Let’s Get Lit: Muslim Authors Panel


Hi and Salaam to my Muslim siblings! 

Welcome to the third round of author interviews/ the author panel for the #Muslim Authors week of the Let’s Get Lit Online Book Fest.

Here’s a small recap if you didn’t know what we’re about. The Let’s Get Lit Online Book Fest (LGL Book Fest) is a six week long book event which seeks to highlight books by marginalised and debut authors with books coming out this year. This is the fourth week of our event and the Muslim authors week. You can read the first and opening event of the week, where we introduce all the authors featured this week here. You can also find the first round of author interviews hosted by the amazing Rameela @Star Is All Booked Up, here, the second round of interviews hosted by myself here and the featured books showcase by Rameela here.

Today, for the panel, I’ll be hosting five (5) amazing Muslim authors; Aminah Mae Safi, Sahar Mustafa, Zeyn Joukhadar, Saadia Faruqi and Intisar Khanani.

Q: Please introduce yourselves and explain what experience you have in the writing industry.

Aminah: Hello! I’m Aminah Mae Safi and I’m the author of NOT THE GIRLS YOU’RE LOOKING FOR, TELL ME HOW YOU REALLY FEEL, and the forthcoming THIS IS ALL YOUR FAULT. I’ve also got a short story, “Be Cool, For Once” in the anthology FRESH INK. I’m the winner of the We Need Diverse Books YA short story contest and a Muslim American writer and a cat lady.

Sahar: I am the daughter of Palestinian immigrants. I was mostly raised in Chicago with five years of residence in Palestine— the most meaningful, formative years of my life. I’ve published 2 books of fiction: a short story collection called Code of the West that won the 2016 Willow Books Prize for Fiction, and a novel The Beauty of Your Face just launched by W.W. Norton. Before these books, I have published short stories in anthologies and literary magazines and journals. I also have editing experience.

Zeyn: I’m Zeyn Joukhadar, I’m the author of the novels The Map of Salt and Stars (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster 2018) and The Thirty Names of Night (Atria/Simon & Schuster, 3 Nov 2020). My writing has appeared in Salon, The Paris Review, The Kenyon Review, [PANK], and elsewhere. The Map of Salt and Stars is currently being translated into 20 languages and was a 2018 Middle East Book Award winner.

Saadia: Hello! I’m Saadia Faruqi, author of the early reader series YASMIN, as well as other upcoming books for children of all ages. I started out by writing fiction for adults, but transitioned to children’s books when I realizes that they are much more impactful and meaningful. I’ve been writing and publishing since 2009 overall, and kidlit since 2018 when the first books in the Yasmin series were published. This year, in 2020, I’ll have two middle grade novels released. A Place at the Table, coming from HMH/Clarion, is co-written with Laura Shovan, and A Thousand Questions, coming from HarperCollins/Quill Tree Books. I also have more children’s fiction and non-fiction upcoming in 2021 and beyond.

Intisar: I’m a YA fantasy author writing mighty girls and diverse worlds. I started out as an indie author back in 2012. I had queried agents for a couple of years, and with the advent of the e-book indie market, I ended up deciding to just make my own way. I was also a young mom (pregnant with a toddler) and had decided to stay home with my girls through their younger years. I knew I needed something for myself—and a flexible writing career built around my family seemed like just the thing. 

I now have two girls, and three books out. Interestingly, my indie debut, Thorn, is also now my traditional publishing debut, as it was picked up by HarperTeen and (after extensive revisions) came out again this past March. Aside from Thorn, I still have my indie epic fantasy series featuring a street thief with a dangerous sense of honor and a whole heap of secrets. I love being both trad pub and indie; each has different advantages, and I’m grateful to be able to straddle both worlds.

Q: What’s something about the publishing industry that you wish you knew when you first started out?

Aminah: Well, I knew this, but there is knowing a thing and knowing a thing— patience. Patience combined with persistence. It is a fine line between the kind of patience that keeps you in your seat and not doing what you need to be doing and the kind of patience that keeps you persistently working towards a goal. 

