An interview with Shelina Zahra Janmohamed – Part 1

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed, author of Love in a Headscarf

"My book has been described as a ‘Muslim Bridget Jones,’ and I have mixed feelings about this."

I’d heard a lot about Shelina Zahra Janmohamed’s Love in a Headscarf before I read it. It was supposed to be about finding love and a husband, in a chick-lit fashion, but it was also about Divine love. How on earth did she manage that?

Janmohamed is a young British author and commentator who caught the attention of people searching for a Muslim voice through her writings on www.spirit21.co.uk.  A blogger since March 2006, Janmohamed’s writings are intelligent, as well as cool, calm, and collected. Her book has been published in several languages.

As soon as I finished reading Love in a Headscarf (LIAH), I just knew I had to interview Janmohamed. Reading the book, I felt as if I was having lunch with a friend, discussing all the strange, often sad, often mad, and often hilarious situations in our search for love.  Contacting her for an interview, I discovered that she was as friendly and approachable as her book.

This is the first part of my interview with Janmohamed. She discusses her book and how it was received, among other things. In the second part, she discusses writing, gives some advice, and tells us what she’s been up to lately.

M: It’s been more than a year since Love in a Headscarf was published. How do you evaluate it and the reception it received?

Janmohamed: I’ve had a very warm reception to the writing in the book – coverage from all the big national and international media in print, radio and television. I constantly get messages from people all round the world who write to tell me that the book has reached out and touched them, and they’ve been moved to write to me – a response I find very humbling. Most exciting of all is the fact that the book has been published and translated internationally, which says to me that it is reaching across cultures and boundaries.

M: Is there anything that surprised you by how people reacted to the book?

Janmohamed: I’m just delighted that the warmth and humour of the stories has been embraced, and that my motivation in trying to create a new story and a new narrative about Muslim women being empowered, lively and enchanting, is starting to take hold.

M: How did you expect your Buxom Aunties and the mosque Imams to react to the book, and how did they actually react?

Janmohamed: I’ve personally given the book to some younger Imams in the hope they will read it, and use it to understand more about the female experience. I treat both with respect and compassion in my book as I feel they do a difficult but very important job – I hope they get that from my writing. And I hope they realize that my contribution is an optimistic one that will make their work more and more effective.

M: Right now in Egypt, there is a flurry of female writing about the pursuit of “a suitable boy”, and all the comedy and

The UK cover of Love in a Headscarf

The UK cover

tragedy that comes with it. One writer that comes to mind is Ghada Abdel Aal, whose I Want to Get Married has become a tremendous hit, growing from a blog to a book, to a TV mini-series, It’s  been translated into Italian and is now also coming out in English from University of Texas Press.  Do you think that Muslim female writing about courtship and marriage is becoming a trend, and do you think there is an audience for this kind of writing in the West?

Janmohamed: Love and marriage are universal topics, and as human beings we are intrigued by the processes used by other cultures.  I think that’s one of the reasons such stories become so popular. However, the popularity of such works also makes me cautious because whilst they are a good first step towards opening a dialogue about Muslim women, we need to ensure that marriage is not the new one-dimensional definition of women. That’s why I was careful to include deeper insights in my book as to the motivations and development that filled my own story.

M: You’ve said that you wanted to provide the unique experience of a British Asian Muslim woman, but at the same time, I find that there are a lot of shared experiences of Muslim women today all over the world searching for “Mr. Right”, especially since increased travel and globalization have created a lot of hyphenated identities. What do you think is unique about the British Asian Muslim experience?

Janmohamed: Britain has a specific relationship with the Muslim and Eastern world due to its colonial past.  Compared to the Americas also, Britain’s trading, cultural and intellectual relationship with the Muslim world is also much older – we have evidence in the form of coins dating back to the 8th century.  This long history means that many of the Muslims who came to Britain the 20th century already had longstanding links either in their own lives, or through their previous generations. Britain also has an incredibly diverse Muslim population – some says that outside of the hajj it’s the most diverse in the world. These two elements combine together in a very vibrant and lively manner.

