a Muslim at a suburban high school be like? Who would fall in love with him? Remember, you can’t tell by looking. I decided my Muslim would be senior class president and well-liked. If anyone in that school harbored negative feelings about my Kerem, I would quickly dispel their bad thoughts. But as I wrote, I only discovered one character who decided Kerem was no better than the cowards who took down the twin towers. And I managed to work with that nay-sayer until I turned him around. Or maybe not. That’s for the reader to discover.

So if Kerem is class president and well-liked and not openly gay (in fact, we don’t even know if he is gay,) then it was unlikely one of his classmates would make a play for him. That’s where Gabriel was born. Gabe would come from a small town, ready to take on a new challenge, a new school, a new life. But I wanted Gabe to be openly gay and happy with himself so the only true challenge he would face in this new school was whom to focus his attentions on. And who else but the most unlikely of targets?  A Muslim boy.

Every novel needs conflict. Ever since Eve ate the apple, we have had good and evil in the world. Without both, we would know what neither is. So a third major character had to be. This third character, I decided, would be someone about Kerem’s age who would practice a more traditional form of Islamic tradition than Kerem’s way of worshipping. Not only that, I made Timur Kerem’s cousin so there would be constant contact between them. Timur, it seems, doesn’t like what he sees as Kerem and Gabe’s friendship blossoms.

With three major characters, I knew I could not tell a story without their inner thoughts. I usually tell a story from one viewpoint, the main character. This story had three people stirring the pot. And thus, I decided to alternate chapters, starting with Gabe’s observations on the first day of school, then Kerem’s reaction when Gabe comes upon him praying, and finally a chapter with Timur relating his place in Kerem’s family. From there, I kept up these diverse viewpoints until my story was told.

And, I must say unabashedly self-appreciative, that it is a good one and an important one. You Can’t Tell by Looking is a story that needed to be told, one of what it feels like to be gay and Muslim. I’m glad I took that challenge on, and I hope I’ve done it proud. This book is for everyone, but mostly it is for those gay Muslims out there who need to know they can be happy in this world. They are among us. After all, you can’t tell by looking.