Hi Na’ima and welcome to tall tales & short stories.
Would you like to tell us a bit about yourself?
It’s fantastic to be here – thanks so much for inviting me!
Well, I am of mixed South African parentage: my father’s ancestors were Scottish highlanders and my mother was Zulu. I was born in Leeds and lived there for 2 years after which we lived in Ethiopia for 4 years. We then settled in Zimbabwe where I completed high school. I came back to the UK (London this time) for university where I became a Muslim, got married, started writing and had three of my four children. I now spend a large part of the year in Egypt.
BOY VS GIRL
Farhana swallowed and reached for the hijab. But then she saw with absolute clarity the weird looks from the other girls at school, and the smirks from the guys. Did she dare?
And then there was Malik... What should she do about him?
Faraz was thinking about Skrooz and the lads. Soon he would finally have the respect of the other kids at school. But at what price?
He heard Skrooz's voice, sharp as a switchblade: "This thing is powerful, blud. But you have to earn it, see? Just a few more errands for me..."
They're twins, born 6 minutes apart. Both are in turmoil and both have life-changing choices to make, against the peaceful backdrop of Ramadan.
Do Farhana and Faraz have enough courage to do the right thing?
And can they help each other - or will one of them draw the other towards catastrophe?
This powerful novel explores the idea of honour and what it means to different generations of Muslim families.
* What inspired you to write Boy Vs Girl?
I was interested in exploring the double standards regarding the way Asian families (and many other traditional families too) treat their sons and daughters. You often find that the girls are kept under surveillance and the boys are pretty much free to run wild. I wanted to look at how this might affect the rest of the family if the boy in question was, like so many others these days, actually in need of more protection and guidance than his sister. I think boys are so much more vulnerable out there now, what with gangs, knife and gun crime so widespread. And I wanted to do something slightly different: I wanted to explore all these issues in a Muslim context.
* The book centres on Ramadan but as a non-Pakistani Muslim why did you decide to base the book within a Pakistani family?
Faraz and Farhana live in a very ethnically homogenous area and, as a result, their parents are very cultural, very insular and quite sheltered from the realities of teenage life in the UK. I knew that this would pose a problem for the twins, as they go to state schools and experience all the pressures that other kids face – but without the release that others may have. And in the Asian context, you have the gender issues, and you have generational issues, culture clashes and a strong family ethic and sense of honour: perfect ingredients for a story!
* There seems to be a disparity between the way the twins Faraz and Farhana are treated by their parents; Faraz is given much more freedom than Farhana. Yet both twins develop two characters, the people they are at home as opposed to outside the home. I think most teenagers of any cultural and religious background can probably relate to this to some extent but do you think this is more pronounced in Muslim families?
I thought that this was a problem that presented itself more in Muslim homes than others until I met with a group of Hindu boys from North West London who described exactly the same scenario! I was very surprised but it seems that, the more insular the community, the more traditional norms will be enforced, as opposed to more ‘integrated’ communities.
* Farhana in particular recognises in herself that at school she is opinionated and vocal whereas at home she becomes more timid and subservient. Was it a deliberate decision to base the book around twins so you could explore this double-standard and gender disparity?
Absolutely. You’ve picked up on the nuances of the gender issues in this story perfectly.
* An important thread throughout the book is Farhana’s struggle to decide whether or not to wear the hijab. Her mother’s horrified by the thought; her Auntie Najma wears a niqab; and Farhana’s friend Shazia resents being made to wear the hijab, so as the author you offer several diverse opinions on the matter. There seems to be a conflict between generations, cultural upbringing, and religious interpretation, do you think all these divergent messages are confusing for a modern Muslim teen brought up in British society? What message, if any, are you trying to convey to the reader?
I think that the hijab and, by extension, the niqab, are deeply personal spiritual choices that individuals make. Unfortunately, these decisions can be unduly affected by other people’s attitudes. One of the myths I wanted to debunk was that the younger generation of Muslims are all about being Westernised, taking off hijab, etc and the older generation are all about preserving religion and making girls cover up. In this story, it is the younger generation that have to fight to practise the religion in their own way, in opposition to their parents who favour a more cultural approach and may actively discourage their children from being ‘too religious’, as the twins’ mother does at several points in the book.
* You converted to the Muslim faith in your early twenties and made the decision to wear the niqab, I wondered how much of Auntie Najma was based on you?
Quite a lot, actually! But she is also an amalgamation of many other women I know who wear niqab and just don’t fit into the stereotype of the 2-dimensional, personality-less ‘veiled woman’.
* Although a deeply religious character, Najma seems to be quite an extrovert, strong-willed character. Do you think, do you hope, Najma as a personality might help dispel some of the stereotypes associated with niqabis?
Definitely, but I don’t want that to sound as if I made her up specifically to dispel stereotypes. As I said before, she is based on a lot of women I know and that fact alone shows that there is more to the niqabi than her veil.
