A new wave of British Muslim romance in literature
Growing up as a young British Muslim woman, romance and chicklit were two genres I did not read. The only halal thing about Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging was the cat, and while everybody was going mad for Nicholas Sparks’ tear-jerking novels, the storylines were ones that I just could not identify with.
I was not a white college student dating a white American soldier and never would date one (besides the fact I was not allowed to date), and passionate sloppy kisses in the pouring rain on a boat in the middle of a lake to a man I was not married to like that famous scene in The Notebook was just not on the cards for me.
As a Muslim and Arab woman coming from a religious and ethnic background where social norms surrounding relationships with the opposite gender were vastly different to the relationships portrayed in novels written by white authors, I quickly came to realise that romance was a genre that was off-limits because I just could not resonate with the characters or the storylines.
While love is indeed a universal feeling, the ways in which this emotion is governed varies from community to community.
"Not only do they do away with the cliched storyline of Muslim girl meets white Christian boy, elopes, and throws her Hijab and faith in the bin, they also speak to the experiences in love that young British Muslims face today, such as wanting to marry someone who is also Muslim but outside of your culture, or being Muslim and in a queer relationship"
So, you can imagine my glee when five years ago I came across a book in a small Islamic bookshop in Manchester called Sofia Khan is Not Obliged, by an author who has become the undisputable queen of Muslim chicklit, Ayisha Malik.
The book has been hailed as a Muslim Bridget Jones’ Diary. I was ecstatic to read a romance novel by a British Muslim author that recounted many of my own similarly good-intentioned romantic endeavours as a British Muslim woman who was trying to find love the halal way.
But then things went quiet for a while on the Muslim romance front. Stateside, a plethora of Muslim romance novels started breaking out onto the literary scene, such as S.K. Ali’s Saints and Misfits and Love From A to Z and Uzma Jalaluddin’s Ayesha at Last. On this side of the pond, Muslim readers were lapping these books up and yearning for the British publishing industry to take note.
And it seems British publishers have finally woken up.
The past year has seen the emergence of a new wave of very British-Muslim romance novels, stories that depict all the nuances and complexities of being a British Muslim seeking love and marriage while juggling familial and community expectations, racism, homophobia and Islamophobia, and this digital age of social media.
What is striking about these novels is that not only do they do away with the cliched storyline of Muslim girl meets white Christian boy, elopes, and throws her Hijab and faith in the bin, they also speak to the experiences in love that young British Muslims face today, such as wanting to marry someone who is also Muslim but outside of your culture, or being Muslim and in a queer relationship.
British Bengali author Tasneem Abdur-Rashid is quickly becoming a household name amongst British Muslim female readers.
Her debut rom-com, Finding Mr Perfectly Fine, came out in July of this year and has had many of us spitting out our coffee in laughter in this hilariously written story about a British Bengali woman, Zara, who has been given the deadline of her 30th birthday by her mother to find a husband or one will be found for her in Bangladesh.
Zara meets Hamza, an Egyptian man who ticks all the right boxes – educated, funny, religiously literate, well-off financially, and emotionally stable, but there is no spark. As readers we are invited to ask ourselves, along with Zara, whether settling for a suitable match with whom we have no chemistry is the right thing to do.
Speaking to The New Arab, Abdur-Rashid explains how there was not only a gap in the publishing market for a British Muslim rom-com, but one with a female Bengali protagonist.
“When you look at the UK’s homogenous publishing landscape, it comes as no surprise that not many people understood what I was trying to do with Finding Mr Perfectly Fine,” she says.
“When I submitted to the Good Literary Agency, the reader at the time happened to be a fellow Sylheti Bengali. She read my manuscript and fell in love with it. It was the first time she had seen the Sylheti dialect in a novel and the book spoke to her on multiple levels. She left the agency a year later, after I joined. If I had submitted my work after she had left and it was someone else who had read it, who knows if they would have accepted it.”
Abdur-Rashid received a two-book deal with her publishers, Bonnier Books, and is currently working on her second British Bengali rom-com.
British Pakistani editor and novelist, Kasim Ali’s debut novel Good Intentions was released by Harper Collins back in March. In Good Intentions, Ali shines a light on the prevailing anti-blackness that exists within the Muslim community when it comes to choosing a Black marriage partner.
British Pakistani graduate Nur, wants to marry his British Sudanese girlfriend Yasmina who he met while at university, but delays introducing her to his family for years because he assumes they will turn her down for being Black.
