Thursday May 18, 2023
BY FURVAH SHAH
“A closed mouth is gold” is the Somali proverb that Hanan’s mother told her while she grew up in the face of racist bullies. But, the young Muslim girl can’t stay silent any longer when her friend is murdered and every Muslim is to blame. She has to fight to find her voice in the face of discrimination.
For those who don’t know, please tell us a little bit about your debut book You Think You Know Me.
It’s a contemporary young adult book about a 17-year-old-student called Hanan. The story starts with her at a school where she’s a minority, as a Muslim but also as a Somali. Then, the inciting incident is a horrible attack committed by a Muslim man. You see how the tensions rise astronomically in the community and things become difficult for Hanan.
She’s always kept her mouth shut and ignored a lot of the bullying and discrimination she faces. But, she finds that she can’t really do that anymore, so the story is about her finding her voice.
When I read the book, I felt that it was really relatable and I think a lot of other people, particularly Muslim women growing up in the West, will be able to relate to the themes in the book. Was that your intention when you were writing?
Yeah. I was a big reader growing up and everyone says this, but in the last couple of years, I realised how important representation is. It’s become a big topic in so many different spheres, including publishing, but it wasn’t something that occurred to me when I was younger. So, I wanted to write a book about a Muslim girl and personally, it was really important for her to be visibly Muslim.
There are so many different Muslim experiences, but that’s something I don’t see enough of and have never seen in children or young adult books. It’s really important for teens as growing up, life is crazy and you’re being told so many different things about who you’re supposed to be, your identity and your faith, from the world and society. It becomes very difficult to be proud of who you are. So, I wanted someone reading the book to see themselves and feel proud about being visible as a Muslim.
What were some of the key inspirations behind your story writing? Especially for the character of Hanan.
Hanan, as a student, is very much like me. I’m academic and competitive and so is she. But, she’s also quiet and often ignores or doesn’t speak out about what happens to her at school. That’s something that she’s absorbed from a lot of Somali proverbs her mom shares with her. So it was difficult writing from that perspective, because even I get frustrated at her! I’m like ‘why aren’t you doing this and this and this, and you should be saying this back’.
But, she grew and found her voice as the story progressed.
Her family life is definitely drawn from my family. I don’t have a brother, but I have a sister who’s a couple of years older than me and has always felt like my twin. So, it was hard writing from the perspective of a boy but easy to write about their closeness. Also, Hanan’s mum was very easy for me to write because my mum has always been very wise and she has these amazing one-liners. I don’t know how she comes up with them, I feel like mothers all over the world are very wise and Hanan’s mum feels very universal.
The book also deals with some heavy themes like the Somali civil war, Islamophobia, racism. Why did you choose to explore these topics in your writing, and especially in your debut book?
This was a struggle, because it was the first book I ever wrote. I’ve never written anything to completion like that before so I was trying to learn how to actually write a story, then try to weave all of these very sensitive issues and handle them in a way that would be appropriate for a young audience. But you need to be honest with children and teens and not shy away from certain things, it just needs to be age appropriate. So that’s something that I learned as I wrote the first draft and went through a few more edits as well.
I was also worried about this being my debut book as I was conscious of being tokenised or labelled as an issues writer or diversity pick. But, when I was first writing it in 2020, the character came to me the year before and was born out of the really tragic death of Shukri Abdi, a young Somali refugee drowned in Manchester.
I thought about her life and experience, so the character of Hanan started there. It just felt necessary. It was difficult writing from the perspective of a refugee, as I’m born and bred in North London, but so necessary because there’s so much anti-refugee rhetoric in the media.
What does representation mean to you and your writing?
It means everything. I’ve always wanted to write and I used to write when I was in school but looking back, I was writing characters that I was seeing from mainstream authors and they didn’t look like me or sound like me or anyone that I knew. So writing this story just felt like writing the truth. It felt very freeing. That’s the reason why I was able to write something like this for the first time. I didn’t know what it would be like writing about 90,000 words, it felt impossible but it was an enjoyable experience and it helped me show what I wasn’t able to see growing up.
How did you manage writing your book and your degree?
That’s so funny. Maybe I was a bit lucky because I was doing a longer medical degree as I couldn’t have dreamed about doing this in my first three years. I started in my fourth year and it was difficult, but lockdown really changed things because I was home so I actually finished half of the first draft then and I finished the other half back at university. Honestly, I don’t know how I did it, it seemed impossible but it worked because I could edit during the long summer holidays.
More respect to you, especially with a medical degree! What do you hope people take away from reading the book?
In the book, I mention this very well-known ayah that says, ‘Verily, with hardship comes ease.’ Every Muslim will tell you about it, but I genuinely think it’s true and with all that Hanan goes through, her story doesn’t end on a bad note. I think if you give life long enough, you will get there insha Allah. It may take some time, but you will get there insha Allah.
As a storyteller, an author, a Muslim woman and a Somali, what advice would you give to fellow storytellers? Especially those who are from a similar background to you.
Get stuck in and don’t hold back. A lot of writers are perfectionists but if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that perfectionism will only hold you back. It won’t make your writing any better, in those initial stages anyway, because it’s just about finishing what you set out to do. So just finish writing that draft. Do whatever it takes to get you over the finish line and keep the perfectionist side of you at bay.
Anything else you want to add?
On the cover of the book, Hana’s lips are gold and it’s meant to be symbolic of the proverb that underlies the whole story about a closed mouth being gold. I want people to know that the lips are symbolic of the proverb that Hanan carries with her throughout the story.