The new Bridget Jones? Author Ayisha Malik on creating a modern Muslim heroine
Ahead of her appearance at the Open House Festival, Londoner Ayisha Malik speaks to Jenny Lee about her acclaimed debut novel Sofia Khan is Not Obliged which describes a young Muslim woman's experience of dating and features an Irishman who captures her heart
LONDONER Ayisha Malik is challenging perceptions of Muslim women and dating while setting a new trend for Muslim heroines in the world of publishing.
Born to Pakistani immigrant parents, the 34-year-old received rave reviews for her debut novel Sofia Khan is Not Obliged, which is currently top of the book charts in India.
In a case of art imitating life, the book tells the story of one Muslim woman's attempts to simultaneously navigate the dating and publishing worlds in London.
The story centres around Sofia's decision to leave her boyfriend Imran after he expects her to move in with his parents and wider family, who live in two terraced houses separated by a cash machine and 'knocked through' inside to make one large home.
It also takes a look at the romances of her friends, including Suj's relationship with a black man, and Hannah's decision to enter a polygamous relationship.
"The book is very much fiction but there are certain anecdotes that stem from real-life experiences," laughs Ayisha, who is single.
"The hole in the wall home does stem from reality and believe me there is not just one of those in this country.
"It's still very common in the Muslim world to live with your in-laws and wider family. When I speak to aunts and uncles, they suggest a guy they know who wants a wife to live with his family."
Having attempted to write her first book at the age of 11 – a detective story – Malik went on to receive an MA in creative writing.
While working for a publishing house, she was persuaded to discard the literary novel she'd been working on for over three years ("I was trying to write something which wasn't true to my voice," she explains) to start afresh, writing about the life she knew and lived.
A practicing Hijabi, who chooses to wear an Islamic head-covering and prays faithfully five times a day like her protagonist, Malik lives, dates and works in London.
So writing a Muslim romantic comedy in the style of Bridget Jones' Diary came naturally.
"As a debut author it's easier to writer about something you know – it gives you a sense of confidence," says the 34-year-old.
In writing the book, Ayisha wanted to challenge several myths about her religion and culture and have readers recognise a Muslim heroine as being a part of the fabric of the society in which she lives – rather than having the weight of the world on her shoulders, facing family oppression and being subjected to an enforced arranged marriage.
There is one notable aspect of modern dating that is absent from Malik's novel, because Hijabi's do not agree with sex before marriage.
In one scene, Sofia is told bluntly by an editor, "there needs to be more sex".
Ayisha admits that being a strong independent Muslim woman in the 21st Century is no easy task, but has witnessed more compromise within modern Muslim dating in recent years.
"When you are a practising Muslim like myself you very much have your own ideas of the type of person you want to marry that's not dependent on what your parents think," she tells me.
"I would want to marry a Muslim because there are so many commonalities spirituality. But in terms of race and colour, things have come a long way. It's more acceptable to marry outside your own race and culture than it was 10 years ago.
"Certainly in my family – if you bring home someone who is not Pakistani, that is not an issue, it's not even flinched at."
She laughs: "I think right now, me bringing home anyone would be welcomed."
The idea of being creative isn't, by-and-large, promoted within Asian communities but Malik is hoping other writers will follow her lead in writing contemporary novels featuring Muslim heroines.
"I have no Muslim literary role models," she says.
"Most books featuring Muslim women are mired by telling stories of suppression rather than everyday life and reality. My literary models have been Jane Austin and Helen Fielding.
"But generally speaking there are a lot of Muslim women out there now who are being independent and strong and doing quite extraordinary things with their lives and I think that's becoming more acceptable," she adds.
The terrorism threat prevalent throughout the world in recent years was brought into Malik's novel through Sofia being verbally abused and called "a terrorist" and "Paki bitch" by a racist bystander in the London Underground.
"Whenever there is a terrorist attack in another country, I don't just hear of the repercussions – I see them when I leave my house.
"I do tend to look and see if anyone is starring at me because of what I'm wearing on my head. Even if that's my own paranoia, the fact is that paranoia exists is because the reality exists."
Sofia Khan is Not Obliged has been optioned for a television series and although she doesn't have any actresses in mind to play her heroine, Malik would love Jake Gyllenhaal to play Sophia's Irish house mate/boyfriend, Conall.
"The reason I made Conall Irish rather than British was there are so many similarities between Irish and Pakistani cultures," explains Malik, who has just completed writing the book's sequel The Other Half of Happiness.
"There is this sense of family and shared history in terms of how badly they have been treated."
The author is also currently ghost writing Great British Bake Off winner Nadiya Hussain's forthcoming fiction books.
"We sit down and have meetings about characters and plotlines and what kind of stories she wants to tell and we come up with a chapter breakdown.
"Then I go away and write the first draft for her to edit. It's been a fun project."
Next week, she is taking time out from her busy schedule for her first visit to Northern Ireland to appear at Bangor's Open House Festival – where she is secretly hoping that, like her heroine Sofia, she'll fall in love with an Irish Conall.
:: Glenn Patterson will be in conversation with Ayisha Malik, together with Belfast author Lucy Caldwell and Dubliner Doreen Finn in Keep 'er Lit – Shining A Light On New Women's Fiction at The Old Auction Rooms, Bangor on August 10 at 8pm. For more details, see Openhousefestival.com.