Brass Crescent Nomination!

Thanks to your support and input, I have been nominated for two categories in the Brass Crescent Awards: best blog and best writer! The polls are closing VERY SOON–just within the next couple of days in fact–so please take a moment to cast your vote and help me secure a win. Why? So I can go around saying I write an award-winning blog. So I can put that in a query letter when I’m submitting a manuscript to be published. So I can walk around in a little pink cloud of happiness that will inevitably evaporate when I start eyeing the next best thing.

But there are more reasons. Awards are important, people. Independent, self-founded awards like these are how activists, writers, and artists come into the limelight, how they get the attention they deserve. Awards are an invaluable form of exposure. They are a way to have your say on the Muslim content that matters to you. In a world where we have an established canon of “Christian” and “Jewish American” fiction but not its Muslim counterpart, where we have to explain ourselves before embarking on any narratives, where we are thought to be belligerent, misogynistic, and narrow-minded, it is so, so important to reward those who work so hard to change all that.

So be sure to vote. It doesn’t even have to be for me. Just go and vote. Let’s celebrate the Muslim blogosphere and show our support to the voices that mean the most to us, that come the closest to defining our spiritual experience in these times.

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On Reading Love, InshAllah

Title: Love, InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women

Editors: Ayesha Mattu, Nura Maznavi

Publication Date: January 2012 

Genre: Romantic creative nonfiction 

(I made that up, but it sure beats “Women’s Studies”!)

Source: eGalley from editor

With the very conscious agenda to dismantle stereotypes and perceptions about Muslim women and love, Love InshAllah gives a glimpse into the richness, plurality, and self-actualization inherent within American Muslim women’s love lives. It holds the enormous potential to astonish both Muslim and non-Muslim audiences, albeit for different reasons. This post is one Muslim woman’s reaction to reading about her fellow Muslimahs’ love lives in this remarkably candid, courageous, and soul-stirring collection.

Love, InshAllah, at first, brought me face-to-face with a glaring prejudice I have unconsciously created about what for me is fair game for love stories.

When Bollywood started to produce movies that involved more explicit love scenes, I remember my best friend, the least prejudiced person I know, saying “Aurgh, I don’t want to see that!” I chuckled: “So, what, it’s okay if white people do that onscreen?” She tried to explain what she felt: “No, but that’s brown people. That’s us!” Thanks to the media’s disproportionate portrayal of what particular acts should look like or whom they should involve, having intimacy is being acted out by people of “our kind” can be temporarily disorienting for even the least ideologically prudish Indo-Pakistani Muslim ladies like myself. 

I confess that, on some level, that’s what I was feeling when I read Love, InshAllah. It’s one thing to know, abstractly, that those stories are out there. Before reading this collection, I did know about gay Muslimahs, about the niqabis who have multiple sexual partners, about Muslim children having to live dual lives because they could not conform to their parents’ standards. But it’s one thing to have these faint blobs of abstraction floating around in one’s consciousness. And it’s quite another to be reading a succession of those stories by the women who own them. For reading such works constituted an experience I could never have readied myself for.

I, of course, mean that in the best way possible. 

Being a single person who’s been feeling a bit shortchanged in the love department lately, I did at times have to face the demon of loneliness while reading the stories. And being a Muslimah–which for me means having an inner universe that is shaped and conditioned by the moral tenets of the Islamic faith–means that the moral quandaries raised in some of those stories make reading them a gut-wrenchingly conflicted experience. Yet, ultimately, reading Love, InshAllah created a glowing, steadily increasing burn of recognition of myself in the stories as a whole.

The beauty of this collection lies in how pluralistic it is, and how any attempt to explain the experience of reading these stories will fail to do justice to this collection in its entirety. Therefore, I have decided attempt to group the stories based on my experience of reading them. These categories are far from perfect, but they help provide some insight into how varied the reading experience can get within the scope of such a collection. 

1. Deceptively Traditional Stories: These stories moved me because they revealed the beauty of what might, on the surface, seem to be unappealing ways to meet a significant other. Aisha Saeed’s “Leap of Faith” is a dream for any South Asian girl who’s had to go through strangeness of having her parents play matchmaker. “Otherwise Engaged” is an endearing account of Huda Al-Marashi’s yearning for a date with and formal proposal from the boy she was set up to marry. 

