XXY in Conversation with Ayisha Malik, Author of The Other Half of Happiness
XXY in Conversation with Ayisha Malik, Author of The Other Half of Happiness
Sometimes being a fan on the internet can get you places. Or at least get you noticed by an author you’ve been (publicly) admiring since her debut novel ‘Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged’. A year later I am sitting with the ever inspiring Ayisha Malik in the Bonnier offices to discuss the latest in the series ‘The Other Half of Happiness’. We discuss character evolution, the process of writing a second novel after publishing a successful debut and what Malik is tired of being asked.
Tahmina Begum: As a person of colour, a Muslim woman writing about Muslim characters, what are you tired of being asked?
Ayisha Malik: One of the things I get tired of being asked is what “inspired me” because for me, inspiration is a fallacy. When I speak about the first book, I often say it just came to me but it was a gradual build up of different events. I suppose the one thing which starts jarring after a while is the whole question about the hijab. I think being asked to talk about the hijab or to write something about the hijab has become quite arduous.
TB: Do you feel like you have to be the face of everyone who is an author and also wears hijab?
AM: Ah, I hope not because poor them! I think the problem within diversity in publishing is if I am speaking and assuming my identity as a Muslim woman and speaking as one who wears the hijab, the automatic assumption is that I am speaking for all Muslim women. This is a real problem, this is why we need a spectrum of voices from specific or different religious backgrounds. Because I don’t want to be and I’m not the voice of Muslim women.
TB: There are so many women out there!
AM: There are a lot of Muslim women and women in general out there and they can speak for themselves and their own experiences. The sentiment I come across a lot in comment sections, or YouTube videos and interviews that I’ve done is: Oh well, it’s okay for her speaking out as a Western Muslim woman! She should try living in Saudi Arabia – why the hell would I live in Saudi Arabia – it has nothing to do with me!
TB: I weirdly resonate with that and though I completely identify as being Muslim, when I tell anyone I’m fasting, the immediate reaction is “Oh I wouldn’t expect you to! You just don’t seem like it!”
AM: I think Muslim women should be able to identify as not wearing hijab as well as wearing hijab, there shouldn’t be that distinction.
TB: Back to the book, what made you want to write a second? Were the publishers keen after your first book’s success, or was it that you needed the story to continue?
AM: On a practical level, I signed a two book deal with the publisher, and I think the first book almost warranted a sequel. I was quite tired of Sofia by the end of the first book. I wasn’t sure if I actually wanted to do a sequel, but the publishers were quite keen on the sequel, and I think it was a good decision as there was a lot left to explore post-marriage in Sofia’s life. I only had a year to write the second book, and it is easier to write something when the characters are already there.
TB: The ending has an irony to it – were you conscious of some characters falling into stereotypes or feeding into some stereotypes, regardless of how fluid they are?
AM: When I was writing there was a lot of conversation in the media about how to ‘spot someone’ who might be radicalised, and I think at the time of writing my book I felt Conal would be a key suspect almost, and wanted to hit that nail on the head and demonstrate the ridiculousness of “how to spot a terrorist”. He is sort of a cliche of this white male trying to save the world but really needs to save himself and find solace in Sufism. So I sort of was conscious of it, as you said there are some stereotypes that are there maybe for a reason…it’s about tilting it and maybe portraying it in another way.
TB: Clearly you are very conscious of the current political climate, were you even more aware at the end of 2016 and early 2017, with the inauguration of Trump for example? Did you ever think: is this the right or wrong time to publish a book like this?
AM: I feel like it’s absolutely the right time – at the same time, the events that were unfolding reinforced the idea that it is a current problem and it addresses current issues, and it just so happens that the things that were going on around the globe coincided in some ways with the book; it’s not something I expected but it just kind of happened that way.
TB: From the first book to now, do you feel that your audience has changed or your platform has changed?
AM: I think my platform has changed in that people seem interested in what I have to say – people are actually listening to me. The first book was very much written for myself, it was about serving the purpose of catharsis, wanting to see someone like myself represented in literature, it was quite a personal thing that I was writing. Subsequent to the book being published, I realised that actually it has become a lot about the readers as well and I realise that there is an audience of Muslim women in their 20s and 30s, who are really happy that there is a character in a book that represents their experiences. Of course, there is the non-Muslim demographic who are really grateful to have an insight into a normal Muslim family; not your stereotypical oppressed, honour killing, terrorist tendencies…I think that has been very nice to know that people from a Muslim and non-Muslim background have appreciated it.
TB: What you’re saying reminds me of Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist, in which she says even though there are bad portrayals of black characters in American films, African Americans will still go and see the film because that’s some of the only ways they are being shown. Did you notice from a young age or only since it’s been presented to you that you are “the other” so to speak?