Also, this is less about the industry and more about creative work in general: find a way to enjoy your day to day. Marking success as the process by which you create and live, I promise, will give you longevity and will keep you from tying your ideas of success to outside markers beyond your control.

Sahar: Most times, your work will simply not be a good fit for publications and houses; it’s not a reflection of you as a writer or the quality of your work. It’s tough to acknowledge that, but it’s impossible that our work will naturally belong everywhere we submit it. 

Another valuable thing I learned: some agents/editors will attempt to alter your vision rather than raise it as their terms of acceptance. If you decline, it can still be rather debilitating to the confidence you have in your original work, making you doubt its worth and publishability. Don’t compromise your vision. 

Zeyn: I wish I had understood earlier how important it is to find a supportive writing community. None of us work in a vaccuum; we are always in conversation with each other. For marginalized writers in particular, we need to support and uplift each other and make space for those coming after us.

Saadia: I wish I’d known how long everything takes! We often have to wait months for every milestone, such as signing contracts, announcing deals, and seeing our work in print. It’s certainly demands a lot of patience and fortitude to wait on the slow pace of traditional publishing, and to not have control over when things happen. 

Intisar: I’m pretty sure I knew this starting out, but I think it is the most valuable advice I can give: publishing is about persistence and flexibility. You have to keep trying, even when things aren’t working, and you have to be willing to try new things, push your boundaries (both in writing and marketing). As an author, you are both writer and marketer of your books, whether you go with a big house or publish yourself. So keep working at it, and keep learning!

Q: Do you have any challenges you’ve faced, personally or professionally, in the industry as a Muslim that you’d like to vocalize?

Aminah: Honestly, I feel so lucky to have debuted in the time that I did. So many conversations were taking place about inclusion and perspective and had been taking place since 2014 that by the time I sold NOT THE GIRLS YOU’RE LOOKING FOR in 2016, I felt like I had a lot more leeway than I might have had a sold just a few years prior.

I have the privilege of working with two amazing editors over at Macmillan— Kat Brzozowski and Emily Settle. They really let me take my ideas and run with them, even if I’m writing within my culture and outside of theirs.

But the truth is, I have no idea what it is to move through space not as a Muslim. So has being Muslim created challenges? Possibly and probably are likely answers. Perhaps my first book, had it been about a messy white girl instead of a messy Muslim girl, would have sold earlier. But then again, maybe not. I don’t know any other way to be. I am Muslim, it’s a piece of my identity and it’s a part of how I move through this world. I feel lucky that the people I’ve encountered in this industry have been so supportive of the fact that I bring my own perspective to the table. 

Do your best to hold on tight to the people who celebrate you as you are. There will always be roadblocks. And sometimes, there will be worse roadblocks for what you cannot control and what is deeply unfair. But those people who celebrate you, who have your back— they’re the ones that will get you through.

Sahar: I’ve had to combat the single-narrative sale, particularly the “immigrant story,” that many in the industry told me was more “marketable.” I continue to search for a balance of authentic representation in my work that avoids being pigeon-holed, or merely fulfilling a diversity quota. 

Zeyn: Like many other marginalized writers, I’ve often come up against the expectation to speak for my people, or to somehow represent the totality of certain experiences. My work can’t possibly encompass all of what it means to be Muslim, or transgender, or anything else for that matter. Marginalized writers, especially writers of color, trans writers, and Muslim writers, often have to work very hard to resist being flattened or tokenized in this way. I’ve been lucky in my career to be able to work with an agent, editor, and others who have helped me resist that, but it’s an issue many of us have to constantly be aware of, especially those of us who have various levels of privilege that make us more palatable to power, which means that we have to be careful not to talk over others or take up space just because it’s granted to us.

