Being British, Muslim, dating in your thirties, wearing hijab, that pressure to marry, culture and men… these are just some of the topics up for discussion, and if you’re any of those things, meet Ayisha Malik, the author of the ‘Muslim Bridget Jones’ book, Sofia Khan is Not Obliged, and its sequel, The Other Half of Happiness.
Even if you don’t particularly like romance or “chick lit,” these books are a refreshing take on navigating all of the above, with a healthy dose of humor in between.
Muslim women who are also Third Culture Kids often have to balance multiple identities while trying to fit in and find their place in their society, and Sofia Khan is no different. Being visibly Muslim, brown and British, and living up to all three identities is no easy task when you’re trying to move onto the next stage in life.
In a recent interview with The Tempest, Ayisha Malik spoke about the protagonist’s journey to finding love in a messy and complicated world.
The Tempest: What’s your background like, and why did you choose to pursue writing, to begin with?
Ayisha Malik: “I remember always wanting to be a writer – nothing else appealed to me. It was a pipe dream that I realized I could make a reality if I worked hard enough and made the right decisions. That for me was doing a Creative Writing MA and then working in publishing to learn about tricks of the trade to make contacts so that anything I submitted wouldn’t go to the slush-pile.”
Do you have a writing routine?
“I never used to, but now that I’m writing full time I have to structure my days and weeks, allowing myself time off, and often head to a new location. The great thing about writing for a living is you’re able to do it anywhere.”
How do you keep yourself motivated as a writer?
“Caffeine and box-sets. There are always lulls and quiet periods where I can’t manage to get myself into the right space, but my remedy for that is usually a break where I binge-watch programs. Reading keeps me motivated; whenever I feel a bit inspirationally empty, I pick up a favorite book of mine or something I’ve wanted to read for a while.
Good writing inspires you to be better at yours.”
What was your inspiration behind Sofia Khan, and what do you want her to represent?
“I was bored with reading about South Asian/Muslim characters in issue-laden books. I wanted to portray the normal side of living as a Muslim in a place like London; what it’s like to be an observant Muslim but also modern, because to me, the two aren’t mutually exclusive. I don’t think I wanted her to represent something per se, but I wanted to create a character who was true to the experiences I’ve had, and those that people around me have had. Plus, the Muslim dating scene is often so bonkers that I felt it should be accessible to everyone – we all need a bit of comedy in life.
In the words of Jane Austen: Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery.”
How would you describe Sofia, and what’s changed for her from book 1 to book 2?
“I feel she’s an everyday kind of girl, and yet there’s no one quite like her either. She’s feisty, funny, flawed, but also caring and a deep thinker. The trajectory of her decisions really lies in her penchant for making impulsive decisions.
Really, her story is a bit of a cautionary tale for people who feel more than they think. And those who believe that love is all that matters.”
What advice do you have for writers looking for an editor and literary agent?
“First, write the best book you can before even thinking of approaching an agent. Second, make sure you get a professional’s opinion on your work. Third, once your MS is in the best shape you think it can be, handpick a few agents who you feel would represent you and your book well, research their lists, what they’re looking for and make sure your letter to them is targeted and, most of all, sincere.
Plus, it helps if you have a good hook.
Why should they choose your book over any other one? You should have the answer to this question and tell them in your letter.”
What’s a piece of advice someone gave you when you were looking for a publisher that you want to share with others?
“My agent once told me: have the courage of your conviction. I’ve never forgotten it.
It’s not smooth sailing, and even once you’re published to maintain a career and see it progress is a bumpy road. You might have talent, but you also need tenacity; don’t worry if your career is a slow burner, they’re the ones that last.”
What’s your advice to young women of color looking to get into this field?
“I don’t think it’s any different to the advice I’d give any writer – don’t write what you think other people want you to write. Write what you’re passionate about.
It’s a good idea to know what the market is like but you can’t let that decide your story. Just because you’re brown/BAME, doesn’t mean you have to write about that.”
What other writing projects are you working on? Can we get a Sofia Khan 3?
“I’m currently working on Nadiya’s second book, it’s really interesting to take someone else’s ideas and bring them forth in a book while putting your own imagination to one side.
After that, I’ll begin my third novel which is different to Sofia Khan, but still a comedy, I hope. It’ll be about a Muslim family living in a village. The protagonist is asked by his mother to build a mosque there. The story will follow his struggle to get the village on board and all the obstacles he comes up against, both internal and external. I don’t have any plans to write a third Sofia Khan, but if the book sales warrant another one, then I may very well have another story for her hidden up my sleeve.”
Interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
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