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An Interview with Shelina Zahra Janmohamed – Part 2

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed's Love in a Headscarf

The US cover of Shelina's book. It was released in the US October 2010.

Last week I published part 1 of this interview, in which Shelina Zahra Janmohamed talked about her book Love in a Headscarf, why she wrote it, and how it was received.

This week, Janmohamed delves into her own writing process, talks about receiving rejection letters, and offers advice to writers.

M: I want to get deeper into your writing process, how do you balance a full time job with your writing?

Janmohamed: I write because I love it, and because I have something that I want to say. I spend weekends and evenings tapping away, or writing little notes down at odd times (and on very strange scraps of paper) so that when I do find time to write, I have some sparks to kick start me.

M: Do you have any writing routines?

Janmohamed: No. It takes me a while to get into writing something, but once I’ve got going, I tend to write with a passion.

M: Are you part of a critique group? Where do you get feedback on your writing?

Janmohamed: I asked my close friends whose opinions and literary talents I respect to give me feedback on my book. It’s a huge imposition to ask someone to read a book, and not one that I make lightly.

M: What would you say is the single most important lesson you learned when writing (and publishing) Love in a Headscarf?

Janmohamed: Be true to your vision, you are the best supporter that your work can have.

M: Is there anything about writing and/or publishing you know now that you wished you knew when you first started writing LIAH?

Janmohamed: It’s a much harder and slower process than you might imagine. And it’s certainly not lucrative. But the joy of holding your book in print is unimaginable.

M: I know that there are a lot of Muslim women who are interested in writing about their own experiences as a form of self-expression, but may be worried about reactions from their communities and families. What would you say to them?

Janmohamed: The only way to change society is to be brave. If we are not willing to put ourselves out there, then things can never improve. I’d say, have the right intention, ask Allah for guidance, and then start a gentle evolution. Courage is a difficult thing to practice, but we must all try.

M: What advice would you give to beginning writers?

Janmohamed: Ensure that the quality of your writing is the best it can be. When you write, make sure you say something original either in content, or in the way you say it. And make every effort you can to get your work out there. Promotion is your best friend.

M: You wrote LIAH as a memoir rather than a novel. Do you think you are more comfortable writing nonfiction or do you see yourself as writing fiction in the future?

Janmohamed: Non-fiction is a genre that conveys what I want to communicate. However, I veer into creative non-fiction which at times has a storytelling style that is quite like fiction, and has the same qualities to transport you into an alternate domain.

M: Do you mind sharing with us how you found your publisher? From your interview in The Asian Writer, it looks like you didn’t have to deal with rejection letters. How did you decide on which agents and publishers to solicit and which to choose?

Janmohamed: Actually I have a whole folder full of rejection letters from publishers, varying from bog standard photocopies which go out to anyone who has sent in a manuscript, to more personal notes. Eventually I narrowed down my choices to six agents. I met with each of them in turn to understand whether they shared my vision as a writer and also to see if I thought they would do a good job of representing me. I eventually chose Diane Banks – and I haven’t regretted my choice for a moment.

M: And finally, what’s your next writing project?

Janmohamed: Right now I’ve been focusing on writing newspaper and magazine columns, but I definitely plan to write another book in the future – God willing!

Thank you, Shelina, for a fascinating interview.

I hope all of you have enjoyed it as much as I did.

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed’s website: www.spirit21.co.uk

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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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