* The wearing of the niqab and burqa has become quite politicised recently, and is therefore in many people’s consciousness. On a personal level, and if you don’t mind me asking, what made you decide to wear the niqab? And do you feel that niqabi women can fully integrate into society or does it, as some people think, push them into the margins?
I’ve been wearing the niqab now for over 10 years and, in that time, I have written books, led a very active family life, learned kickboxing and horse riding, manned a speedboat, appeared on TV, you name it! I chose to wear the niqab to strengthen me in my faith, as an additional act of worship. It was a decision freely made and one I would make again.
In terms of integrating, there are some difficulties that present themselves and these are often related to the fact that the niqab is not a common sight here in the UK. Also, as a practising Muslim, you wouldn’t really find me having a drink with mates down the pub, niqab or no niqab, so it’s a matter of perspective too.
* Ultimately, Boy vs Girl, is uplifting and positive. For non-Muslims it provides an insight into the Muslim faith and Ramadan; it’s about being brought up as a British born Muslim but it also deals with some serious issues such as gang culture, knife crime, and drug abuse. How important do you think it is for teens to read books that deal with other cultures and difficult situations? Do you think it helps the reader know that they’re not alone, perhaps even empowers them in living their own lives?
I think reading about other cultures is one of the easiest and most powerful ways to develop empathy with those different from ourselves, something that I feel is vital to our growth as human beings. For the young people from those cultures, seeing themselves reflected in literature, seeing their struggles and challenges being addressed, can be an important way of affirming their identity and building their confidence and self esteem.
* You’ve worked in the performing arts and as a teacher. Have these experiences inspired or influenced your writing in any way?
I think every experience, good or bad, adds to the insight you bring to your writing and, certainly, teaching and performance have added to my life experiences. I also love the fact that every book I work on takes me to a new place, into a new culture, into different circumstances and points of view. I enjoy the research almost as much as the writing itself!
* As a non-Pakistani author writing about a Pakistani family, how much research did you do for the book?
Quite a lot of what I wrote about was what I already knew to be true, through friends and acquaintances. There were other things, though, that I needed to dig around for. Google and YouTube are amazing resources, that’s all I’ll say!
* Did you get feedback from teenagers of Farah’s and Farhana’s age to better understand their lives and to get the feel of the ‘voice’ just right? Do you use your own children or any others as a ‘sounding board’ for your books?
I always use teen readers to ‘test read’ my manuscripts before I sent them to my editor. However, I usually have the ‘voice’ fairly sorted by this stage so feedback is usually related to the plot or the minor details. Having said that, one of my teen readers saved me from making a complete fool of myself when he pointed out that the term ‘blud’ is spelt with a ‘u’ and not ‘oo’, as I had written it! I am eternally grateful to him for that.
* How long have you been pursuing your writing ambitions and what have you done along the way to improve your writing? Could you tell us about your writing journey?
I always loved creative writing at school but did not pursue it after school or during university until I had my first son and started writing children’s rhymes. One of these was published by Mantra Lingua as ‘The Swirling Hijaab’ – and it snowballed from there. I have written creative nonfiction, novelty book texts, a Shakespeare biography and an autobiography, ‘From my sisters’ lips’. ‘From Somalia, with love’ was my first novel and I try different techniques, settings, voices and plot structures with each new book. I am working on 2 novels simultaneously at the moment – two very different books – and I’m loving it!
* Do you think UK children’s and teen publishing has embraced the ethnic diversity of the UK, both culturally and religiously?
It’s getting better but we still have a long way to go. Part of the issue is publishers not being sure that ethnically diverse audiences are profitable. I have done a lot of work to show my publishers that there is an active Muslim readership and they have actually broken into new markets through my books. So, it’s getting better but there is still more work to be done.
* From Somalia, With Love was your first book for teens. Could you tell us a bit about it and what inspired you to write it?
‘From Somalia, with love’ was my first novel and the idea came to me in a dream (of all things!). I knew that little had been written about Somalis - almost nothing in the YA genre - and I wanted to tell a different story to the stories of war and FGM that dominated the headlines at the time. And I love that book! I love the different characters and the simple way the story unfolds – and the poetry of Safia’s voice and her own poetry that flows throughout the story. But you’ll have to read it yourselves to see what I mean!
* Was From Somalia, With Love, your first attempt at writing a novel or did you have other manuscripts hiding away?
It was my very first attempt. I think I’m fortunate in that I’ve actually never written a full manuscript without a contract. I’ve always had loads of ideas, though, and may have written a few chapters, but never a full-length manuscript. However, I am in the process of writing a full manuscript without a contract, so that is a novel experience for me.
* Did achieving your first book deal change the way you approach your writing?
Yes, it made me more serious about putting time aside for writing every day. What with my four little ones, my magazine and the house, it can be easy to let the writing slip to the bottom of my list of priorities. A contract and a deadline are the encouragement I need to get serious!
* Do you plan your stories in advance, or do they happen on the page?
Major plot points, themes and main characters are planned out at the start but minor characters, subplots and the twists and turns of the story happen as I am writing. For example, the book I am working on now has quite a linear story line but the characters are coming alive as I write, I am learning more about them as I let their voices speak and, in the case of the main male character, I am actually starting to like him!