Saadia: I’ve been very lucky that I started writing in a time when publishing was already opening up to marginalized communities. I remember focusing on Yasmin just after the 2016 elections, and it was very heartwarming to see that agents and editors were already embracing diverse stories as a way to counter the hateful rhetoric coming out of the administration. I know many Muslim authors who struggled in previous decades when the publishing climate was not as open, so I really am grateful that the timing worked much better for me, and for all Muslim authors currently. I think this is a great time to be publishing diverse books about all sorts of people, and I hope others take advantage of that. 

Intisar: I think generally my experience has been quite positive, for which I’m very grateful. I have met so many amazing readers, reviewers, and bloggers, and am grateful for all the folks who have reached out to help me along this path.

Q: Did you come across any surprises in the making of your book?

Aminah: Constantly. I think I’m always surprised by writing books. I think that’s part of the joy for me. There’s a delight in language where you think, “I wrote that.” And there’s the surprise of seeing all the ideas rattling around in your head and putting them to page. 

You’re often telling yourself something as you write, and it’s never not a surprise to see how clearly you can articulate your own worldview, even while you’re tripping along through a rom-com or an adventure.

Sahar: Publishing with a major, traditional house alleviated much of the stress of marketing and exposure. I didn’t realize how many people could be involved in a single book production and how that might somehow shape its success in terms of delivery to a vastly wider audience. 

Zeyn: I’ve been really encouraged by how readers have responded to my second novel, The Thirty Names of Night. When I started writing it a few years ago, I was worried about how this book—a book about a queer, Arab, Muslim, transmasculine person in New York finding love and belonging in spite of American racism, Islamophobia, and transphobia—would be received. But a lot of us are hungry to see characters like this finally getting to be the heroes of their own stories, and seeing how readers have embraced Thirty Names gives me so much hope.

Saadia: I’ve been pleasantly surprised at what great teamwork is required when a book is created. From my agent to my editor, from second readers to copy editors, and from the team of designer, cover artist, illustrator, and everyone in between who’s dedicated to putting out a fantastic product. Then there’s also the team of marketing personnel from my publicist to the school and library team, to the sales persons… there is a whole force behind a book that’s invisible but so integral to its success. 

Intisar: ALL THE SURPRISES. 😉 This book has changed so much since I first drafted it 18 years ago. (WHAT.) Definitely the biggest surprise came a few years after I indie published Thorn when my agent, Emmanuelle Morgen, picked it up on sale and then reached out to me. Both that, and the way the deal came together, was quite surreal—Emmanuelle just mentioned the fact that I had signed with her to an editor at HarperTeen as they were catching up before looking at books for some other authors. The editor went home, bought Thorn for herself, read it, and reached out to Emmanuelle to see if I would be interested in an offer. Definitely not the way most books are sold to publishers!

Q: Do you know any helpful facts about the industry common writers might not know about?

Aminah: I think the real difference is: there is no difference between you and me. I did not suddenly become some other or better or more legitimate writer after I had found an agent or after I had sold my book. I have learned so much by working with my editors and with my agent. 

But I’m no more and no less of a real writer now than I was before.

Sahar: Be sure your manuscript is ready to be shared with agents and editors. Take your time— there’s no deadline for submissions. Great stories don’t have expiration dates. 

Also, from a practical standpoint, an excellent query letter will yield at least 10-20% of positive and interested responses from agents/editors. Take time with it, too.

Zeyn: As you move forward in your writing career, aim to work as much as possible with people who get what you’re trying to do with your work. It’s important to be on the same page with the people who will champion your writing alongside you. Remember, saying no to opportunities that aren’t right for you gives you the space to say yes to the ones that are.

Saadia: A lot of authors complain about their books not getting marketing support from their publishing houses. I have been so lucky in this respect, because I’ve always had wonderful marketing support from each of my publishers, but I do know friends who haven’t. I want to warn new writers that this may happen to you, but also tell them that even if your book doesn’t get a huge marketing budget, your publisher will still have processes and teams in place which are pushing your book, such as online catalogues, and school and library teams. These are all great ways that readers and buyers hear about our books, while we can focus on our writing. 

