A Review of Hope Ablaze by Sarah Mughal Rana

*SPOILER ALERT *This review contains plot details of Hope Blaze.

Published February 2024 by Wednesday Books.

“I am a pent up ball of energy / I will find my escape like a cosmic explosion / all starry rays before darkness claims me, / hope ablaze.”

For Nida, a young Muslim teen, poetry is an outlet for her deepest feelings and experiences. But after her poem about being illegally frisked at a Democratic candidate’s rally accidentally wins a national poetry competition, Nida becomes embroiled in the center of a political scandal. Hope Ablaze is a young adult novel by Sarah Mughal Rana that deftly criticizes the bigotry and hate facing Muslim people in America today and empowers teens to find their own voice in a country aiming to silence them.

Books confronting social and systemic issues can be difficult to write and even more difficult to publish. What I love about this novel is its unflinching exploration of American culture and politics and how these systems continue to harm Islamic people and communities. In Hope Ablaze, neither of the two featured politicians support Muslim people, yet Nida and her community still choose to vote in hopes of creating a path towards a future that supports their people in America. In doing so, Rana highlights how the bipartisan system in America doesn’t work when both parties are against one’s very existence. I’m sure it’s difficult to write a novel like this, and I hope this story helps to pave the path for more Muslim authors to write with the support of the mainstream.

In a story that deals with heavy, topical themes, Rana did an excellent job of creating balance between the pain that comes with bigotry and systemic oppression—especially when in the public eye—and the unconditional love and support that pours in from your communities. There are numerous small moments when this support becomes evident—through characters like Aunty Farooqi and Rayan—but there are also significant moments when the power of community and solidarity becomes starkly evident. After Nida receives public backlash for her poem, especially after it is reported her uncle is in jail due to “terrorist activity,” her mother’s catering business is hit hard: customers cancel their orders, and it becomes difficult for her family to sustain themselves financially. Soon enough, however, the Muslim community bands together to support Nida’s family, and they begin receiving new orders.

The characterization and dynamics of the characters surrounding Nida were wonderfully executed. Relationships never felt forced and characters, for the most part, felt fully fleshed out. However, I did have a little trouble with Nida’s characterization throughout the novel. To me, the heart of Nida’s conflict is not that she doesn’t know how to use her voice, it’s that when she does use her voice, she is silenced.

In the beginning of the novel, Nida channels her feelings about injustice and her desire for change into her poetry. We learn that she didn’t understand her mother’s paranoia until her uncle was imprisoned for performing his poetry, which occurs prior to the start of this book. Because of this fear, Nida doesn’t voice any of her thoughts about her faith or her politics outside of her immediate community. But after she wins the poetry competition and her words are twisted in the media, Nida attempts to deal with the situation in good faith—going on news shows to share her side or meeting up with politician Mitchell Wilson to find a solution—only to realize these people are exploiting her for their own narratives. I don’t quite understand why she trusted them to begin with, especially after everything she went through with her uncle. Nida is also caught between the expectations of her mother and uncle. Nida’s mother wants Nida to stay silent to prioritize her and her community’s safety, while her uncle wants her to speak up, use her voice, and preserve her poetry as an act of creativity and tradition. All of these people talking over Nida causes her to feel silenced.

The introduction of the blue thread , which silences Nida and prevents her from writing poetry, makes sense with this context. But rather than helping her find her voice and allowing it to thrive without being twisted by others, it reveals her family’s history—something she’s already connected to—and helps her understand the importance of poetry in her family. This knowledge of family history allows Nida to understand her mother and reclaim her authentic voice.

The ending worked, because the heart of the story is about Nida finding her voice—one way or another—but the way we got to the ending felt unfocused and tangential from the conflict that existed in the beginning.

On a craft and narrative level, I also felt that there were numerous opportunities to strengthen the power of the novel even further. For example, I really enjoyed the way the narrative moves between prose and poetry. I thought it was a fun and interesting way to play with structure and a great opportunity to explore Nida’s interiority and the complex, powerful emotions she had: “Eyes cast black as crow feathers. / The British weren’t knights but hawks, / circling above / ready to pounce. // These colonial regimes / live on through history,”

Yet, other poems felt lackadaisical at times. Some seemed like they were included for the sake of narrating through scene transitions and moving the plot forward rather than being used to explore Nida’s interiority: “Mr. Wilson’s attorney sat to the right, / in an identical crisp black suit. / A costume of diplomacy. / After Zaynab’s email, Mr. Wilson’s attorney wanted to discuss our options,”

However, all these technical aspects develop with time and experience. This is Rana’s debut novel, and I have confidence this is something that will only improve with her subsequent publications. I love the vision she had for Hope Ablaze, and I’m looking forward to seeing what Rana delivers to us next.

Aubrey Unemori

Aubrey Unemori graduated from the University of Washington with a BA in Creative Writing. She was born and raised on Maui, Hawaii but currently resides in Seattle, Washington. She likes to fill her days with reading, writing, playing games with friends, and pretending to be a coffee snob.