Interview by the Young Adulting Editors with Jieun Lee
Uzma Jalaluddin is a teacher and writer based in Toronto, Canada. Her debut novel, Ayesha at Last, is a modern-day Muslim Pride and Prejudice and earned starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Booklist, Library Journal and Kirkus. She also writes a funny parenting column named “Samosas and Maple Syrup” for the Toronto Star.
Prejudice takes on a whole different meaning in Ayesha at Last, as Khalid faces Islamophobia and discrimination at his workplace. Ayesha and Khalid also have their own internalized prejudices about each other on what practicing their faith should look like. What was the most challenging aspect to modernizing and diversifying Pride and Prejudice?
The most challenging aspect to modernizing a classic like Pride and Prejudice was first realizing that I was retelling Austen’s most famous novel. I write the way some painters paint – with a lot of layers piled on top of each other. I think I was on my 5th or 6th rewrite when someone pointed out that Khalid shared some similarities with Mr. Darcy. I was in denial at first – everyone wants to be an original – but then I decided to really lean in. The fun part for me was reimagining Mr. Darcy as an observant Muslim man, someone raised to see the world in a very particular way.
The character who I struggled with the most was, ironically, Ayesha. It took me a long time to figure out what she wanted, what she was afraid of, what she yearned for. In the end, I surrounded her with characters that rounded out her personality, and I embedded her within a family who are excellent foils, and my hijab-wearing-Muslim-Lizzie-Bennet was born!
I wanted my novel to be an homage to Pride and Prejudice, but not a beat-by-beat retelling. I was aiming to capture Austen’s sly, witty, satirical energy, but also keep the readers on their toes with some plot twists!
Food adds a wonderful sensory layer to the novel, and cooking provides a way for characters to communicate with each other when words fail. How does food provide inspiration for your writing?
Many readers have told me that reading Ayesha At Last made them hungry for south Asian food. I wanted to make Khalid a cook, because part of my personal mandate in writing this novel was to demonstrate everyday Muslim life rarely captured in more stereotypical narratives. Simply showing a bearded Muslim man cooking, and then presenting that food as a gift to his love interest, a hijab-wearing Muslim woman, was a way to convey how food nourishes people’s hearts as well as their bodies. I’m not a gourmet cook by any means, but I come from a culture and a family that takes food, especially homemade food, very seriously. And of course, I’m addicted to chai!
Both Ayesha and Khalid struggle to balance their duties to their faith and family, while also pursuing their passions. Ayesha’s poetry helps her cope with difficult moments and emotions in her life, as well as being a way to challenge others’ perceptions of her. How did you come to the decision of having poetry be a part of Ayesha’s character? Will you also be publishing any works of poetry in the future?
As I mentioned previously, Ayesha was a very challenging character to write. I’m sure most readers would assume she would be the easiest character to write, since I am also a Muslim woman who wears hijab. But actually, she was the reason it took me eight years to finish this novel! Ayesha went through many different iterations through my long drafting process. At various times she was a grad student, and then a journalist, until I finally grew tired of thinking of new careers for her, and gave her my job – I’m a high school teacher.
Through the process of writing, I realized that Ayesha needed to have a passion that fuelled her, and so she became a poet. Many first and second generation immigrants, particularly from the Asian diaspora, are encouraged to pursue traditional fields in science and technology. In giving Ayesha a more artistic path, I wanted to explore the tension of that expectation to “establish roots” and “make it” as the child of immigrants.
Growing up, I always loved to write, but it took me years to admit even to myself that writing was a viable job. Instead, I became a high school teacher, like Ayesha, and only pursued my dream of writing a novel after I had worked as a teacher for many years. Yet just like Ayesha, writing was how I made sense of my world. I wrote all the time, but taking the leap, as Ayesha does, was incredibly difficult. The lack of role models in my community was also a hindrance. As for poetry – that’s very kind of you, but I think I’ll stick to prose!
What advice would you give to BIPOC writers about telling their own stories and advocating for more diversity in the publishing industry?
Writing can be incredibly lonely, and writing stories about marginalized communities can be very isolating. What helped me was finding my community – writers who share my passion for telling authentic stories in an unapologetic manner. I would highly recommend that all writers, but in particular BIPOC writers, find a supportive and uplifting writing community. While I do believe the publishing industry is interested in investing in diverse voices, there is a lot of work to be done to dismantle the systemic biases that have traditionally kept writers of colour from seeing themselves represented in stories or as creatives writing stories. I hope my example will inspire young writers from my community to pursue the arts. It is time to take ownership over our narratives.
What is your next writing project, and would you do a reimagining of another novel in the future?
I have many ideas, and I wouldn’t discount writing another retelling of a favourite book!
I am currently in the editing process for my second novel, which will be published in spring of 2021. I am describing it as “You’ve Got Mail” set in rival halal restaurants. While it is a stand-alone novel, there are some cameos from Ayesha At Last, and it takes place in the same close-knit Toronto neighbourhood. Like my first novel, my second book is a frothy, funny, feel-good romance featuring a diverse Muslim cast, but it also deals with some serious issues of race and identity.
Read our reviews of Uzma Jalaluddin’s work: