Nadiya Hussain, the winner of the 2015 Great British Bake Off, is a name that most will recognise on the cover of a new fiction book ‘The Secret Life of the Amir Sisters’.
The release of the book recently caused a Twitter spat when another author, Jenny Colgan, objected to the fact that Hussain had co-written it with a lesser known author, Ayisha Malik. In her Guardian review Colgan claimed that ‘the worst thing about this [book] is that it feels greedy’.
Many objected as to why in the age of celebrity ghost-written hardbacks galore, it was the Muslim woman’s book which was deemed as ‘one too many’.
I ask Ayisha her thoughts on the whole issue over a recent coffee. Her response is to shrug, preferring to talk instead about her new release.
‘The Other Half of Happiness’ is the sequel to her debut novel ‘Sofia Khan is not obliged’.
“It’s a book which looks at how well really think you know someone,” she says, the gold bangles jingling on her wrists as she adjusts her hijab. “Sofia Khan is now living as a married woman in Karachi.”
I mention the depiction of the father’s character in the first book. Although it seemed to be marketed as a ‘single girl finds the one’, it was actually Sofia’s relationship with her parents which stood out for me.
A love letter to her parents perhaps?
Unexpectedly her eyes well up with tears.
“Yes, it was. It was a love letter to my Dad. He died when I was 14. He was 49.”
She wants to talk about him. “His cause of death was so unnecessary.” She dabs her eyes. “He had a kidney condition and had to have dialysis every day. And then when I was 14, he wanted to go for my uncle’s wedding to Pakistan. He needed his dialysis equipment so we cargoed it.”
She pauses and to my horror I slowly realise what happened.
“The equipment never arrived. He spent three days without the dialysis. The Pakistan hospitals didn’t have the equipment. He died on the fourth day.”
Negligence, I say out loud as if it had never occurred to her.
She shrugs. “It was my widowed mother and her two teenage daughters. Just the three of us. We didn’t know how or what to do with the cargo company. My mum just got on with raising her daughters. She’s a strong woman.” Her face lights up. “She gave me the space to achieve what I wanted. She even funded my Masters in Creative Writing.”
I agree with her. Our mothers’ generation are like solid rocks, providing stability and unconditional love to allow daughters to achieve what the first generation of immigrants could only ever dream of.
Is she working on anything else? “Yes, the second book with Nadiya. It’s a three book deal.”
So Ayisha’s name will occupy more shelf space than any other British Asian author at a given time. How did it all start?
“Nine years ago I was the only hijabi in publishing. I think there are a few more now but back then it was just me working as a publicity assistant. I began with two weeks work experience at Random House, then temped for a few months before I was offered a part time job. Oh, the amount of photo copying I did.’ She smiles. “Finally a full-time vacancy came up and I was told it was mine if I wanted it.
“I think being able to pursue a career in publishing is very dependent on family life. I was never pressured to pursue law or medicine or any of the other popular Asian parent preferences. This allowed me to chase my dream which is not really common. Asian parents don’t push their children to be creative. I was able to do it because I had a stable financial position at home.”
Did she think she was treated differently as a hijabi?
“Publishing is a very middle class white environment. I was treated well ...of course I was. Yet, I was a novelty to many. Anything unknown is a novelty. I know there is a lot of talk about the need for change as regards diversity in the industry. I think ignorance is a harsh word and used often, but lack of knowledge doesn’t come from bad intentions. It’s about fostering diverse relationships."
‘The Other Side of Happiness’ is released in April 2017
The Secret Life of the Amir Sisters is published by HQ
Sofia Khan is Not Obliged is published by Twenty7
Sufiya Ahmed is the author of Secrets of the Henna Girl, published by Puffin Books.