It is said that the two things we should never discuss at family gatherings are politics and religion; otherwise, passionate, terrible disagreements will occur—perhaps even estrangements that will last months, if not years.
When Alana Raybon converted from the Christianity of her upbringing to Islam, silence was the route she and her still-Christian mother, Patricia Raybon, took to prevent familial discord. For 10 years, they discussed everything except their faiths. “The elephant is in the room, and it’s big,” Patricia Raybon, a former college professor and acclaimed essayist, writes in their co-authored memoir Undivided: A Muslim Daughter, Her Christian Mother, Their Path to Peace. “Still my daughter and I talk around it, pretending our ten-ton problem isn’t there—insisting it will stay quiet and be okay if we just ignore the obvious and keep on moving.”
And then, one day, after realizing this silence was not only eating away at her relationship with Alana but affecting their entire family, Patricia decided to break it. “Surely now,” she writes, “with almost ten years stuck in rubble—we can finally talk.” Even though Patricia was unsure whether she or Alana were truly ready, she invited Alana to engage in a conversation to understand each other’s differences of belief.
What follows is a stunningly earnest and emotionally resonant portrayal of a mother and daughter trying to rebuild their relationship. Told from the alternating perspectives of Patricia and Alana in vivid, moving prose, this memoir grapples with big questions of faith, perspective and communication, while remaining grounded in the intensity of family relationships.
“Why am I a Muslim?” Alana Raybon begins. “It’s the big question of my life—and the big conundrum for a mother and a father I love.” Now herself a mother of two children under 4 with another on the way, Alana’s life is full of family; it is difficult for Alana to find the time to speak with Patricia with “two screaming kids in her ear.” Patricia, for her part, is an introvert who finds the simple act of speaking to another person difficult. And so, hiding behind their excuses, months pass in silence despite their commitment to understand each other’s faith.
And then, a few weeks after the birth of Alana’s newest baby, Alana and Patricia manage to connect on the phone. “So when did this all start?” Patricia asks, and, suddenly, the conversation has begun.
As Alana details the story of her conversion to Islam—a spiritual quest begun after her first year of college in New York City—Patricia listens. This simple act is revelatory for Alana, who describes her childhood with her parents as one during which her “college-educated parents” didn’t ask questions, but simply lectured her in a style that did not foster communication.
“I wish she was still a Christian,” Patricia finally allows herself to admit quietly when Alana calls to wish her a happy Mother’s Day. “I wish she wasn’t a Muslim.” In this moment, the reader feels Patricia’s pain deeply. For how do you reconcile being a mother—which means wanting the absolute best for your daughter—with being a Christian, which means, according to your much-treasured Bible, that your daughter will not join you in heaven, but be relegated to hell for all eternity? How do you simply love—your daughter, your grandchildren—without proselytizing? How do you retain your own faith in your God who does not answer your most precious prayer: Please return my daughter to my faith?
These are some of the questions Patricia grapples with throughout Undivided. For her part, Alana wonders how to make her mother see that she does love Jesus—just not as God incarnate but as a prophet like Abraham or Muhammad—that Islam is neither an exotic cult nor the religion of violent extremists portrayed in the media.
That she does deeply, truly, love God.
“I want us to become the model for a successful, happy, interfaith family,” Alana declares. And, slowly, mother and daughter inch closer to this goal. It is not easy, but they work at it. They understand the importance of building a strong cohesive multigenerational family structure for all involved: parents, children, grandchildren, aunts, uncles and cousins. “God has intervened with us at just the right moment,” Alana says at one point—and both mother and daughter restate these words in various ways throughout the book.
In fits and starts, months of tension, argument and silence, Patricia and Alana finally arrive at a place of empathy, compassionate listening and respectful coexistence. It is truly lovely to watch Patricia and Alana open up to understanding each other even as each draws closer to the God of her respective faith for support throughout this important journey of reconnection.
Although set in the world of religion, the central conflict of parent and child struggling to maintain a relationship despite deep differences will appeal to all readers. Here is the specific made universal—a personal story of triumph over challenging family dynamics that is as edifying as it is uplifting.
Hope Wabuke is a Southern California-based writer and a contributing editor at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.