M: I’ve read in an interview that you said that you wrote because you “couldn’t find anyone that was expressing a view based on critical thinking and, following the success of the blog, her audience began to suggest she write a book about being a Muslim woman”, and that love was a universal theme, so you brought those two elements (critical thinking and love as a Muslim woman) together. But at the same time, you wrote the book in the tradition of chick-lit memoir. Do you think this choice of genre made some people dismiss the book as being trivial?

Janmohamed: My book has been described as a ‘Muslim Bridget Jones,’ and I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, Bridget Jones really captured a zeitgeist and spoke to something very intimate in many modern women. To be compared to something that is now an entrenched part of popular culture is a great compliment. On the other hand, Love in a Headscarf has many deeper elements about asserting your identity, finding your place in the world, and standing for what you believe in. That these have become secondary is difficult, I admit, but overall the book has had such great success and been so widely published and read that the genre I’ve chosen has served the story very well.

M: As a writer who has chosen to write consciously as a Muslim, how do you see the current scene of Muslim writing? Why do you think there aren’t more Muslims writing their own narratives?

Janmohamed: Gradually more and more Muslims are writing, and I think that’s fantastic. I hope the trend continues.  However, I think part of the problem is confidence and encouragement – writers are still perceived rather dubiously in many parts of the Muslim community. And of course it takes practice to write well, and if you’re not encouraged to write you never gain that practice. The other problem is the gatekeepers to the media and publishing industries don’t ‘get’ the commercial and literary value of such works. I’m afraid the misery-memoir and the political ex-jihadi memoir seem to be the only ones that generally get commissioned.

M: Reading your book, I found a lot of explanations of rituals, traditions, values, concepts that would otherwise be self-explanatory to a Muslim reader. Do you think that this bogs down your writing? And does this mean that you are writing more for a non-Muslim audience than a Muslim one?

Janmohamed: For those who are not familiar with Islam, I wanted to ensure that they weren’t lost in jargon, and also that any assumptions that they brought with them as they came to the book were cleared up. For those more familiar with Islam, I felt it was important to take them through my own journey in Islam, so that they could make sense of my stories and decisions.

Read part 2 here.

Here’s more Janmohamed:

Her website: www.spirit21.co.uk

To read her articles on The Guardian newspaper, click here.

Read more about her:  Sense and Serendipity.

Interview in Marie Claire.

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Denying your creativity can kill you

The War of Art - book coverI’m reading Steven Pressfield‘s excellent little book about writing, how to be a professional writer, what that means, what makes you stop writing (or doing any creative work) and how you can overcome it. I’m almost finished reading The War of Art, but from the very fist chapter, I knew this was a winner. It’s one of those books that make you feel like you have to underline every single sentence.

Let me give you an example. Last night, I read a chapter titled “Life and Death”. This is a chapter I wanted to underline, quote, print out and frame, and shout out from the rooftops. In “Life and Death”, Pressfield discusses how a profound shift takes place in the awareness of a person who finds out that he/she has a terminal illness.

“Things that sixty seconds earlier had seemed all important suddenly appear meaningless, while people and concerns that he had till then dismissed at once take on supreme importance.”

How many times have we heard stories of people who, after being told by their doctors that they have just six months to live, quit their jobs to spend time with their families and do something that takes everyone by surprise?

Tom Laughlin, an actor, lecturer, author, and psychologist who works with the terminally ill, says that this “deadline” makes people start to think about what they’ve always wanted to do in their lives. They start thinking about how they’ve always wanted to play music, or paint, or write, or travel around the world.

The reason this happens, Laughlin says, is that consciousness shifts from the Ego to the Self. As Pressfield puts it, “The world is entirely new, viewed from the Self. At once we discern what’s really important. Superficial concerns fall away, replaced by a deeper, more profoundly grounded perspective.”

So what’s new about that? We all know that, right? Who would continue working in their 9-5 jobs or prefer to spend time in their cubicles or in office meetings when they find out they have six months left? So what’s so amazing that I’m dedicating an entire blog post to this?

