Ayisha Malik’s first book was declared “the Muslim answer to Bridget Jones Diary.” Sofia Khan is Not Obliged tells the story of a woman who goes through a break-up just before Ramadan and is then thrown into the trials and tribulations of dating. It’s a story for which Ayisha had no literary examples; for which she had to turn to her own life for inspirations. She says: “There are very few books about Muslims that aren’t issue-laden, and I feel this duology redresses that balance ever so slightly”. A former publisher, Ayisha knows the ins and outs of the book world, from “glorified photocopying’ as a cutter to releasing three of her own works. She tells us about some of her favourite stories.
What was your experience of working in the publishing world and why did you leave?
Mainly, it was wonderful. Being a publicity assistant isn’t exactly glamorous – the pay’s shit, the hours are long, it’s stressful – but I worked with an amazing team at Vintage. My boss was great and I got to meet some of my favourite authors. Plus, I got to meet Salman Rushdie and almost asked him, in manner of Bridget Jones, whether he knew where the toilets were.
I left because I couldn’t find the time to write and I needed something that gave me space for that. I was very lucky to move on to a part-time editorial job with Cornerstones Literary Consultancy where I stayed for five and a half years and managed to, eventually, write two books.
Why do you think the world needed Sofia Khan?
I’m sure the world would’ve been just fine without Sofia Khan but I am glad she’s out there. There are very few books about Muslims that aren’t issue-laden, and I feel this duology redresses that balance ever so slightly. I’m grateful that I’ve had readers – Muslim and non-Muslim – who have loved it and, in the case of the Muslim readers, were just happy to really identify with a character. Also, I hope it shows that Muslims can be fun and funny and normal. It’s a shame we need any medium to do that, but here we are.
How did you feel about opening up the world of dating as a Muslim woman through your stories? Did you have any templates to work with or was it very much new ground?
Of course. My life was a template. As were the multiple stories I’d heard of Muslim women dating in all my years of going out with men. Which made writing it much easier, to be honest. It felt great really. I only worried about my mum and other aunties reading it once it’d been sent for publication, which is just as well otherwise I’d probably never have written it.
What were the first steps from having an idea to actually writing a book?
Ideas don’t come that easily to me, but once I realised I wanted to write a ‘Muslim Bridget Jones’ it wasn’t hard to get started. If the idea is strong and exciting the writing – for me, anyway – tends to flow quite well, at least in the beginning. I’m much better at structuring my books now and tend to put in place an overall arc for the narrative before I begin. You tend to be able to see the plot holes/issues when you have an overview like this.
How do you create a really good character?
After having completed my third and latest book, This Green and Pleasant Land, I now like to have a clear idea of who all the main characters are because it makes writing them a lot simpler, being able to seed in the important parts of their personality while I write so that the revisions aren’t as arduous and also, most importantly, so that their actions are consistent with who they are.
I think the key to a good character is being able to sum them up in a few sentences and using that as their core. The rest you flesh out. So, for example, the protagonist, Bilal, in my new book, was always going to be a kind of tragi-comic figure; consistent, stable and guilt-ridden. Once you have the essence of who they are you can build on that. Not only does that help focus my writing but it also informs how the characters act and react to one another; where the conflict and tension is, how they’ll react to any given situation in the book etc.
What are the dos and don'ts of writing about dating?
Make sure you change the names of all your subjects with enough colour and distinction so they can’t sue you.
Are there any other books that have spoken to your experience of romantic love?
Anything by Jane Austen and Little Women. I don’t care that they’re from a different age, dating as an observant Muslim woman can be pretty archaic. Similarly, Middlemarch and Portrait of a Lady really resonated with me. I remember reading I Capture the Castle and being entirely absorbed by it at the age of seventeen. I was so sure and hopeful that Cassandra and Simon would get together eventually, once she had gone and got her education. Of course, re-reading the book just a few years back I was horrified at my naivety. She deserved so much better than him – he’s such an intolerable wet blanket. Similarly, re-reading Portrait of a Lady in my 30s, after having read it for the first time in my early 20s, I was incredibly frustrated with the heroine, Isabelle Archer. Initially I’d been full of sympathy for her, upon re-reading the book I felt mildly contemptuous of her bad taste in men, and her repetitive mistakes in regards to them. It goes to show how much your perception changes in light of experience. And, of course, there’s the ultimate Bridget Jones’ Diary which, over a decade later, still brings me joy, though it’s not without its flaws.
What about other kinds of love? Friendship? Family?
Again, anything by Jane Austen and Little Women. Bridget Jones’ Diary was pivotal in highlighting the dynamics of modern friendships and how important they were/are. Elena Ferrante did something wonderful with female friendship in her Neapolitan series; writing about the complexities of it in a way I’ve never read before. It might not be love per se, but I find books about dysfunctional families fascinating. I guess you can find love in them too. The Corrections by Franzen comes to mind; The Positions by Meg Wolitzer; in many ways Where’d you go Bernadette by Maria Semple is about familial love and although some people found the dynamic between husband, wife and daughter rather too kooky, I loved it.
Are there any books that you wish you had when growing up?
I rather wish that I had read some books that were already out there while I was growing up. For example, I came to Anne of Green Gables as a young adult and would’ve loved reading that when I was around ten or eleven. There’s a hiatus in my reading between my early to late teens which is inexplicable. Same with the Adrian Mole series. I only read that in my late 20s/early 30s and wish I’d read it when I was much younger.
What can we expect from your next book, This Green & Pleasant Land?
It’s different to Sofia Khan in that it’s aimed more at reading group level (so I’m told – God knows what all these distinctions really mean), but readers can expect to find humour, drama, plenty of tension and they may even need a tissue or two, if they’re particularly sensitive. I loved Sofia Khan, writing it was such a pleasure and good fun and full of catharsis (being able to rant about things like racism – within as well as outside of the Asian community – double-standards, the trials of dating etc.) but I feel even more excited about this one. I believe it’s a superior novel to my previous two Sofia Khan books, and even bolder when it comes to challenging perspectives and forcing us all to ask ourselves some uncomfortable – but very important – questions about home and belonging.
This piece was originally published in Sonder & Tell.