Monday, 18 May 2009
Michael Muhammad Knight: Taqwacores, Sex and Punks
BY EVELYN McDONNELL
Impossible Man. Michael Muhammad Knight. Soft Skull. 336 pages. $15.95 in paper.
The quest for absent fathers is a contemporary American fixation, animating everyone from our president to our pop stars. As Michael Muhammad Knight tells it, his dad, Wesley Unger, is a paranoid schizophrenic who, in the beginning of Knight's coming-of-age memoir, rapes and terrorizes his mother and, in the end, tells his son that Michael is F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Impossible Man is the story of Knight's search to fill that parental void with various obsessions, from Star Wars (humorously, he compares Unger to Darth Vader) to professional wrestling to Islam. The book is a singular journey of one strange, driven youth, told with an excess of detail yet propelled by a frank sense of discovery.
Knight has emerged as a young, original voice thanks to his cult novel The Taqwacores, a pulpish fantasy about Muslim punks in Buffalo that is already the subject of two films. Impossible Man reveals some of the inspiration that turned a white Muslim teenage virgin into a writer of feverishly imaginative blasphemous subcultural prose. Knight is a bit of a JT Leroy, except -- presuming Impossible Man passes fact-checking scrutiny -- for real this time.
Raised in horrific, white-trash conditions until his mother flees with him to upstate New York, Knight escapes harsh reality via various pop-culture surrogates. Fandom transforms into faith when repeated viewings of Spike Lee's biopic of Malcolm X lead him to convert to Islam. Knight changes his name and studies in Pakistan, but ultimately this devotion also proves to be a fad, and the author abandons plans to be a religious scholar.
The book gets a little lost with its narrator at this point; it's hard to fathom how Knight could go from asceticism to running a gory fight club in college. But the writer smartly doesn't try to offer big answers or psychobabble explanations.
The title comes from the superhero protagonist of one of several handwritten manuscripts Unger hands his son. Ultimately, Knight comes to accept his father for the nutcase he is and to find inspiration where he can in paternal babbling. When his father dubs him Fitzgerald, Knight decides to study the writer, and The Great Gatsby becomes the basis for Taqwacores (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Taqwacores).
In a nice bit of feminist perspective, the searcher recognizes that what's been important in his life is not parental absence but the presence of an extremely tolerant and supportive mother. ''You get into this, you get what you want out of it, and then it's on to the next thing. It's been like that since you were six years old,'' she tells him, nicely summarizing the narrative arc of Impossible Man. The intensity and peculiarity of Knight's obsessions make this memoir a refreshing saga. Whereas much of Taqwacores was indecipherable to people unfamiliar with Islam, this time around Knight takes pains to explain Muslim rituals and Arabic prayers. However, the repeated masturbation scenes (some of them verbatim repeats of passages in Taqwacores) show Knight hasn't quite grown up yet.
Evelyn McDonnell is a writer in Miami Beach.
Taqwacores are a legendary group of California Islamic punk bands with their own superstars and customs: Sunni straight-edgers, riot grrls in burqas, and stoned, mohawked Sufis acknowledge the old rules, but live a riotous American tradition of Islam. Buffalo, NY is a collegiate microcosm of the Khalifornia scene where debate rages about whether electric guitars are halal and what the Quranic sources are for an Iggy Pop song. A trucker incarnation of Rumi who leaves love poems at rest stops is among the other Muslim iconoclasts who inhabit this surprising milieu, an intimate, new American Islamic experience.
About the Author
Michael Muhammed Knight converted to Islam at sixteen after reading Malcolm X's biography, and spent two months at Faisal Mosque in Islamabad, Pakistan. He later left orthodox Islam. His writing regularly appears in progressive Islamic venues. He lives in Western New York State.