Hi, everyone! This is my first time hosting an interview on my blog. For this super special, very first interview, I had the pleasure of interviewing indie-published author Ishara Deen. Her debut novel, God Smites and Other Muslim Girl Problems, releases today, January 15th!
Before we get to the interview, let’s take a look at the book cover:
Wow. I really love this cover! It features a brown girl front and not-quite-center, looking confident and poised to kick ass. The font has a nice and casual vibe, and I’m partial to the background because purple is my favorite color.
Now, for the cover blurb/synopsis:
LIKE NANCY DREW, BUT NOT…
Craving a taste of teenage life, Asiya Haque defies her parents to go for a walk (really, it was just a walk!) in the woods with Michael, her kind-of-friend/crush/the guy with the sweetest smile she’s ever seen. Her tiny transgression goes completely off track when they stumble on a dead body. Michael covers for Asiya, then goes missing himself.
Despite what the police say, Asiya is almost sure Michael is innocent. But how will she, the sheltered girl with the strictest parents ever, prove anything? With Michael gone, a rabid police officer in desperate need of some sensitivity training, and the murderer out there, how much will Asiya risk to do what she believes is right?
And a brief description from the author herself:
God Smites and Other Muslim Girl Problems features Asiya Haque, a Bengali Canadian teen, who is finding her strength and feminism while making her religion her own. The story showcases meaningful friendships, a confusing crush, heavy family drama and unexpected humour through a cozy mystery.
I don’t know about y’all, but between the cover and the descriptions, I’m hooked! I have my copy of the book already, courtesy of Ishara herself, and I can’t wait to read it and share my thoughts on it. Hopefully you’re curious and want to learn a bit more about the author and writing process for this book because here we go with the interview!
(Note: SW stands for Shenwei, a.k.a Me, ID is for Ishara Deen. My comments and questions are in bold font.)
SW: Every author has a story, a progression of events that eventually leads to them becoming an author, even if there are major detours along the way. What’s your story?
ID: I’ve heard a lot of authors say they write the characters they wish they grew up seeing in books. I wish I’d been that smart! I grew up playing with blonde, blue-eyed Barbies and reading Sweet Valley Twins, not noticing that something was missing there. Instead my brown-skinned self, who grew up poor (relative to Canadian standards), obese, and hijabi, went through too much of life thinking something wasn’t up to par with me.
I guess that makes sense why I’ve been writing for years, but watering down my work so that an assumed audience whose lives were more like Elizabeth and Jessica’s could understand or relate. Thankfully, each draft I wrote let me see the imaginary audiences I was writing for and edit them out so that the isolated teens who matter to me could take priority. Writing was a thing I’ve always done – it builds me as a person. Becoming an author, particularly of a series of books, is about sharing the beauty of rewriting. I want teens to know that no matter where you’re at, you can edit, clarify and construct until you’re the person you want to be.
SW: That reminds me of my own experiences with writing. I wrote a lot of characters who weren’t like me until gradually I worked my way toward writing about characters who shared my identity and experiences, the many intersecting ones I have.
In the description you gave me, you said your book tackles issues such as “religion, Islamophobia, abuse, (white) feminism, (internalized) misogyny, and the weight of being a minority within a minority group.” Did you find it difficult to incorporate all of these issues and balance them in your story? Or did they come naturally as you wrote?
ID: Writing about all of those things would have been easy, had I stopped caring so much about what others would think –as if they were the true judges of an experience they hadn’t lived!
I was so affected by the pressure, I almost didn’t publish. I had set a December release date and after the US election, I felt like it was necessary to double up on critique of Islamophobia and delay my release indefinitely because of the critique of things within the Muslim community.
Two things changed my mind. First: reindeer dick. I saw a book about a Reindeer-shifting romance. I’m going to clarify here that I’m not critiquing people’s personal fantasies –the world is hard, I totally support people getting happy. But I am critiquing that white women are free to write mothers like the one in White Oleander and fantasies about reindeer-shifters without having all white women labelled as abusive, reindeer-dick lovers. It had me wondering: why did I as a Muslim author feel responsible for those who would twist my story into “See! All Muslims are misogynists”?
Second, a small voice reminded me that increased Islamophobia didn’t mean decreased harm from white feminism or internalized misogyny. #Ownvoices authors have a right to critique and demand improvement in their communities. Writing that kind of critique is both natural and difficult, but as an author that’s what I will continue to do.
SW: Well, I’m very glad that you decided to go through with publishing your book. In these times, voices like yours are more important than ever. Hopefully your example will inspire others to speak up. Which leads me to the next question…
Are there any authors who have inspired you a lot? If so, tell us a few.
ID: So, that part where I talked about blindly reading what’s out there and not questioning? Yeah, I read “mainstream” for too long. I’ll always have a soft spot for Nancy Drew. In romance, I loved Susan Elizabeth Phillips (even when I had to mentally edit out problematic content). Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum mysteries were great up to a point.
For a long time, I gave up on traditional publishing houses to produce what I was looking for and read only indie books. I was happy to read widely, if it meant that I’d find authors like Mariana Zapata and Nyrae Dawn. I love when authors can address tough issues but write feel-good, inspiring reads.
*trigger warning: homophobic (past) thoughts
One book that stood out for me was Tanuja Desai Hidier’s Born Confused. This was where I finally saw some of myself reflected and learned much more. I had this horrible notion growing up, that being gay couldn’t be real because more people across many backgrounds would be gay if it were true. Unfortunately, the extent of representation I had of the LGBTQ community was as the butt of jokes in movies and they were always presented as a tiny minority of white people. That made the limiting and harmful societal and religious beliefs I was taught so much easier to absorb. Born Confused showed me that the intersection between being a woman of colour and being lesbian existed. I don’t think I understood back when I read it, how much of a shift in my thinking that representation made possible. Even thinking on it now is inspiring me to address a lot more than I’ve had the courage to in my first book.
