I’ve always wanted to be a writer – no other career choice was an option for me. On this path to publication I realised that when authors used to tell me to just enjoy writing my first book and not worry about whether or not I’d find a home for it they weren’t being patronising. They were being nostalgic. Once a book – whether it’s your first or tenth – gets picked up by an agent (oh, happy days!) neither your heart, nor your sanity, will ever be in its designated place.
As it goes this wasn’t the first book I’d started, but it was certainly the first I’d managed to finish. I was so caught up in trying to be the type of writer that I thought I should be – highbrow and all literary, of course – that I ignored the type of writer I actually am. This process, you might’ve heard, is called finding your voice. I found mine resting between writer’s block and indignation. I’d been stuck writing a literary fiction piece for several months and the on-going state of the media’s portrayal of Muslims, along with a handful of crazies armed with fatwas and bombs culminated in an epiphany for me: let’s use this creative literary space to weave another narrative – one that isn’t hijacked by the media or crazies, and one which is sorely lacking when it comes to books. I believe you should always write what you want to write, but if you happen to find a gap in the market, which you can fill, then so much the better.
And so Sofia Khan was born, in all her scarf-wearing, satirised glory. I learned through continually honing my writing skills that it is character that drives the narrative, not plot (although having a decent plot in place helps, obviously). With Sofia, one thing led to another and a few years down the line I’d created a story at the centre of which was a Muslim heroine. Imagine! Muslim heroine? When you live your life watching the news about the latest jihadi who’s run off to fight with ISIS this can feel like a bit of a contradiction. Hijabis are supposed to be brainwashed and oppressed, after all. We couldn’t possibly be wearing a scarf because we want to. Ridiculous! And here was Sofia, a sassy, flawed, modern scarfie (I think I’ve earned the right to use that term). The point of her Muslim-ness, however, is not for it to be a focal point of the events that unfold – my intention was not to make a strong socio-political argument – it was to write her in a way that makes her Muslim-ness incidental.
On the surface this book is, essentially, a rom com; but delve a little deeper and I hope it says something about the time in which we’re living, and how tiring it can be to sit between two social stools: You are thirty now, you must find a husband. Crikey, what’s this scarf then? What does it mean? Invariably both comments are made with a quizzical, unnerved stare.
I think that if books do anything though, they increase the reader in empathy and understanding. That’s my book’s dream – hopefully with a fair bit of entertainment and laughter to boot. Except, ironically, once you’re ready to send your first book out (which you had been told you should enjoy writing because you’ll never get that feeling again) you’ve also, for the first time as an author, opened yourself up to that dreaded term ‘judgement’. Readers are harsh. I should know. I am one. Sofia Khan is not Obliged feels so close to home that any criticism of it will feel like a personal attack. In the run up to publication, however, I’ve realised that this is what it must be like for all authors, whether they’re writing crime, science fiction, comedy, literary fiction or whatever. The terrifying thing about the whole process is that it’s not only akin to turning yourself inside out for all to see, it’s also asking people to like (preferably love, thanks) what they see.
I’ve still not got used to this part of the journey. Because stories are such a strange place where fiction meets truth, which should subconsciously power the reader into thinking – preferably outside the box – I would often stop and start the book, worried (it’s a rom com, shouldn’t I be writing something more serious?), biting my nails (do the more thoughtful parts come through? Does it work?). But the adage ‘you can’t win ‘em all’ is surely one made for writers. So, I realised, as I inverted myself with each word I typed, that the only question worth asking was whether I was writing something true. All the rest, I hope, has come naturally as a result of it.
(c) Ayisha Malik
About Sofia Khan is Not Obliged
‘Brilliant idea! Excellent! Muslim dating? Well, I had no idea you were allowed to date.’ Then he leaned towards me and looked at me sympathetically. ‘Are your parents quite disappointed?’
Unlucky in love once again after her sort-of-boyfriend/possible-marriage-partner-to-be proves a little too close to his parents, Sofia Khan is ready to renounce men for good. Or at least she was, until her boss persuades her to write a tell-all expose about the Muslim dating scene.
As her woes become her work, Sofia must lean on the support of her brilliant friends, baffled colleagues and baffling parents as she seeks stories for her book. But in amongst the marriage-crazy relatives, racist tube passengers and polygamy-inclined friends, could there be a lingering possibility that she might just be falling in love . . . ?
Sofia Khan is Not Obliged is the hilarious and fresh debut novel by Ayisha Malik.
Ayisha Malik is a British Muslim, lifelong Londoner, and lover of books. She read English Literature and went on to complete an MA in Creative Writing (though told most of her family it was an MA in English Literature – Creative Writing is not a subject, after all). She has spent various spells teaching, photocopying, volunteering and being a publicist. Now she divides her time between writing and being managing editor at Cornerstones Literary Consultancy.
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