COLUMN: MATCHES MADE IN HEAVEN

Updated 13 Sep 2020

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In this column, I want to discuss a new book I co-edited with my colleagues Nafhesa Ali and Richard Phillips (both University of Sheffield). Entitled A Match Made in Heaven, the book is a collection of 16 short stories about British-Muslim women’s love and desire (or their lack). British-Muslims’ love lives are regularly sensationalised in the media stereotype of the male grooming gang, or disparaged in the image of Muslim women as passive and repressed. To find other kinds of stories, we invited a range of women authors to write about love in whatever way appealed to them. This diverse and eloquent anthology is the result.

Too often in academia and left-leaning journalism, stereotypes are allegedly dismantled only to be set up again and reinforced. For instance, one week someone will have space to say the hijab liberates them but, the week after, somebody else is given a platform to marshal the usual arguments that anyone who wears the veil is deluded or oppressed. What I am proud of with this book is that it contains a range of voices and opinions within a single volume.

Indeed, the stories paint their characters with a remarkably varied tonal palette. As we wrote for the back blurb, “Each story is as different as the young woman who wrote it — so absolutely nothing can be taken for granted.” Anyone who wants to find out what The Muslim Woman thinks on any particular topic will be sorely disappointed. Clearly, there is no such singular figure or worldview, but a plethora of people and ideas.

Especially at this time of divisions and danger, there is a need for different stories to be told and, even more importantly, heard. There is also a hunger for the creation of spaces where young Muslims and members of other minority groups can air complexities without fear of judgemental reactions.

Love, as a theme universally explored in literature, is an experience that is highly ‘relatable’. Regardless of readers’ backgrounds or religions, love stories can find a wide audience, all the while building bridges and promoting greater understanding. More specifically, though, it is well known that Urdu has an unusually high number of words for various kinds of love. This means Pakistani culture is more open to romance than outsiders might assume. Whereas the mother of one of the stories’ protagonists tells her, “Women in our culture don’t get love stories,” this collection puts the lie to that notion. The book also shows that young Muslims are increasingly using technology as well as tea and samosas, algorithms rather than aunties, in their search for a love interest.

We wanted to actively listen out for the voices of new Muslim women authors. And not only find those new voices, for inclusivity isn’t meaningful unless it’s about getting in, but also getting on. As such, we tried to nurture these emerging authors through several series of creative writing workshops. It was also important to give bespoke editorial care to individuals in the lead-up to publication. Approximately one third of the anthologised stories were written by first-time writers. These talented newcomers were excited to see their names in print alongside established names including Sabyn Javeri, Shelina Janmohamed, Bina Shah and Ayisha Malik.

To give a flavour of the volume, Javeri’s story, ‘Marriage of Convenience’, kicks us off with wit and verve on the subject of arranged marriage and repressed desires, as well as bestowing the book its titular phrase A Match Made in Heaven. Next up, Nazneen Ahmed’s ‘Ghazal’ revolves around a Bangladeshi-heritage protagonist, Rokeya, who is about to return to her parents’ home after almost a decade away. The narrative soon moves back in time as Rokeya, having opened an old keepsake box, reminisces about a musical evening nine years ago, when she was still a teenager.

In ‘Tears and Tantrums’, Sufiya Ahmed’s protagonist learns to separate an authentic Islam from cultural accretions. She sees the former as giving women rights. But patriarchal culture is wielded against her as she seeks a divorce from her husband who wants to take a second wife. In an achingly beautiful story by Sairish Hussain, ‘Waiting for the Bus’, a Syrian man and woman, each grieving a recently-deceased partner, recount their life stories as they wait to flee a war-torn city. And Sarvat Hasin’s fabulous ‘The Cat that Came in with the Dark’ takes in domestic violence, single-parent families, teenage lust and longing, and more than a hint of the supernatural.

Newcomer Noren Haq writes, in ‘Rearranged’, of a meet-cute when a widow in her 50s gets online to find a new partner. Bina Shah’s ‘Peter Pochmann Goes to Dinner’ is a humorous take on cultural misunderstandings and the battle of the sexes in one suburban London home. ‘Frida’s Breakfast’, by Roopa Farooki, centres on the eponymous teenager. Frida is a mutinous university student who has fallen pregnant by her boyfriend of less than a year, whom she now wants to marry. What is refreshing is the way it is the younger, second-generation, educated girl insisting on marriage as the solution. Meanwhile, the South Asian-born, “silly” mother is the one asking if she is sure she wants to marry so young, and trying to help Frida with the muddle she has got herself into.

‘Love Letter’ comprises Shelina Janmohamed’s epistolary advice to her daughter, imagining the young girl’s coming of age and a search for ‘Mr Right’ who shares her Muslim faith. Afshan D’Souza Lodhi’s heroine, by contrast, is looking for Ms Right, as the author explores same-sex desire and violent Islamophobia in a memorable tale. In the final story, ‘Heartbeat’, Ayisha Malik goes dark, and to tremendous effect. Everyone should read her funny and chilling piece about a glamorous widow on the prowl.

Publication was by the multicultural London publisher, HopeRoad. I must acknowledge Rosemarie Hudson’s tireless, single-handed efforts to bring out books from transcultural perspectives. As Donna Haraway writes, “It matters which stories tell stories, [...] which figures figure figures, which systems systematise systems. [...]

We need stories (and theories) that are just big enough to gather up the complexities and keep the edges open and greedy for surprising new and old connections.”

This might equally serve as a description of the anthology. Sixteen accomplished storytellers surprised me with their complex, connected and edgy tales. These honest stories disrupt existing systems and provide new figurations. Their voices are well worth listening to.

The columnist teaches global literature at the University of York and is the author of three books, including Rivers of Ink: Selected Essays

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 13th, 2020