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Huma Qureshi: ‘In Spite of Oceans’ – Reading between the lines (A Novel Affair)

Huma Qureshi: ‘In Spite of Oceans’ – Reading between the lines (A Novel Affair)

February 18 2016

Author and journalist Huma Qureshi talks to us about what led her to write her acclaimed debut book ahead our very own A Novel Affair …

THERE’S something very gentle, almost uniquely precise, and distinctly endearing about Huma Qureshi.

The mother-of-two, North London based author and journalist is one of our two special guest authors (along with Roopa Farooki) at tomorrow’s A Novel Affair, in association with

You will find the above qualities very much apparent in her first work of fiction, “In Spite of Oceans”, published to much acclaim in 2014.

While it is fiction and a collection of different short stories, the work is something of a hybrid.

Very loosely based on interviews with real people, the 10 different tales are based on real life experiences, of family, love, loss, tragedy
– and joy too.

All have South Asian characters, and to anyone from this world, they have a beautiful sense of immediacy and relevance.

And just like her own inspiration – the American Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Jhumpa Lahiri, they speak to a wider world, which rarely notices the quiet drama of such lives.

“The interviews are the bedrock of the story,” she tells

“It was good for me, as it straddled the worlds of book writing and journalism.”

A journalist for The Observer (for seven years) and The Guardian before going freelance, some of those she interviewed were people she had met in her line of work, while others were suggested to her.

Huma Qureshi

Of course, as a journalist people are always telling you stuff, some of it is unusable, not relevant or simply out of context for the story at hand, but can be interesting and powerful in its own right.

What Huma could do “In Spite of Oceans” is draw the dots between the gaps (in what people told her), as well as go deeply into personal affairs with the comfort of an assured anonymity.

“I’ve always been wanting to tell stories as a child and that translated into my professional life, interviewing people,” she continued.

“I write a lot of real life features about emotional subjects and about the turmoil people may have gone through.

“Some of the people I’d met as a journalist and they were always telling me things, some of them were not relevant (at the time) but I wrote back to them, others were people I knew and the word got around.”

The stories play to Huma’s undoubted strengths as a writer: identifying the fissures, dislocations, and moments, sometimes episodes (even whole lives) of disruption and dissonance. They are not all bleak by any means.

“I always had this idea for a book of stories on people’s lives, it sounds very generic but I wanted to zoom in on everyday people, and
quiet lives, not people you would necessarily notice and their emotional turmoil and their back story.”

In “Within Four Walls”, a story about a young Gujarati man who develops terrible phobias, Huma dissects community prejudice and then goes onto skilfully chart how the man’s family come to slay their own hang-ups and anxieties about a much loved family member’s condition.

“For me ‘In Spite of Oceans’ is about families, and about how you hide yourself from your closest relations, and about what people chose to

“It is also about how your culture is inherited and how it shapes you and the decisions you choose to make,” said Huma, who grew up in Walsall and got a job with The Observer after a degree in French and English at Warwick and a Masters in Paris, reading European Studies and Politics.

She was more fortunate than some in that she was approached by a publisher which inquired whether she had an idea for a book after it
came across her work as a journalist.

She gave birth to her first son not long after its publication and wasn’t able to do as much publicity or travel to festivals to promote it
and while she recognises her publishing experience on the whole was positive and successful, she appreciates it isn’t like that for everyone.

She feels that we should be hearing from a variety of different voices and that our fiction should be more representative of the nation as it
now in 2016, not 1956.

“Diversity is a hugely important and very essential debate and I feel sad we have to talk about this, but at the same time it should not have
taken us as long as it has done for us to get here.

“It feels like a shame that you have to define yourself as a diverse writer or a writer of colour, the story should be above everything.”

Her love of reading came from her late father, a doctor, who died some 10 years ago and was also a voracious reader of books.

“I grew up with books and we would often swap them and he was also a huge Times reader and every morning on the way to dropping me
at the bus stop, he would pick up a copy of the paper, and he would take the news section and I would take the features.”

Hear and get an opportunity to talk to Huma Qureshi at ‘A Novel Affair’ at 7pm on Friday, February 19, 7pm, Central London. See link below for more…


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Written by Asian Culture Vulture

1 Comment

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