Intisar: Not really. I do think there’s sometimes a misconception among debut authors that your publisher will do most of your marketing for you. If you’re very, very lucky, and end up being a front list title, that may happen. My experience has very much been that I need to put on my personal marketing hat and do everything I can to support my book launch and the book’s longer life.

Q: Do you feel like your writing paves the way for others in your community?

Aminah: Man, I hope so. But I don’t think that’s for me to determine. But I hope I have made it a little easier for the next writer who wants to write a messy Muslim girl or a messy girl of color. That’s all I can hope.

Sahar: There are terrifically successful writers of Arab and Muslim heritage who’ve paved the way for me. I hope to enlarge the existing narratives and continue to dispel the monolithic perceptions of Arabs and Muslims. 

Zeyn: I hope my work allows people in my communities to see themselves represented on the page, and I hope that it tells other writers like me that there is room for them in publishing. I want my work to counter the message that our stories don’t deserve to be told, or that our stories need to be told for us, or that we don’t exist.

Saadia: I do see it that way sometimes, even though it comes with extreme pressure to do a good job! I think anytime a Muslim story gains recognition, maybe wins an award, or is talked about on social media, there is a positive result on all other Muslim writers. Firstly, publishers see that success and are more open to other writers submitting their work. They now have some proof that a marginalized perspective will sell copies, so they are more willing to take risks when they acquire new work. Secondly, a strong message is sent to buyers – teachers, librarians and bookstores – that these stories are valuable and should be bought and shared. Thirdly, and maybe most importantly, it tells the aspiring Muslim writer that their viewpoint is worth writing about. Hopefully these steps lend an individual confidence boost as well as a real push for publishing. 

Intisar: I hope so? I do think that others have paved the way for me, at least in traditional publishing – and by that, I specifically mean the We Need Diverse Books movement, and all the authors and readers who have come together behind it. The increased awareness among publishers that diverse stories need to be told, and can and will sell, given the chance, is so important. Both the authors who have worked toward this, and the readers who have supported their books, have allowed me to step forward now. I hope that I, too, can support future authors in similar ways.

Q: What were some of the best surprises you’ve had getting into the industry?

Aminah: Oh, I love the community. Being able to meet other writers has been such a delight for me. I’m an extrovert so that time where I get to meet up with other writers— at conferences or even just here in Los Angeles— has been wonderful.

Sahar: I was concerned about having a very commercial relationship with my agency and was delightfully surprised at how much I was treated and regarded as a person first then a writer. My agents have stood by me from the first time we spoke. 

Zeyn: By far my favorite thing has been having the chance to meet other writers who are doing amazing work, especially other queer and trans writers of color whose brilliance is revolutionizing forms and changing the game as we speak.

Saadia: I’ve been surprised at the warm support I’ve received from other marginalized writers, as well as the writing world in general. I’ve also been surprised and happy at the way teachers and librarians shout about my books and encourage everyone to read them. It’s been so lovely to see, and has made my writing journey so much easier. 

Intisar: Thorn released on March 24, which was the day after my home state of Ohio went into lockdown – the same week that many states across the country shut down. I’d seen it coming and had canceled my launch event, and expected (and wasn’t too depressed by) a very mediocre launch in terms of sales. (Half the country was out panic-buying toilet paper and pasta that week.) But what I didn’t expect, and what I have been incredibly grateful for, are all the readers, bloggers, and other authors who have reached out to help support myself and so many other debuts whose books would otherwise have gotten lost in the crisis. I’ve always known that the book community is a wonderful one, but I’ve been truly impressed by the kindness, generosity, and support I’ve seen building over the last month and more.

Q: What experiences have you had that you’d like to avoid repeating?