2. Too Good to Be True Stories: Stories that seemed too good to be true to the point of irrelevance. Although I recognize that they were a necessary part of the collection and are as true as the other stories, they’re not the kind of situations most Muslim women are lucky enough to be in. Ayesha Mattu’s “The Opening” and Angela Collins Telles’ “Love in the Andes” both involved meeting gorgeous non-Muslim men who ended up converting to Islam. Again, while I’m extremely happy for them and for all the women who have been so blessed, I’m too aware of the thornier issue of women who fall in love with good, worthy non-Muslim and are forced to choose between love and deen. 

3. Stories that are Not for the Faint-hearted: This collection of stories are better skipped by those who are squeamish, especially about Muslim women. In Tanzila Ahmed’s “Punk-Drunk Love,” Taqwacore sensibility intersects with the heartbreak and the transience of intense passion in a way that that seared my heart. Najva Sol’s “The First Time” recounts her coming to an understanding about her sexuality in a way that pulls no punches.    

4. The Real Stuff of Married Life Stories: These stories dealt with what married life (as far as I can tell) is really made up of. Melody Moezzi’s “Love in the Time of Biohazards” is a beautiful portrayal of true spousal devotion in the face of pancreatic complications. “Love at Third Sight” by Patricia M. G. Dunn provides much-needed lessons about what real love, in the context of marriage, is, and the kind of trials or uncertainty one might have to go through in order to actualize this form of love. 

5. Self-Defining Stories: Rather than relegate these stories to some overloaded form of a “miscellaneous” category, I wanted to highlight some gems in this collection, freestanding entities that made impressions I won’t easily forget:

  • Aida Rahim’s “Brain Meets Heart” is a story about how she and her daughter found the right husband and father (who incidentally is none other than Hijabman!) for themselves. I felt that this story brings out the much-needed voice of the smart, independent, admirable Muslim woman who doesn’t become any less of those things just because she happens to be a mother and a divorcee.
  • Nura Maznavi’s “Last Night on the Island” I found to be a wonderful story not just for its plot and narration, but because it functions as a portal into a grander narrative about being single. To see this included in a collection of love stories was something I had not expected, and this act of inclusion deeply moved me. 
  • “Sex by Any Other Name” is a wonderfully uncomfortable read that explores virginity, perceived ownership of such a virtue, and the complications and anxiety that result when these phenomena are continuously confronted.
  • Asiila Imani’s story “Three” traces the usual journey of love towards an unusual and controversial form: polygny. Given that a considerable number of Muslim women hold Imani’s perspective and have had experiences similar to hers, I was especially glad to see the inclusion of such a voice in this collection.
  • Suzanne Syeda Shah’s “Kala Love” is a raw, powerful account of complex family relationships, a pronounced clash between first and second-generation immigrants, the trauma of assault, and redemption through faith and sex. Because there was not only redemption, but redemption through a worthy man, I feel that this story epitomizes what–to me–is the real stuff of romance stories. 

When I look back at the climate that surrounded my education on love and sex, I am bemused by the skewed ways that women of my religious and cultural background learn about these things: the way we would devour romance novels, the ridiculous myths about female anatomy that would circulate the unmarried girls’ side in dinner parties, the simplistically treated assumption that one transforms from being ‘innocent’ to being someone who knows of these matters over the course of a wedding night. To realize that I made the transition from that background to being part of a Love, InshAllah post-publication world gives me a great deal of hope and self-affirmation. It is now, by virtue of this book, becoming a world I want to raise my daughter in.

At first I wasn’t sure if should put myself through reading this book, thinking that it would only make me confront the demon of emotional loneliness. And to an extent, it did. Amazingly enough, however, by the time I reached the end, it had done the opposite. It instilled me with a sense of hope and empowerment I couldn’t have gained in any other way. Although a little disorienting at first, it eventually lead me to breathing sigh after sigh of relief, knowing that my story–be it that of failed love, triumphant love, or singlehood–is part of a narrative that can never be conveyed simplistically, a narrative whose beauty comes from the plurality of experience and candidness about the places they come from.