AM: It’s very interesting you said that actually, I have very similar feelings to you in that respect. I used to read a lot of classics because I felt they spoke to me in terms of social norms and I didn’t feel a huge lack of representation as I just enjoyed books and I just enjoyed stories…but if I really felt that way I wouldn’t have written a book with a Muslim protagonist and felt so strongly about that. I think it’s very 50/50, one of those things where you’re almost unaware that you’re not being represented. You just accept it then one day you’re called a terrorist in the middle of the street and you think, oh wait this is directed at me. Growing up I had a few incidents with racism but I can’t say I’ve led a very hard life in the sense that at every step of the way there’s been a barrier or a wall, maybe I’m one of the lucky ones or maybe it’s more about your outlook or how you handle things. I tend to handle things with humour, as you can probably tell from my books! I didn’t feel angry…I’m still not angry, I’m just kind of seeing how things unfold and I’m passionate about having diversity because it would be ridiculous not to. I think that you evolve to a more particular way when you are not necessarily given the same platform and that can define you in a positive sort of way.
TB: Were you conscious of writing from quite a philosophical outlook?
AM: My sole agenda with both books was just to be true to the character… I think part of the reason people have taken to her so much is that of all these slightly rambling asides, as well as the more cosmopolitan side of Sofia’s character. It wasn’t an agenda, more just the voice came to me and I wanted to implement it in the books. I don’t like to sit on a theme too long but I felt these philosophical threads were also important to me as that’s what writing is, digging beneath the surface, thinking about things at a slightly deeper level, and that’s what I wanted to do.
TB: How do you stay true to a character? There’s always that argument that you don’t have to like the characters you are writing, but how do you feel you stay true to Sofia?
AM: Well…I feel like she’s kind of my alter ego, a ballsier version of me. It was easy to write her as a lot of the things she says or does are things I have said or would say, or have done or would do, or perhaps wouldn’t do or say, I think that’s why it was such a labour of love, because so much of me is in the characters’ thoughts and actions.
TB: I love the texts between her and her girlfriends – they seem so genuine, like real messages you would get.
AM: Perhaps that is why dialogue is such an important part of both books because I have conversations with my characters quite a lot to the extent where I speak in their accents. When I have my characters in my head I have to imagine how they speak.
TB: What have been the highlights, the simple delights of writing the book or even after publishing the book?
AM: Just the excitement from readers – it’s really catching, you know. It’s really nice to see the kind of passion your writing can evoke in another person, it’s been incredible. The first book I didn’t know how it would be received but it was received really well, and then with the second book, I felt I had to acknowledge my readers as without their excitement, their commitment to wanting to read the second, it wouldn’t have been the same. Knowing that there are readers excited and looking forward to what you have to say really inspires you.
TB: After the first book was published, did anyone ever say something to you that you remember distinctly, or that you have learnt?
AM: With the first book, there were one or two men who said they were upset with how Asian men were portrayed, I’ve also learnt about the necessity of sensitivity and having to think all the time of who you might be offending, without veering away from staying true to the character. I do think it’s possible to be over-sensitive with things but I think it is your job as a writer, no matter what your background, to ensure that you are all-inclusive, and certainly I should know that given how in some books Muslims are portrayed. I received a twitter message because in the first book Sofia mentions celibacy being linked to arthritis and obsession was really insensitive; it was interesting to me as it was true to the character and I couldn’t take that back, however, it was an interesting facet of writing to discover opinions of people that live such different lives to you; it gives you a lot of food for thought for future books.
TB: How do you feel about it being called “The Muslim Bridget Jones?”
AM: Well I mean I conceived it as a Muslim Bridget Jones, I pitched it to my agent as a Muslim Bridget Jones and you know, it kind of caught on. Do I regret it? No. I think with the first book I played it very safe, I knew what my characters would be, I knew it would be something that stems from my own experiences. And I think the pitch doesn’t hurt. People like the familiar but different, so I felt like even though it was, you know, “Bridget Jones”, I felt the fact that it had a Muslim twist gave it kind of a freshness. And I absolutely love Bridget Jones.
TB: So even if in some way that kind of narrowed the book down, Bridget Jones is such a successful book and the films are amazing.
AM: The books are amazing, I mean Helen Fielding is a wonderful satirist and her comic timing is wonderful, so I felt like this is the right thing, this is what I want to do. The second book is a bit different – more mature, a bit grittier, a lot more based on real life expectations and experiences.
TB: I guess because you just see the characters really grow up through the books as well, which I guess is always, I think sometimes authors because they want to stick mainly to the characters and stay loyal for their readers, that you can’t really see the character evolve so much, but this is not the case for The Other Half of Happiness.
AM: I knew that I was taking a bit of a risk, with the way the storyline went, and how it ended. But that’s all part and parcel of wanting to push myself in order to do something slightly different. I think it is a good thing.
TB: And hopefully, more and more books will come out that will be the same.
Interviewed by Tahmina Begum,
The Other Half of Happiness is published by Bonnier Fiction and is available online and in all good bookstores