Aminah: Wow, I honestly have no idea here. I’m not even sure I could repeat the good experiences, much less the trying ones. I try to take the perspective of staying present through any of them, gleaning what I can, and knowing that all things pass in time.

I try to take joy in what I can, learn from what I can, and leave the rest behind. Easier said than done.

Sahar: Losing my confidence amid early and initial rejections of my work. 

Zeyn: I wish I’d found my amazing writing community earlier than I did. I think a lot of us struggle with imposter syndrome, especially those of us who don’t have the benefit of an MFA or other formal training, or who come from immigrant or working class families. But we have to find our people to support and sustain us, and vice versa, because none of us can do this alone.

Saadia: Unfortunately, as an author sometimes I’ve seen the ugly side of human nature. There have been a few instances when I’ve had negative, stereotypical things said to me at big conferences, or been left out of a panel because they didn’t value diversity. I’ve had to fight to be included in programs where most others are white. Those are all experiences I’d rather not repeat, but on the other hand I’ve also had so many positive, welcoming experiences. 

Intisar: Releasing during a pandemic? LOL! More seriously, I think what’s been challenging for me is learning to handle traditional publishing timelines—you’re given a rough estimate of when your book might come back to you, and then suddenly it shows up in your inbox and you have to drop everything else in order to turn those edits around in a very tight timeline. It’s very much a “hurry up and wait” kind of industry, and I found it exhausting and stressful after being able to set my own timelines in indie publishing. But deadlines can also be helpful, and I definitely don’t want to “avoid” this situation if that means giving up traditional publishing! It’s just a part of the experience I wouldn’t mind trading out if I could.

Q: Do you see yourself staying in this industry for a long time?

Aminah: I hope so!

Sahar: As long as I have stories I need to tell, I’m sticking around!

Zeyn: I suspect that as long as I live, I will keep writing. I try to remind myself often that the only thing I have control over is the writing; everything else comes after.

Saadia: I will be a writer for children’s books as long as I’m able to write. I have found it overall to be a very fulfilling and personally rewarding job, and I plan to continue in it for a long time. 

Intisar: Definitely. Storytelling is an essential part of my life, and it would be a tough thing to give it up. (I’m not sure I could, truly; even if I decided not to publish, I would still be telling stories, just not sharing them.) I am not sure in the long run whether I will lean more toward traditional publishing or independent—a great deal depends on who is willing to publish the stories I most want to write. But I will definitely keep writing! 

Q: Do you have any advice for people just getting into this industry?

Aminah: Just keep going. Remember you have to believe in yourself more than anyone else. Don’t squash your own believe in yourself. And learn to listen to yourself, really listen to yourself. Your own voice is worth listening to.

Sahar: You need to have a firm sense of what you want to put out in the world and be able to articulate it to others and stand by it. A good editor will elevate your work, not transform it so it’s unrecognizable. 

And be sure to engage in self-care so that you can preserve your creative spirit and not lose perspective. For me, I kept myself centered by working on new projects as I queried my finished manuscript through to its publication. I also made sure to step away and make time for physical activity and time with loved ones–things that seem so basic, but which become very critical in keeping us positively grounded. 

Zeyn: Read widely. Always tell yourself the truth. As doors open for you, make sure you kick them open for the people coming after you.

Saadia: Write a lot, and frequently. Many aspiring writers try for years to get one book published, but in my experience, that’s the wrong attitude. You have to be flexible and keep writing new things, rather than insist that a single manuscript is perfect. You have to be willing to accept that something is not working, or that you need craft lessons. Working to improve your writing is definitely a big advantage, and it doesn’t end even after you’re published. 

Intisar: Be kind to yourself. Have forgiveness. Help each other. And keep writing!

Thank you so much to these amazing authors for taking their time to chat. Its been great and quite inspiring to read their answers on their experience in publishing and advice to. If you’d like to support these amazing people, make sure to go to featured books showcase post on Rameela’s blog where the Goodreads links and buy links of their latest books are.

You can catch the other events on the fest on these blogs:

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