“When I thought about Good Intentions, I knew that I wanted it to be an interracial romance that didn't include white people,” he tells The New Arab. “My reasoning for this was simple - in my world, these couples are everywhere. In the pages of literature or on the screens of film and TV, it seems to be that whiteness is central to interracial relationships.”
“When I started to think more deeply about the specifics of that relationships, I realised that I had an opportunity here to discuss something in the South Asian community that we don't often see: anti-Blackness. When I landed on that idea, I knew that they both had to be Muslims - because I've heard many people in my community and beyond say that the reason they don't want their son or daughter to marry a Black person is because of the religion," Kasim told The New Arab.
How will they raise their children - a common refrain. By making Yasmina and Nur Muslim, I sidestepped that issue - if they come from the same religion, then surely there isn't a problem? It also gave me the opportunity to present the kind of people I know to be real and true in my world on the page.”
As someone who works inside the industry itself, Ali has witnessed the recent rise in the number of romance novels by British Muslim authors being acquired by publishing companies. While in the past Muslim romance novels were rejected with the reasoning from agents and editors being that they could not see their marketability, the opposite has now become true.
“The industry is in a moment of change right now and publishers wanted stories from the people they hadn't heard from before. So, I think that being a Muslim, writing about my experiences, actually helped to get me published,” he says.
Being Muslim, gay, and in love is something we have seen very little of in literature. But British Bengali author Tufayel Ahmed has changed that with his debut novel, This Way Out, which was published in July.
Our British Bengali Muslim male protagonist Amar is in love with Joshua, and decides to tell his family that he plans on getting married to him by announcing it on the family WhatsApp group. The book is a beautiful journey into Amar re-finding his faith, learning how to set boundaries, and reconciling with his family who react to the news of him being gay in different ways.
“I never had any books like this growing up. I wish I had,” Ahmed tells The New Arab. “That's partly why I wrote this book. I grew up very conflicted about my religion versus my sexuality, and there was no representation of someone like me – brown, queer, and Muslim — to kind of make me feel seen, or that I wasn't alone. Most of the representation of queer characters still focuses on white, gay men, and I just can't relate to that.”
“When we see white, gay male characters in films, TV shows, and books, they're often out and proud, and we are led to believe that therefore everyone is equal. People at the intersection of race or religion and sexuality would beg to differ. There's still a long way to go for a lot of minority communities. So, this was an important book, I think, to give just one account of what it might be like to be queer and Muslim. It isn't everyone's experience, of course, but it's some representation at least.”
One of the reasons why not many books like This Way Out exist is because the journey towards getting published as a writer of colour who is Muslim and queer is not an easy one. Ahmed’s book was initially rejected twenty times before he received an offer from Amazon Publishing.
“We constantly heard from editors - predominantly middle-class straight white women -how they couldn't "connect" or "relate" to the story or the character, and you just think, "well, duh." Surely the beauty of fiction is putting yourself in someone else's shoes and experience the world as they move through it, and not just confirm your own lived experience?”
“There is a lot of work to be done, I think, in publishing houses to diversify who sits at the table and makes the decisions of what gets published. If you can't suspend your own lived experience and put yourself in the shoes of others, should you really be in that position?”
Similar to the fashions we see on runways, trends in publishing tend to be cyclical. As readers rejoice at the current rise in the number of British Muslim romances taking a place of pride on bookshop shelves, they also worry that this will be short-lived and that we will return to a time where there are few to be found.
Are these British Muslim romance novels part of a short-term fad in the publishing world? According to Kasim Ali, we need not worry as he believes that they are here to stay.
“I think we're going to see more of them - and I think they're going to take very different forms every time we see them,” he predicts. “We'll see the more conventional romances but we'll also see the more specifics of our communities on page. But the question, for me, is no longer whether or not these books will be published. They will be - the writing is good, the authors are out there, and the publishing companies are willing to publish them.”
“The question is whether or not they're going to sell. Will we see a Muslim Sally Rooney? The idealist in me says yes - with the way TikTok is changing the book industry (for better and for worse), I think we'll begin to see what readers are responding to and with TikTok's readers being younger, more liberal and progressive, and more diverse than publishing companies, I believe that we're heading in the right way.”
Yousra Samir Imran is a British Egyptian writer and author who is based in Yorkshire. She is the author of Hijab and Red Lipstick, published by Hashtag Press.
Follow her on Twitter: @UNDERYOURABAYA