SW: Ah, now I have two more authors to look up! I am also bumping up Born Confused on my TBR list, where it has been languishing since I found it in the early days of my quest to read more diversely.
Speaking of diversity, in the past two or so years, there has been a strong call for diversity in young people’s literature. Has that movement affected how you approach writing?
ID: I love seeing how activists, academics, bloggers, reviewers, and everyday people are forcing the industry to recognize the importance of representation, especially for young people. It’s hard enough to write while holding out for the bleak hope that I’d be one of the very few women of colour that publishers decided to take on. In order to free myself from that pressure, years back I’d made the decision that when I publish, I would do it indie.
Maybe I’m a little too Type-A, but nothing has changed for me. I didn’t pitch a single agent or query any publishers. I’ve seen the Lee & Low survey on Diversity in Publishing and I’d worry about giving up editorial control where the majority of people don’t understand the experience in the story. I’d wonder if an industry – where Marketing & Publicity departments average at 77% White/Caucasian – would understand the importance of featuring a brown-skinned teen prominently on the cover. I’d outright throw a fit if their cover designers tried to bleach out the beautifully brown skin of my main character. I get that there are people outside and inside the industry who are fighting to make a difference – their work is essential and is making many worlds of difference, now and for the future. But I like that there are other options too. And for now, I need to be in charge of the details, right down to the exact CMYK colours.
Yup. I’m definitely Type-A.
SW: I totally relate to those worries, as they are thoughts I’ve had myself while thinking about getting published. In fact, anxiety about not being able to find acceptance in the mainstream publishing industry has pushed me to consider indie or self-publishing on more than one occasion. What advice would you give aspiring authors who are considering self-publishing or indie publishing?
ID: Do it! But only if you are okay with being responsible for the whole writing process, coming up with business and marketing plans, taking charge of all design and layout, learning how and where to publish, finding the right help, and a handful of other things.
I can’t pretend that the indie process is easy and I won’t lie, I have doubts that what I produced is good enough. At the same time, I don’t think anyone is claiming that the gatekeeping days of the publishing industry is over. And we’ve all seen the repeated publishing fails in the industry (seriously with the Nazi romances?). Publishers aren’t written off for their failures, indies shouldn’t be either.
My advice is this: If you don’t need the prestige of being traditionally published, if you know you write well but your topics are too far outside what the mainstream can handle, if you can hold on to the idea that indie-publishing royalties can be substantially higher if you work hard enough at making book sales, if you are willing to take your story and make it as good or better than traditional publishers could possibly make it – then I invite you to consider, someone has to be producing fabulously diverse literature. Why not you?
SW: That’s a very encouraging statement. Thank you very much!
Because the industry is the way it is, one of the common experiences that marginalized people have is that search for representation, for characters who are like us. Do you have any book recommendations for characters with similar experiences to your own?
ID: I would recommend Randa Abdel-Fattah’s Does My Head Look Big in This? for people looking for a funny, sweet read about a Muslim teen. I already mentioned how great I think Tanuja Desai Hidier’s Born Confused is for South Asian readers and others. And despite the main character being a half Mexican, half Argentinian, all-star athlete, I loved Mariana Zapata’s Kulti for its humour and inspirational main character, but also because I could relate so well to the depiction of what it’s like being the child of immigrants.
SW: Thanks for the recs. I’ve actually read Does My Head Look Big in This? myself, and I’m seconding that rec. (Readers: You can find my review of the book here.)
In relation to the previous question: Despite the recent increase in diversity in publishing, there are still many experiences that have not been represented. What kinds of stories are you still waiting for?
ID: I don’t consider myself well-read enough to comment on what’s missing, but what I haven’t seen a lot of in genre fiction is enough humanizing representations of people of colour who live below the poverty line. I want to see something beyond the tropes. Probably because I can’t figure out how to write poverty with a sense of agency, I’m hungry for recommendations on any books that can. If you know some, send them my way?
SW: Oh yes, that is definitely a gap I’ve noticed, especially as far as Asians in diaspora go. The model minority myth says we’re all successful and socioeconomically well-off, but that’s definitely not the case all across the board, especially when you disaggregate by ethnicity. One of the books that I’ve read recently that addresses class divisions and working-class POC is Alice Pung’s Lucy and Linh (originally published under the title Laurinda, in Australia), which focuses on a Chinese-Vietnamese Australian teen from an lower-class background. I wrote a review for it here. If anyone among my followers has additional recs, feel free to send them my way (leave a comment) and to Ishara (via the links at the bottom of this post)!
And that concludes the interview! Thank you for taking the time to compose such thorough and thoughtful responses. Once I post my review of your book, I will put the link on Twitter and @ you so you can share it. 🙂
Ishara Deen, author of God Smites and Other Muslim Girl Problems, is also a copywriter and grad-school dropout. She did finish a Master’s degree in World Lit, but still prefers a good mystery, fantasy, or romance over “literature.” She’s a hobby-collecting nerd, the latest of which are archery and bass guitar, and her goal in life is to write and publish what scares her, because it’s likely to scare the people that put that fear in her even more.
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Connect with Ishara Deen!
Last, but not least, spread the word about this book! It’s a great addition for the #MuslimShelfSpace project that’s happening on Twitter right now!