“That’s how that moment felt to me: like I was above the clouds finally, and the sun was on my skin again,” Aaliyah Bilal, author of Temple Folk, says of learning her manuscript had been acquired. That debut short story collection, now a finalist for the National Book Awards, depicts Black Muslim lives in the 1970s as followers of the Nation of Islam and the generations that came after, looking back on that time in an exploration of faith and liberation. During an early afternoon Zoom call with sunlight dappled on her skin, Bilal smiles at the memory. The story of Temple Folk’s acquisition is one she’s told many times before, yet it has lost none of its luster. She had been in a “gloomy” place in her personal life and likened this moment to a plane cresting over a blanket of clouds. This is one of Bilal’s skills: bringing the light of our very human moments to the forefront, letting the audience—in this case, me—share in its glow.
Bilal’s sister originally came across the announcement that Yahdon Israel had been hired as senior editor at Simon & Schuster and would be accepting unagented submissions. “‘You have to submit, put something together and send it to this guy,’” Bilal remembers her sister telling her.
Israel, then mere days into his role, whose previous experience was outside of the publishing industry, didn’t have the same network of connections as his colleagues. He mirrored Bilal who was a self-taught fiction writer, not having gone through an MFA program and without an agent. Israel coming across the Temple Folk manuscript was an answered invocation—his initial call for submissions had yielded a substantial volume of responses but not specifically the sorts of work he wanted. “I realized I did not give people a framework for the things I was looking for,” Israel explained over the phone. “So I got what I asked for. I literally got people submitting. So I did the video as a revision: Let me lay out what it is I’m looking for. But more importantly, here’s what the work that I want to acquire has to do. Here’s what the stakes are.”
Just as Israel was thinking the chances of getting a first acquisition for something he wanted in an industry run on connections were slim (“I would be competing with people who are just far more established,” Israel said), Bilal was sending “a little manuscript” of 27,000 words. “That’s all I had,” Bilal admitted. “That was worth sharing, I should say.” It was an effort to appease her sister. “I sent it off and knew I’m never gonna hear from this guy. But at least if my sister asked me, I’ll be able to say, ‘I did it.’” But the submission struck Israel, even from the title page which featured Gordon Parks’s 1963 portrait of Ethel Sharrieff flanked in a pyramid formation by other Black Muslim women.
“She understands what it means to use fiction as a tool to get us to think about the interior lives of people we’ve come to understand through, at this point, a sociological lens,” Israel said. “And this was her using the imagination to get at: ‘What does it mean to be human through this particular circumstance of being Black and Muslim in a predominantly white and Christian society?’”
Perhaps given Bilal’s proximity to the collection’s subject, she regularly emphasizes the fact that Temple Folk is a work of fiction and not based on her life. She is third-generation Muslim. Her grandparents converted in the years of Malcolm X and then her parents were raised in the Nation of Islam and, like the characters of her stories, have their own critiques of the experience. That natural wellspring of inspiration to write from lends a depth of complexity to her characters that may translate to confusion: art imitating life so acutely it is mistaken for, well, memoir.
“We encounter short stories, the way we encounter stories in real life,” she said.
Here, Bilal speaks with Vanity Fair about what short stories impose on their writers, reverence for the reader and her humorous alter ego.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Vanity Fair: How do you see the audience engaging with these texts and these characters?
Aaliyah Bilal: I think there’s so many layers to the stories, and they are constructed in a way that one needn’t be at all familiar with the specifics of this history to take some degree of pleasure. Obviously this is my own assessment and I’m biased but the characters themselves are faced with dilemmas, situations that are universal that we all whether or not we believe in anything, whether or not we are African American or from any kind of ethnic or racial background, we can all relate to the situations that these characters find themselves in. I think there is an added layer of pleasure one can derive from being familiar with the specifics, but in terms of my own reading life, I don’t like it when authors take the time to go into detail. I just like it when an author can respect my intelligence enough to know that I will do the labor of going back. I basically was trying to write within that same frame of mind. Of respecting the smartest reader.