Your first book, Sofia Khan is Not Obliged, is often described as a Muslim Bridget Jones’ Diary. What originally inspired you to write about the dating life of a modern Muslim woman?
It was inspired by my own lived experiences and the ones of Muslim/Asian women around me. I had a character in mind and I wanted her to subvert expectations of what a woman, who wears a hijab and is an observant Muslim, is like. There are so many negative portrayals of Muslim women, I wanted to write about one who felt truer to my own life experience, rather than the ones I see on television, or have read about in books. Plus, on a very basic level, the Muslim dating scene is filled with such tragi-comedy that I felt I had to write about it.
Sofia tells her story in a series of first-person blog posts. What made you decide to use this technique in these novels?
Social media is such a huge part of our every day lives now that it felt true to the character, as well as hitting that contemporary note. Later these posts gradually mutate into her book and so made sense in terms of plotting too.
With Sofia’s Story you handle the difficult topics of religion, race, and identity with grace—and so much wonderful humor! What part of handling these sensitive subjects did you find the most difficult?
Thank you. You never know if these things will work so it’s always a relief to hear when it has! I think the hardest part of it was dealing with the issue of grief and balancing such a grim topic, giving it its due emotional depth, which it needed and deserved without veering into the sentimental, but also staying true to the tone of the overall story. It’s been a great learning curve for me, to not shy away from exploring emotions when necessary, but to know when to move on from it too – pre-edits, I fear I moved on rather too quickly. When it came to the social issues I felt that humuor was actually the best way to talk about them. It was never going to be a serious book, and I think that often, the best way to provoke thought is through humour.
The Other Half of Happening tackles the idea of “happily ever after.” What made you want to continue her story after the happy ending of book one?
My publisher told me to! Plus, it didn’t feel like Sofia’s story had ended. I wanted to bring a bit of reality into the romantic aspect of it – the issues that come from not actually knowing the person you’ve fallen in love with, and expectations one has of love versus its reality. In many ways it’s a cautionary tale for people who fall in love with love stories. Sorry.
What reactions from your readers have you loved most, and what were some reader responses that have surprised you?
The reaction has been so positive I’m very grateful and lucky. I’ve received many messages from Muslim women who are glad that there’s a book that they feel they can actually relate to, and which they feel represents them. This isn’t that surprising, although of course it’s very gratifying. What’s been more surprising is the reviews from white men (not the target market!) who have also enjoyed the book. In some ways this is more satisfying, simply because it subverts the notion of ‘women’s’ fiction and shows the universality of storytelling.
It goes without saying that here at Reading Women we’re all about women writers. Who are some of your favorite female authors?
I’d have to start with the classics like Jane Austen, Nancy Mitford and Dodie Smith (I read I Capture the Castle in my formative years and will never forget its impact on me). Then there’s the late great Norah Ephron – I only wish she’d written more. Anne Enright is a genius storyteller as is Ruth Ozeki. I’m a huge fan of Maria Semple and there are many more who I couldn’t possibly list. I’ll just say that it’s hard to keep up with the talent emerging from women right now. It’s an exciting time to be a writer. And reader.
What are you working on next?
My next book is set in an English village. It will be about a Muslim man, Bilal (known as Bill by his friends) who’s asked by his mother on her deathbed to build a mosque in his village. The story will follow Bilal’s journey to try and make this happen. You can imagine the scope for comedy in a place where the width of one’s garden hedge can be cause for petition. What would happen if someone actually tried to build a mosque? We’ll find out.
Ayisha Malik holds a BA in English Literature and Sociology, and a First Class MA in Creative Writing. She worked at Penguin Random House before moving to Cornerstones where she was managing editor for five years. Her debut novel, Sofia Khan is Not Obliged, was met with great critical acclaim and was a WHSmith Fresh Talent pick in 2016. The book has also been optioned for TV. Ayisha is also the ghost writer for Great British Bake Off winner, Nadiya Hussain's book, The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters (Harlequin). She is now a full-time writer and is working on her third novel, as well as Nadiya's second book.