January 15 2016
New paperback book gives a different perspective on the sassy, romantic, funny, feisty young British woman looking for love…
RELEASED in the autumn of last year as an E-book, and out today in paperback, ‘Sofia Khan is not Obliged’ by Ayisha Malik (pictured below), does well to explode a few myths – that British Muslims don’t date, don’t really dream of romance or ever talk about sex – and the womenfolk are meek and mild, especially the ones who wear veils…
Malik herself worked in publishing after completing an MA in English Literature and wrote for The Huffington Post as a lifelong Hijabi Londoner. We talked to her about the business of getting her first book published and asked just how close is ‘Sofia Khan’ is to herself…
By Tasha Mathur
www.asianculturevulture.com (ACV): Where did the idea for ‘Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged Come from’? Had you always known you wanted to write a book?
Ayisha Malik (AM): Yes, I always wanted to be a writer and have tried several times to write a novel – they just never quite stuck. Once I began writing Sofia Khan it came very easily and was the first piece of fiction I actually managed to finish (having started a fair few in the past).
The idea came from a combination of the absurdity of the Muslim dating scene, my love of Bridget Jones and the fact that there aren’t enough Muslim heroines in literature. I wanted to write something funny but which also touched upon some important issues to do with identity and belonging, as well as other things.
ACV: With the book coming from many of your own experiences, what made you decide to create the character of Sofia Khan rather than tell your own story?
AM: My life isn’t really that interesting. Also, I don’t feel my life is so important that people want to – or should have to – hear about it. Fiction is a wonderful medium in which you can say something truthful, but in which you can also take liberties with that truth, twisting and shaping it to tell the things that are important to you, or that you think people should consider. Essentially it’s a manipulation but one that can reach people in a way that telling one’s own story – so to speak – can’t do as well. I also want to be taken seriously as a fiction writer and didn’t want to jump on an opportunity for the sake of it.
ACV: And how close is the story to your own life?
AM: I guess a lot of the things are true of me but I always viewed Sofia, all the characters and the stories that unfold, as a piece of fiction. There are certain anecdotes that have slipped in from real life experience but nothing substantial. I did the careful thing of writing what I know, but I also kept fact and fiction very distinct from one another.
ACV: Sofia was pressured to keep her Muslim dating book light. Did you also find a struggle in keeping this book light as the story does touch upon some serious issues?
AM: The book kind of came to me in this way so the content wasn’t a struggle. People have astutely, and rightly, recognised that it touches upon serious issues and this was intentional. As a writer I had a duty to stay true to the type of book I was writing, but also to exploring difficult issues that arise in Asian communities.
The book has been labelled a romcom and perhaps that’s how I’ve come to see it too, but I hope that it is more than that. I hope people can see the deeper emotional thread as well as it being a kind of commentary on contemporary life as a Muslim.
ACV: With so few fiction books focusing on Muslim characters, did you find yourself having to adapt this story to make it marketable as Sofia did?
AM: I think I was lucky because it feels like the market is already ripe for this kind of book. The lack of Muslim characters in fiction against a backdrop of a society where we are so often at the fore of social matters surely meant that there would be an appetite for it. There are always social and cultural sensitivities to consider but the book was never meant to be daring and so I didn’t have to think too much about adapting it.
ACV: Did you come across any challenges when writing ‘Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged?’ Was it difficult to pitch this story to publishers?
AM: Oh yes, all the time. Writing a book is basically one big fat wall that you come up against on a daily basis – sorry to be depressing. They are all the usual writerly worries, but once I found my excellent agent I gained much more faith in the book. When it comes to finding a publisher that is also in the agent’s hands. I think pitching it to the agent was fairly easy because I already knew I was writing a kind of Muslim Bridget Jones. Perhaps if this wasn’t my debut I might’ve found it harder.
ACV: What made you decide to write the book in the form of a diary? The stream of consciousness throughout the novel seems so real…is this something that you do in your every day life?
AM: No, I only keep a journal now sporadically. I think the influence was Bridget Jones but to be honest I’ve always been a fan of the epistolary narrative – from Adrian Mole to Lady Susan by Jane Austen. I find them so personal but what is particularly clever is what you can learn about the narrator through their skewed perception of things. I think it’s involving and fun and playful and I really would love to write another book (with different characters) using the same form. I don’t know if I’d be allowed to though…
ACV: Did you have a particular message you wanted to convey with this book? Or a particular audience you had in mind?
AM: I didn’t have an audience in mind, though the themes and subject meant it would naturally appeal to women in their 20s and 30s. If I want a reader to take one thing away from reading this book it would be, see, we Muslims are (marginally) normal – just another part of the fabric of society in which we live. We are not the ‘other’ and it’s time for people to stop viewing us as such. Most importantly I want the reader to be entertained and perhaps catch the underlying serious themes and give them some thought.
ACV: What are your thoughts on current British Muslim literature in England, as well as women’s fiction in general as this is quite a female centric novel?
AM:I have some thoughts on the term ‘women’s fiction’ – what does that even mean? We don’t think twice about labelling a book ‘men’s’ fiction simply because it’s written by a man with strong male characters. I wish we could break away from this label because I know that my book – and many others, I’m sure – have been read and loved by men (most notably my editor and publisher who is a man). It somehow suggests that a woman’s experience is for women and yet a man’s experience is universal, which doesn’t sit very well with me.
In terms of British Muslim literature, I think the lack of it comes from both the fact that perhaps publishers are reluctant to take a gamble on a Muslim author who’s not writing an ‘issues’ book, but also in part to do with the way Asian/Muslim communities don’t put enough importance on the younger generation to take creative paths in their profession. There’s still too much of an onus on being a doctor or lawyer and not enough on encouraging youth to be writers or something similar. It does feel like things are slowly changing but I also think publishers need to be more involved in taking on Muslim authors who are just writing a good story, not necessarily because they’re writing about radicalisation or honour killings or whatever.
ACV: You’re now writing part two to the story…what can readers expect from your second novel?
AM: Without giving too much away I think they can expect a bit more grit and perhaps a little more realism in terms of how life can be. They can still expect plenty of humour though. Hopefully.
‘Sofia Khan is Not Obliged’ by Ayisha Malik is out now in paperback. To purchase click here