Some Muslim fiction I’ve read recently
Ayisha Malik, The Other Half of Happiness
I had a tough time with this one, partially because of my expectations. I think this was a real-world reminder of something I teach in my Popular Fiction class – that genre expectations are important and have a particular impact on how we read fiction! Because Sofia Khan is Not Obliged had ended so happily (although several friends scoffed at the “realism” of the ending, I had had no trouble accepting it) – I approached The Other Half of Happiness with the expectation that an HEA (Happily Ever After) was imminent. In other words, I approached The Other Half as a romance, instead of as contemporary fiction. Mistaaaaaaaaake.
I got a tremendously sinking feeling in my tummy for the first 50 pages, and I couldn’t deal with it for a bit, so I put it aside. When I came back to it again, I skipped to the ending to confirm my suspicions, swallowed hard, then went on Sofia’s journey with her. So I’m not far enough away from the story and my own dashed expectations to form an objective opinion of this second book yet.
Leila Aboulela, The Translator
I liked The Minaret, another novel of Aboulela’s, about a newly practising, “downwardly mobile” Sudanese emigrant to the UK, but wasn’t sure about the writing. So again, The Translator was a book I started, left off, and came back to after about a year. It follows the love affair between the widowed Sudanese translator Sammar, and the Scottish academic Rae Isles, who is an expert on Middle Eastern politics and the Muslim world.
I liked this a lot more than The Minaret, and I thought it maintained a nice balance between an “Islamic” message, and the integrity of the story.
Na’ima Robert, She Wore Red Trainers
This YA/NA novel is touted as a “halal” love story, and I like Na’ima Robert’s work elsewhere – I’ve written for SISTERS magazine, and From My Sisters’ Lips was one of the first compilations of Muslim women’s voices I ever read. I remember reading it standing up in the Borders in York. Funny story – a couple of years ago, I wrote an abstract about it, and when it came time to write the paper, I realized that I’d written it from memory, and that I didn’t actually have the book. I had to borrow it from a friend of a friend.
Funnier ending: a few months after that, I was cleaning up my bookshelves and I realized that I did in fact have it.
I was sort of reluctant to read Robert’s fiction, because I’d read From Somalia with love, another of her YA novels, and I remembered it being very heavy handed.
Anyway She Wore Red Trainers was much lighter in touch, and was a really quick read. The halal love story of Ali Jordan, a posh mixed race Hertfordshire boy, who has just come back to Islam after his mother’s death, and Londoner Amirah, who had a wild one week as a teenager and is now fully practicing. They’re both school leavers waiting for their A-level results.
Robert has said in interviews that she doesn’t want to glamorize sin, which I suppose accounts for why Ali and Amirah’s sinful pasts are glossed over in favour of their halal presents. Their struggles to be good are in fact a nice insight into contemporary Muslim lives, and not as overwrought, angsty or preachy as they might have been.
At one point, Ali’s younger brother says to Ali – you got the good school, the girls, you got to have fun – I just get the religious father without the fun. This sort of hit home with me – sin is fun, even if it is a hollow kind of fun, and religious, halal alternatives to haram fun are…hard to make appealing when your environment, the media, your friends, all model haram-ish behaviours as aspirational. The novel doesn’t shy away from that fact.
I’m on holiday! (Ish) Looking forward to catching up with some reading. I’m at 9 books for the month, so need to power through 3 more this week to hit my monthly target.