According to Pressfield, once people make this mental shift and start pursuing their dreams, they recover from their illnesses.

And Laughlin, as well as Pressfield, ask some crucial questions:

“Is it possible… that the disease itself evolved as a consequence of actions taken (or not taken) in our lives? Could our unlived lives have exacted their vengeance upon us in the form of cancer? And if they did, can we cure ourselves, now, by living these lives out?”

How much negativity exists in our lives when we aren’t doing what we aren’t pursuing our dreams? And how many diseases baffle doctors and researchers, who end up explaining them as being a result of “negative stress”, among other things?

Call me deluded, but this makes a whole lot of sense to me.

What do you think?

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Good news

Finally, good news! My blog post about the recent Egyptian parliamentary elections and my experience as a first-time voter was chosen as one of “5 things that blew us away” by She Writes editors. (Yay!)

I didn’t post it up here because this blog is dedicated mainly to the topics of reading, writing, storytelling, and everything that concerns them (which obviously includes eating chocolate. Lots of it).

Read my blog post here. I’d love to hear what you think about it.

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Why writers need negative criticism – Part 2

Negative criticism can destroy a writing career.

Negative criticism can either improve a writer's skills, or destroy her forever.

In my previous post about negative criticism, I outlined the six stages of reaction I went through when I received the most biting criticism in my life. In this post I want to explore the different possible reactions and factors that writers need to be aware of in order to make the most out of any negative criticism they come across.

There are basically two main reactions to negative criticism, with many variations and degrees:

1. Rejection

2. Acceptance (It can either take a healthy form of a learning experience, or a deadly form of destroying a writer’s confidence so completely that she never writes another word again.)

Before getting into the various factors a writer needs to consider when evaluating negative criticism, let’s first consider this: what would happen to you as a writer if you never received any negative criticism?

I, for one, don’t believe that there is any writer in the world who doesn’t need to improve their writing. And any writer who believes otherwise is seriously deluded. No matter how great a writer is, no matter how acclaimed or best-selling, every writer needs a good editor/agent/critique partner(s) who can tell him what’s working with a piece of writing, and what’s not working.

How else are you supposed to improve if all you hear is: ‘That’s great!”, “I loved it!”? The simple — and to me, obvious — answer is: you don’t.

Now on to the various factors that need to be taken into consideration when receiving negative criticism, and which can determine how you react:

1. How was the criticism given?

Was it supportive? That is, did the person giving the critique seem to want you to improve, or did it seem as if she was just out to cut you down? Were there any positive remarks?

I always make it a point to highlight any positive areas in a piece of writing before I say what I thought needed work, even if it means I just acknowledge the effort a writer has exerted, or the bravery she’s shown by submitting her work to be critiqued, or a phrase I liked, or an idea that has potential.

I also make the effort to be as sincere in my enthusiasm as I am in my criticism. One of the most depressing things is hearing an unenthusiastic “Yeah, it’s nice, but…” Hearing that makes me discredit everything that comes out of the person’s mouth. Make me feel good first. Make me feel safe. Give me a cushion to fall on before you punch me.

2. Who gave the criticism?

Is that person, in your opinion, qualified? That is, do you trust them to be objective and to want you to improve? When you consider this factor, you have to be careful not to allow your resistance to, or rejection of the criticism affect this opinion. This means that just because the person criticized your writing, don’t ignore it by saying to yourself, “What does he know anyway?”

Generally speaking, friends don’t make good critique partners. There’s simply too much history and emotions and stakes involved to allow for either a fair critique or a fair reception of that critique. The best thing to do is to search for a critique partner with whom you are not emotionally involved. You can always become friends with your critique partner (it’s almost inevitable), but when your friends become your critique partners, your friendship can suffer.

Leave the ego-boosting to your friends, instead. Make sure they’ll support you and encourage you to continue when you do get cut down.That’s what friends are for, after all.

3. What was your emotional state beforehand?

Were you in a foul mood before you opened that email that tore your writing to shreds? If you were, then you probably hit the roof. I hardly think that you swallowed your pride and tearfully started revising your work.