This collection may be subtitled, “the secret love lives of American Muslim women,” but this book brings those lives out in the open, making them secret no more. I applaud its honesty and its celebration of female sexuality from within the Muslim universe. And I hope it paves the way for more such works about Muslim women in other places and countries and other conceptions of intimacies, starting, perhaps, with Canadian Muslim women.

On Publishing: The Coffee-With-a-Hopeful-Writer Spiel

In a previous post on publishing I talked about how I explain publishing to those who are not sure what publishing is. This post is for who do know all that. And more.
Every now and then when I tell someone I work with or am trying to get into the publishing business, there is, to my immense relief, no blank stare. Eyes light up “Oh wow, that’s great! I’m a writer! CONNECTION$$!” And I temporarily feel so cool. I don’t know why. It’s not like I throw back shots with editors-in-chief every Friday night. So, to the hidden, unspoken, yet earnest question in the writer’s eyes: “Are you the one?” I respond with great pain and wisdom: “I’m not for you, you deserve better.”

Not. What I actually say is “I hope I’ll be able to help you get your manuscript published, now or later. Tell me what it’s about.”Not all writers delude themselves, but some do tend to be more naive about the process than others. Especially in terms of how they think the world’s going to scramble to read their life’s work.

Uh. Not happening.
There’s no point in hiding it: I’ve nursed quite a few ambitions to be a published author, and a part of me still wants that. But there’s nothing like working in publishing to see not just how narrow one’s chances are, but how really none of that matters in the long run. More on that later.
Point is: as Betsy Lerner says, writing really is a paradoxical act: one writes and writes and writes in isolation to connect with the world in large. That results in a very tunnel-vision sort of a tendency. You can’t blame writers for having that tendency. But if one gives them a dose of reality, they might find themselves having to talk them off the balcony edge.

But I digress.

So, what do I tell Muslim writers who are working on the next big novel? I gently caution them to not look at their work from just their own perspective, especially if they are writing from a heavily autobiographical vein. I also give them the unfortunate news that the big publishers simply don’t feel like they have enough of a ‘literary Muslim’ audience to cater to. No, it’s not because publishing is run by the Jews. It’s because culturally, for many Muslims, there no pre-disposition to buy books. Yes, we read books, and I’m not saying we’re not intelligent and that we’re not capable of writing amazing, astonishing works. But we don’t buy books. That’s all that matters to the one of the big-six publishers at the end of the day. Whether we as consumers–not necessarily readers, consumers–of books, are significant enough to matter. Significant enough to warrant a publication targeted towards that market. Muslim consumers have only recently begun to be accounted for in terms of other industries as well, so unless books become a part of that fold or we start spending some serious dough on books and e-books, that probably isn’t going to change.

So if you’re a Muslim writer with a visible Muslim/Islamic theme in your works, don’t expect one of the big six publishers (Hachette, HarperCollins, MacMillan, Penguin, Random House, Simon & Schuster) to get excited about your work. Not unless you’re a bigshot journalist producing a work of nonfiction that addresses something that’s hot in terms of current affairs. Other industry expert wannabes may disagree, but that’s the way I see it.

That, of course, doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try. As Betsy Lerner says, one should send out manuscripts in the same manner that one should be applying to colleges: send a couple to a small press, a few more to a mid-sized press, and one or two to one of the big six publishers. Small presses may not be able to give you all the fancy promo you deserve, but if you’re willing to do some work on your part to make sure your book’s heard about, you’re golden. You may face the problem of distribution and book availability with small presses as well, but in the age of the e-book, that now matters less and less. And if I were you, I’d be sure that my book will be produced and distributed as an e-book with world rights as well. The matter of rights is not as simple as it sounds, but we’re getting there. We can’t afford not to.

Now, I may have crushed your dreams. But I hope not. I hope I’ve just given you a healthy dose of reality and inspired you–albeit in a different way. As always, should you have any further queries, my comments section and contact page await you.