Home Fire: Igniting Discussion in Stuyvesant’s English Classes

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie, a contemporary read introduced into the sophomore-year English class a few years ago, has become a vehicle of discomfort, argumentation, and a possibility for growth in classes.

Reading Time: 6 minutes

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By Christina Chen

When does a book cross the line between controversial and offensive? Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie dances on that line for many students at Stuyvesant due to its taboo themes concerning hijab, Islam, and sexual liberation. The contemporary read was introduced a few years ago into the sophomore-year English class, Foundations of Literature, and has since become a vehicle of discomfort and argumentation in classes.

According to Eric Grossman, Assistant Principal of English, teachers have a lot of freedom to choose works they are passionate about as long as they make sense in the structure of the course. The point of the Stuyvesant English department, especially its foundational courses, is to help students read and understand different media, and teachers are encouraged to “bring a diverse range of writers without resorting to tokenism.”

Home Fire was introduced as a companion piece to Sophocles’ Oedipus and Antigone, tragedies that present themes of fate, free will, and loyalty, which are also presented in Home Fire. The novel was meant to diversify the curriculum while still introducing students to modern literature. One of the goals of Foundations of Literature is to teach works that serve as archetypes and are in conversation with other works. The aim of the English department is undeniably noble and builds fundamental skills in Stuyvesant students. However, it is important to explore the delicate balance between introducing controversial and simply offensive books into a classroom.

To understand the impact of the book in classrooms, it’s crucial to consider both the input from teachers who teach the book as well as a diverse group of students who are present for the in-class discussions that the book spurs. Junior Krystal Khine explained the dilemma of her reaction when she first read the book, saying, “I felt like I, as a non-Muslim girl, had no right to feel slightly weirded out by the sexual themes that were distinctly intertwined with Islam. However, I couldn’t help but feel like it was just wrong.” Khine argued that the sexual themes seemed disrespectful to Islam, and she felt that they could be easily misinterpreted.

It is also important to take into consideration other Muslim voices at Stuyesant and their opinions on the way the novel is taught. Junior Aneesah Khushi expressed intense dislike for the book’s presence in the English curriculum. She recalled the aim from her Foundations of Literature class presented on March 21, 2023, when the discussion surrounded the question, “What is at stake? (For the characters? For the novel?)” Khushi articulated that this question gives off the impression that Muslims must choose between being a part of their faith or being complicit with societal norms and expectations. When Khushi shared her perspective on the topic with the class, she felt that her opinion was being targeted. Her position was isolated, as she was the only Muslim voice who spoke up. To her, the discussion spread the exact opposite of what an integration of a provocative and sensitive text should bring to the table: ignorance.

Khine’s and Khushi’s outlook on the book is certainly not unique. I, too, felt similarly as I read the book for the first time in my sophomore English class. As a hijabi woman, it is clear to me that the book can easily be used as a segue into the discussion of liberating Muslim hijabi women through the removal of hijab. Hijabi women are already constantly fetishized in the media, and Kamila Shamsie undeniably adds to it as she writes, “He should have left immediately, but he couldn’t help watching this woman, this stranger, prostrating herself to God in the room where she had been down on her knees for a very different purpose just hours earlier.” This overly sexual angle of Muslim women and the character’s journey of sexual liberation is disrespectful and denounces Islam in the name of “freedom.” 

After speaking to a current senior and my former classmate to explore whether or not my opinion was shared, she explained that she felt that the novel was “tokenizing” in addition to exploiting Muslim characters as a way of pushing an agenda, and I certainly agree. There is plenty of rhetoric and hate in the media and society that already encourages the narrative that Islam is an oppressive religion, and there is no reason to continue to emphasize the stereotype, whether it’s presented by a Muslim writer or not.

Peering into the minds and thought processes of teachers helps to understand how best to approach “offensive literature.” Foundations of Literature and AP English Language and Composition teacher Kim Manning taught my class Home Fire during my sophomore year, and she had an effective approach to facilitating discussions about the book in class. If an offensive statement was said regarding a theme in the book, she “intervene[d] and address[ed] what was said, while reminding the entire class that there is no room for personal attacks.” She also allowed discussion regarding objections to the book to occur, as it helped her anticipate how she would lead future classes on the book. It is important to note that Manning has decided to no longer teach the book because she “wasn’t convinced that despite its potential for controversy, it was a necessary text to read, one that was essential.”

Relating to Manning’s point on Home Fire not being entirely essential, for an uncomfortable novel to be effectively articulated within a classroom setting, the book must fall into two categories: relevant and relatable or multi-faceted. While Home Fire may be relevant to the curriculum in the way it is tied to Sophocles’ work, it is outdated. From the inclusion of tweets, hashtags, and bygone pop-culture references, the book no longer speaks to the youth of the Western world and instead comes off as poorly written rather than a unique piece of contemporary literature. 

After talking to a series of Muslim students at Stuyvesant, Home Fire has yet to be described as a relatable book. While it may be appealing in the way that it brings up a shunned and taboo topic to light, it is not a shared experience that students can learn from. 

The final piece of the puzzle to productive conversation is a novel’s ability to be multi-faceted. In other words, is the reader able to argue for and against the novel in a method that does not disrespect an entire community of people, in this case, hijabis and Muslim women? It is very difficult to defend the actions of the characters in the book, especially due to the recurring themes of hijabi fetishization and Muslim radicalization seen throughout.

The book is a retelling of a tragedy, so angst is expected—yet Oedipus and Antigone’s journey can explore familial tension and loyalty without offending an entire demographic. Home Fire is surely a great read, and the countless awards Shamsie has received for her writing proves this; however, there are better ways to teach a retelling of a Greek tragedy in a manner that still ignites the discussion surrounding the main themes. 

As an open-minded reader and avid supporter of uncomfortable discussions, I would like to make it clear that I sincerely believe that allowing sensitive topics room to breathe within a safe space, such as a classroom, is essential to mutual understanding, growth, and healing. Allowing class discussions where different viewpoints are discussed is extremely important, and exploring provocative themes can help spur learning in higher-level English classes both at Stuyvesant and beyond.

The epidemic that is offensiveness is frightening when it comes to higher education, as it tends to act as a barrier to learning. Taboos are the root of ignorance, launching into misinformation and eventually discrimination. A book that is shared in class is simply that: a book. It is not a tautology, proclamation, or a form of indoctrination, and now, more than ever, it is vital to broaden the scope of our educational intake to keep our education system as holistic as possible. However, we must pinpoint the significance of a book to a curriculum and decide whether or not the argumentation and disruption it may cause within a classroom is worth the learning that may come from it. For Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie, the costs outweigh the rewards.