If you were depressed before you received the criticism, you’ll probably feel suicidal after reading it.

You have to be aware of your feelings before receiving the criticism so you can evaluate your reaction and the criticism fairly.

4. Does it make sense?

The validity of a critique can be relative and can’t be measured without an argument being made for it. How do you decide whether this makes sense or not? The best thing to do is try to distance yourself from both the critique as well as your own writing.

And if the criticism suggests removing a line or changing something, try it. Implement the change and reread your work. Does it sound better? Did removing that beautifully crafted sentence leave a gaping hole in your writing, or did it tighten it?

And now, over to you. What other factors do you believe affect the reception of negative criticism?

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Why writers need negative criticism – Part 1

Why writers need negative criticismYes, you read that right. And no, I’m not a masochist. About a week ago, I received the most biting negative criticism that I have ever received about a piece of my writing. And I mean negative. Caustic. It burned. I’ll tell you exactly how. This is how I felt about it (more or less in chronological order):

1. Stunned: I’d never received such a crushing critique before.

2. In denial: The person who critiqued the work obviously doesn’t know anything. This isn’t happening to me. This person doesn’t understand what I’m trying to say or the aim of this piece of writing.

3. Crushed: I suck. I suck. I suck. I can’t believe I ever thought I can become a good writer. I suck. I should just go find some office job and forget about ever becoming a writer. Did I mention that I suck? Well, I do. I suck.

4. Acceptance of the criticism: OK, this person may have a point. Yes, I agree that this needs some revision. OK, it needs a major rewrite and has lots of problems.

5. Worried and paranoid: If I sucked so bad at this piece, therefore, I suck at everything related to writing. Anyone else who ever said anything good about any of my other writings must have been too polite or embarrassed to say anything. Anyone else who didn’t tear my writing to shreds before must have been too nice to say anything. They must have pitied me. I still suck.

6. Shaky acceptance of myself: This was the most difficult stage to arrive at. OK, so not everything I write is wonderful, or even good. Sometimes I write terribly, and sometimes I write very well. There’s no way that anyone writes well every single time. This shredding of my writing will make me more aware of the mistakes I make. It will make me improve my writing. There is hope. Maybe I don’t suck. At least not completely.

This was a rundown of my emotional and mental states as I dealt with the criticism. At the end, I did buckle up and fix that piece. But I’m no hero. I still feel that my previously dulled sense of self-doubt has been sharpened and stings. And now I’m trying to convince myself that a healthy dose of self-doubt is necessary for all writers. How else would they improve? But the key word here is: healthy.

In the next post in this two-part series, I’ll talk some more about negative critiques, and how writers can evaluate and deal with it.

But now, I’m interested in knowing about your experiences with negative criticism. How did it make you feel? What did you do?

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Reading binge makes for a magical week

Last week was magical. I grumbled into the phone when friends called, and snapped at anyone who dared interrupt me. That’s not the magic part, though. You see, I treated myself to a reading binge and discovered not one, two, or three, but four amazing authors. Most of these  novels are not recent publications, and I’ve had them on my Kindle since last year, but never got around to reading them. Here they are in the order I read them.

1. Kate Morton, The Forgotten Garden. With a little bit of The Secret Garden, a lot of going back and forth between three different time periods, and a delightful dose of original fairy tales, this novel bowled me over. What can be more exciting than a forgotten garden, an old book of original fairy tales, and a family mystery?

From the book description:

“Inheriting a book of dark and intriguing fairytales written by Eliza Makepeace – the Victorian authoress who disappeared mysteriously in the early twentieth century – Cassandra takes her courage in both hands to follow in the footsteps of [her recently dead grandmother] Nell on a quest to find out the truth about their history, their family and their past; little knowing that in the process, she will also discover a new life for herself.”

One of my favorite quotes:

“Ever since Eliza had discovered the book of fairy tales… she’d understood the power of stories. Their magical ability to refill the wounded part of people.”

2. Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees.  I emerged from between the pages of this book half-wishing I was a beekeeper. Maybe I should put that on my list of “things I wish I can do sometime in my life.” This list includes things like becoming a marine biologist and a wildlife photographer for National Geographic.

From the book description:

“When [Lily’s governess] Rosaleen insults three of the deepest racists in town, [teenage misfit] Lily knows it’s time to spring them both free. They take off in the only direction Lily can think of, toward a town called Tiburon, South Carolina – a name she found on the back of a picture amid the few possessions left by her mother.”

One of my favorite quotes:

“I was wishing I had a story like that one to live inside me with so much loudness you could pick it up on a stethoscope, and not the story I did have about ending my mother’s life and sort of ending my own at the same time.”

3. Kathryn Stockett, The Help. Like To Kill a Mockingbird, this novel reminded me of just how deeply entrenched racism was in the (US) South. Told through the voices of one white woman slowly realizing how little she fits in with her childhood friends and hometown, and two black women working as maids in Jackson, Mississippi, this novel traces the stories of black maids working in the American South in the 1960s.

From the book description:

“Seemingly as different from one another as can be, these women will nonetheless come together for a clandestine project that will put them all at risk. And why? Because they are suffocating within the lines that define their town and their times. And sometimes lines are made to be crossed. ”

One of my favorite quotes:

“She gave me a lemony smile.”

4. Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible. Told in five different and distinct voices, Kingsolver tells a powerful tale about family, missionaries, and politics. Her novel follows the fates of the wife and four daughters of an American missionary who sends himself and his family to the Belgian Congo to bring Christianity to a small village. Despite the serious subject matter, Kingsolver surprised me by making me laugh out loud at times, with her characters’ observations on situations that are so horrific or pathetic that they become darkly comic.

From the book description:

“[I]t isn’t long before they discover that the tremendous humidity has rendered the [Betty Crocker cake] mixes unusable, their clothes are unsuitable, and they’ve arrived in the middle of political upheaval as the Congolese seek to wrest independence from Belgium. In addition to poisonous snakes, dangerous animals, and the hostility of the villagers to Nathan’s fiery take-no-prisoners brand of Christianity, there are also rebels in the jungle and the threat of war in the air. Could things get any worse?

In fact they can and they do.”

One of my favorite quotes:

“White men tell us: Vote, bantu! They tell us: You do not all have to agree, ce n’est pas nécessaire! If two men vote yes and one says no, the matter is finished. Á bu, even a child can see how that will end. It takes three stones in the fire to hold up the pot. Take one away, leave the other two, and what? The pot will spill into the fire.”

Lesson to be learned from this latest reading binge: If you call me and I answer the phone in a distracted grumble, that probably means you interrupted me while reading and I was too polite to snap at you.

Have you read any good books lately?

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The results are in

I just took the BookBrowse quiz to find out what kind of reader I am. Yes, I know, these quizzes are usually just for fun. But this time, I believe the results:

I’m an “all-rounder”, which means that I fit equally into all four reading personalities. Here’s what BookBrowse has to say about me:

Involved Reader: You don’t just love to read books, you love to read about books. For you, half the fun of reading is the thrill of the chase – discovering new books and authors, and discussing your finds with others. Yes, oh yes! The “thrill of the chase”. Only a true book lover understands that.
Exacting Reader: You love books but you rarely have as much time to read as you’d like – so you’re very particular about the books you choose. Well, I do have much more time than most other people I know, but I am a bit picky.
Serial Reader: Once you discover a favorite writer you tend to stick with him/her through thick and thin. How true! And woe be it if my favorite writers disappoint me! It’s only happened once, and I still haven’t gotten over it.
Eclectic Reader: You read for entertainment but also to expand your mind. You’re open to new ideas and new writers, and are not wedded to a particular genre or limited range of authors. Yes! I love discovering new genres and new authors. I read all types of fiction, narrative nonfiction, poetry, children’s books, and YA novels. I have yet to conquer my extreme reluctance to read sci-fi, though.

And now, over to you. I’m interested to know, what kind of reader are you? Take the BookBrowse quiz here. I don’t think you have to be a member to take it.

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