Nabilah Khachab sits at a table in a coffee shop, with a children's book in front of her

Rethinking Freaks in YA Lit: An Interview with Ph.D. Alumna Nabilah Khachab

Nabilah Khachab earned her Ph.D. in Literary and Cultural Studies from the Department of English at Wayne State. Since then, she and her research have been acknowledged by the American Council of Learned Societies Emerging Voices Fellowship Program, which has given promising early career scholars the opportunity to continue their research after finishing their Ph.D.

She has also written an article titled "Freak Show: Religiously Marginalized Female Bodies as Spectacle in Second Generation Literature," which has been published by Children’s Literature Association Quarterly. Her article discusses both how and why Muslim girls are treated in Young Adult fiction.

How did you get interested in studying YA literature?

I’ve always loved reading books for children and adolescents. I think young people are the most fascinating beings, and I am often astonished by their complexity, intelligence, and heart. So even as an adult, I still gravitate towards literature written for young people. I’ve read Peter Pan and Tuck Everlasting more times than I can remember! When I started my Ph.D. program, I had every intention to declare eighteenth-century literature as my focus.

However, I reached a point in my studies where I felt unfulfilled. I did some self-reflection and had an open and honest conversation with Dr. Lisa Maruca, who was my dissertation advisor and mentor, about my passion for children’s books and topics like social justice, race, and ethnicity. I was surprised to learn from her that there is such a thing as children’s and young adult scholarship. This knowledge changed everything for me! Through children’s and YA literature, I am able to read and write about characters that are largely marginalized in both scholarly and cultural conversations.

There was an entire chapter in my dissertation about young Muslim girls and the hijab in YA fiction, which I turned into an article that was recently published! My undergraduate self could have never imagined reading such books, let alone writing about them. I realized children’s and YA literature is a tool through which I can have important conversations about topics dear to my heart, and it is a place where I can acknowledge and celebrate identities like mine.

Why did you decide to pursue a Ph.D. at Wayne State?

I love Detroit! Wayne State is a multicultural and diverse campus, and as a woman of color, that is a top priority for me. When I applied to the Ph.D. program at WSU, I was very vocal about my desire to study Arab and Muslim characters in eighteenth-century literature. The fact that I was offered a position to study here meant that the English Department at WSU would encourage and support my voice. I knew it was a place where I could thrive and feel at home. It was a very easy decision to make! 

What was your most memorable experience during your time at Wayne State? Was there a particular course or professor that really stood out?

My most memorable experiences involved taking courses with Dr. Lisa Maruca, who supports and challenges all of her students. Every course with her presented an opportunity for growth, and there was never a dull moment! For instance, in ENG 7021 (The Eighteenth Century Media Matrix), a fellow classmate and I worked on an exciting digital project that traced connections between the circulation of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s Turkish Embassy Letters (1763) and contemporary travel blogs. I learned so much about eighteenth-century letter writing, authorship, and the creation of texts by thinking of Montagu’s work in the context of contemporary social media and the exchange of knowledge that it allows.

Dr. Maruca’s courses continually encouraged me to think more creatively and boldly. Outside of class, Dr. Maruca was my advisor and mentor. Her office was my safe space. In my countless discussions with her about academia and life, many of which were emotionally difficult conversations to have, I grew as a thinker, writer, and person. She has always validated my experiences and encouraged my voice and ideas. She’s truly a light in the department!

Can you describe your dissertation in a few sentences?

Drawing on Disability Studies and Critical Race Studies, my dissertation uses the cultural history of the freak show to analyze the representations of people of color and other minority figures in children’s and YA literature. I examine the ways in which some YA novels make use of the freak show’s historical conventions of display and narrative strategy to expose Western culture’s ongoing treatment of “non-normative” bodies, including racially and religiously marginalized individuals, as “freak.”

How did you get interested in this dissertation topic?

I first became interested in this topic because of my own personal passion for photography. When I came across Ransom Rigg’s YA novel Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, I was both fascinated and disturbed by the vintage photos of children that he includes in his series. I realized that these photos were likely staged and/or taken by adults. In essence, the novel is an exhibit of various human bodies – bodies that challenge what we expect to see – and as readers, we were invited to look at these bodies.

I started exploring other representations of children’s atypical bodies in the literature written for them and began to ask questions like, “Why are we so fascinated with looking at children’s bodies? Are bodies on display simply objects of the gaze? Can bodies on display disrupt normativity? Are they in any way empowered?” These questions led me to the field of Freak Studies. As I studied freak show history, I realized that the visually different body has always been a source of fascination and speculation and while the formalized theatrical display of human bodies was nearly extinct by the mid-20th century, the freak show still lives on in contemporary cultural relocations such as literature, film, art, and television. I found that the various rituals and narrative strategies that defined freak show culture in the nineteenth century exists in contemporary children’s and YA literature, which as I argue in my dissertation project, makes use of the freak show’s historical conventions of display essentially expose Western culture’s ongoing treatment of non-normative bodies as freak.

How does your recent article relate to your dissertation?

My recent article titled “Freak Show: Religiously Marginalized Female Bodies as Spectacle in Second-Generation Literature” is an excerpt from a chapter in my dissertation. This article takes as its focus representations of veiled Muslim girls’ bodies as deviant spectacles in Randa Abdel-Fattah’s Does My Head Look Big In This? (2005) and S.K. Ali’s Saints and Misfits (2017). I argue that these novels demonstrate American society’s treatment of the hijab as a site of discipline, wherein Muslim girls’ identity markers are made hyper-visible in an attempt to freak Islamic traditions and thereby normalize Western, white femininity.

What does the ACLS Emerging Voices program mean to you?

The ACLS Emerging Voices program is granting me the ability to extend my commitment to the humanities beyond the classroom and my research to benefit the larger community. As Project Director of Undergraduate Outreach for the Arts and Humanities at U.C. Berkeley, I take on an active role in recruiting and retaining students in the humanities. I belong to a community that is committed to making the humanities meaningful. In addition, the indispensable support of an ACLS fellowship is enabling me to develop professionally and academically. ACLS is providing me with the opportunity to explore my strengths and interests in administrative roles, which will have an impact on the trajectory of my career moving forward.

Why is it so important to encourage diversity in the humanities?

To study the humanities is to study human society and culture and how humans make the world meaningful. Fostering diversity in the humanities will broaden our conceptions of what it means to be human. We are in need of diverse voices from BIPOC who will both reflect on the demographics of the higher education classroom that consists of diverse identities, as well as transform scholarship in inclusive and humane ways.

Diversity in the humanities will encourage and support a culture of inclusivity across many communities, and if I’m being forthright, lives depend on it! All throughout history there is evidence of the atrocious ramifications of marginalizing groups of people from cultural and social discourse and spaces. The humanities demand that we become more attuned to the nuances of each other’s lives, and encouraging diversity within our discipline will provide the knowledge and perspectives necessary to humanizing our practices, behaviors, and interactions in local and global communities. 

What’s next for you?

I’m currently exploring various opportunities available in teaching and administration. I’m excited to see how my experiences in the ACLS Emerging Voices program will shape my career path.  Also, I have been itching to turn my dissertation into a book manuscript, so this could be my next major project!