* Rewrites and Revisions: How much do you tend to do throughout the writing of your books?
I’ll revise a lot on my own, as I reread and as I get feedback from my test readers. Once my editors have a look, I usually have to make a few minor revisions, maybe clarify some plot points, develop some characters a little more. After that, there is usually one more round of editing and then it goes to copy editing.
* Before getting an agent and achieving publication did you have to deal with rejection along the way? How did it feel to finally secure the agent and publishing deal?
I have had a rather charmed route to publishing, thankfully. I got a publisher when I sent out my first batch of submissions. A lot of my subsequent children’s manuscripts were rejected though but I was in the process of learning about the whole ‘business’ of writing for children so I knew that I just had to keep on writing, keep sending off queries and manuscripts. It was a time of few publishing deals but a lot of learning for me, an education in the writer’s life that I have found invaluable.
Of course, having an agent is wonderful and having people who actually want to publish what I write is an amazing feeling, one that I did not really expect when I started out on this journey 10 years ago!
* What made you think ‘I want to write for children and teens?’ Is it a genre you enjoy reading?
I was initially attracted to writing for young children because I envied them their sense of awe and wonder – and I think I wanted to reconnect with my inner child too! Teenagers present more of a challenge and, in the case of Muslim teenagers, there are precious few writers tackling Muslim-related themes from within the community – so that’s my niche, I guess. Although my next book is a crossover historical YA/adult novel about Zimbabwe and the race and land issues in its history – so totally different from what I’ve done so far!
* Which authors/stories did you enjoy reading as a child/teenager? How do you think they compare to the children’s novels available today?
My father was a great reader and he encouraged us to read widely and challenge ourselves. I read through his library of plays from all over Africa, Russia and the United States. I also read a lot of classics as a teenager, from Tolstoy and Chekhov to Chinua Achebe, Alice Walker and Shakespeare. I didn’t read YA fiction, per se, as it wasn’t really available when I was growing up. Of course, I went through the Sweet Valley High phase but, to be honest, romance was never my genre of choice.
I also read children’s classics which I think are, in some ways, more challenging than modern children’s fiction. The classics can seem quite hard going to today’s kids who are more used to instant gratification. I am always trying to encourage my bookworm 10 year old son to try his hand at some of the classics like Treasure Island but it’s a hard slog. He’d much rather read Percy Jackson! Although I did manage to get him hooked on The Secret Garden and he read all the Little House on the Prairie books so I can’t complain!
* You’ve also written several books for younger children. Could you tell us a bit about them?
Ramadan, the month of fasting,
Doesn't begin all at once.
It begins with a whisper
And a prayer
And a wish.
Muslims all over the world celebrate Ramadan and the joyful days of Eid-ul-Fitr at the end of the month of fasting as the most special time of year. This lyrical and inspiring picture book captures the wonder and joy of this great annual event, from the perspective of a child. Accompanied by Iranian inspired illustrations, the story follows the waxing of the moon from the first new crescent to full moon and waning until Eid is heralded by the first sighting of the second new moon. Written and illustrated by Muslims, this is a book for all children who celebrate Ramadan and those in the wider communities who want to understand why this is such a special experience for Muslims.
Other titles include The Swirling Hijaab, Journey through Islamic Art (both Mantra Lingua) and Letters around the World (Tango Books)
* What’s next for Na’ima B Robert? Do you have any other books in the pipeline that you could tell us about?
As I mentioned, my next book is about Zimbabwe and is due to be published in August 2011. It’s pretty much finished and we are in the final editing phase with that one. I am working on a YA novel at the moment set in South London, looking at relationships, gangs and new Muslims from the Afro-Caribbean community. It’s a juicy one!
* Words of wisdom and advice to any aspiring writer?
Read widely and well, write, write, write and develop your craft by writing in different formats: personal narrative, creative writing, poetry, articles, you name it. Stretch yourself until you are versatile. And write what you love!
* Any other comments/observations/general mind-blowing information you‘d like to add?
Write with heart, write what you love, and write with sincerity.
Boy vs Girl ~ a tall tales & short stories review
It's always fascinating to get an insight into other cultures, it brings enlightenment to the reader and helps promote understanding. In the case of Boy vs Girl we are given a glimpse into the world of a Pakistani Muslim family at the time of Ramadan and the diversity of opinion and beliefs that can exist within a close-knit family. As with any culture or family, outward appearances may not always be as they seem and preconceptions can be easily shattered and for this reader one of the biggest draws of the book were the strong female characters. Auntie Najma in particular stood out as a strong-willed, feisty character who was well-educated and knew her own mind, her choice to wear the niqab helping to destroy the myth of all women being forced to wear the veil.
This is a slow-burner of a book but a fascinating 'must read' for anyone interested in a story revolving around characters that teens of any background and culture could identify with, and a plotline that includes several intriguing themes; young love, inner city life, knife crime, gang culture, drugs, inter-generational conflict, and religious beliefs.