Jersey Festival of Words, Days Three and Four: Changing the Conversation

Day three of the festival begins with me chairing two events. The first is Cathy Rentzenbrink who I interview at Jersey Hospice. It’s an amazing setting, a £5 million facility on a hill overlooking the sea. The event goes well; if you haven’t seen Cathy speak about her books and her experiences, I highly recommend it. She speaks so eloquently, full of heart and compassion and makes time for everyone who comes to share their experiences with her too. She’s also very funny and that feels important considering the subject matter.

The second event is a panel on fake news and social media curation with Felicia Yap, author of the dystopian thriller Yesterday; Miranda Doyle, author of the memoir A Book of Untruths, and Peter Mourant, Picture Editor of the Jersey Evening Post. We discuss their work’s relation to the truth, Twitter and Donald Trump. I recommend both books, very different but both very interesting.

The last four events I watch, over the remainder of Saturday and into Sunday, all have something in common: they’re about books that are beginning to change the conversation. Whether that conversation is about women and sexuality, trans women, Muslim women or the stigma around mental health, each contributes to the shift that’s beginning to take place around these topics (colour me an optimist).

First up is Rhyannon Styles, author of the The New Girl, a memoir about her transition. The interview gets off to a poor start when the interviewer uses Rhyannon’s dead name twice in the introduction. She corrects him from off-stage.

Rhyannon has lots of interesting things to say about her experiences and there’s plenty for us to hear about the way trans gender people are treated. She talks about recognising something of herself in Madonna in the Beautiful Stranger video. Art college was ‘the breath of fresh air I needed’ and where she first met people with similar interests – music, film, artists. At the time she identified as a gay male, ‘I let the role of a gay male dictate my sexuality’. She describes the nightclub Heaven as ‘monumental’ for her. It was a safe place to express herself and she began dressing and performing as female. In 2011, she saw the TV programme My Transsexual Summer which she describes as ‘the key to the door’.

‘You don’t transition on a whim,’ says Rhyannon, describing it as a long, hard, arduous process. The psychologist she saw was sexist, asking her whether she wore dresses and heels when she attended her appointment in jeans and a sweater. There was an 18-month waiting list at the gender clinic so Rhyannon bought hormones online and began taking them.

She discusses the other elements of her transition: the changes to her body; the laser hair removal treatment she describes as ‘eighteen session of torture’; the speech therapy, and the clothing experiments. ‘Some of my outfits are still mental…I was like the kid in the sweetshop.’

Early in the interview, Rhyannon’s asked what’s acceptable in terms of language. She explains that trans is an umbrella term. The best way to approach the issue would be to say, ‘Hi, Rhyannon, how would you like me to describe you? What’s your preferred pronoun?’

This desire to learn seems at odds with other parts of the interview, however. The story about the parents who removed their son from a school because of a transgender child in his class is raised. The interviewer mentions The Daily Mail to which Rhyannon replies, ‘The Daily Mail is hysterical’. On the subject of uniform rules and clothes for school she says, ‘Clothes are all made from the same fabric, they’re just cut in different ways’. The interviewer pushes her asking if she can understand the parents’ perspective. I don’t see why Rhyannon, or any other trans person, should be expected to understand the point of view of someone who’s transphobic.

Towards the end of the interview, the conversation turns back to Rhyannon’s body. At the end of the book, she discusses gender reassignment surgery. She says she thinks it’s an acceptable topic of discussion for the interview as she’s included in her book, however, some trans people think it’s unacceptable and it reduces them to their genitalia. Unfortunately, the interviewer states that it was the one thing he wanted to know and bemoans the fact he had to wait until the end of the book to discover the answer. Rhyannon turns the discussion back to her experience and thoughts. She says the NHS offered her surgery but it made her wonder whether the decision was about her or whether it was about what society expects her to look like. ‘My womanhood was for me to define; I don’t think having a vaginoplasty makes me a woman.’ She says she fell for an idea of completeness and that it’s not about the physical, it’s about the mental. Something for many of us to think about.

Daisy Buchanan talks to Cathy Rentzenbrink about her latest book, How to Be a Grown Up. It’s aimed at 20-somethings, although I’m pretty certain I could still do with some help at 39.

Daisy describes her 20s as ‘difficult’ consisting of crap boyfriends, dreadful jobs and hangovers. At 27, she went freelance and met someone lovely and now at 29, she feels that some things have fallen into place. She’s still poor at managing money though, she reveals. She’s fantasised about there being an adult auditor and says she wanted to write a book you could pull off the shelf at 3am and feel that you could find some help and support.

She talks about the jobs she had before she went freelance. At 22, she was a Mortgage PR, ‘It wasn’t for me’. She says there are parallels between jobs and relationships in the sense that you decided you’d quite like to be a particular type of person so you force yourself into things. She says ‘Be yourself’ is crap advice; ‘You don’t know, when you’re 22, who you are.’

The discussion turns to social media, of which Daisy says she’s a big fan. It’s where she met her husband and is an easy way of continuing friendships. However, she says it used to be a mix between a house party, a bar and a coffee morning and you could wander away. You can’t do that as much anymore. She comments that it’s difficult to have boundaries on social media, it creates a false sense of intimacy.

Cathy asks about sex and masturbation as it’s a topic Daisy’s written on regularly as well as there being a section in the book on it. Daisy says she has a fear and fascination of it. She was raised as a Catholic which meant that going to hell was a greater fear than getting pregnant but getting pregnant meant there’d be evidence of your sins. ‘We demonise women wanting to have agency over their own bodies.’

Daisy’s mother wrote to her school so she wasn’t allowed to take part in sex ed. Her writing about sex openly is Daisy’s way of covering what she wishes she’d know. She says we’re so quick to demonise porn that we’re not learning from it and how it can lead to expectations and male entitlement. They’ve grown up in a world that says this is okay. She says there needs to be a sexual revolution around pleasure, comfort and desire and there needs to be a language for women to express this.

Sunday begins with Ayisha Malik, author of Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged and The Other Half of Happiness. She talks about conceiving Sofia Khan as a Muslim version of Bridget Jones. She was Muslim dating at the time and had stories which her friends convinced her to write. ‘I never read about Muslim characters who aren’t oppressed,’ she says, ‘I just wanted her to be a normal human being’.

She uses humour because, she says, any situation that arises to do with racism, if you meet it with humour, it reduces it and the person doing it. It’s also an antidote to identity politics. On the reaction to the books, she comments, ‘I’ve not had a fatwa out against me, which is great.’

Khan talks about not wanting to be confined to writing one kind of book. She states her inspirations as Jane Austen, Nora Ephron, Anne Enright and Ruth Ozeki. The novel she’s working on at the moment is about a man trying to fulfil his mum’s dying wish by building a mosque in a West Dorset village. She links the idea to recent bombings saying, ‘When the perpetrator claims to share your faith that has a profound effect on you. Why should I always have to defend my beliefs?’ She says being a Muslim woman has made her ‘grittier’ and describes Muslim women as ‘Unashamed of our multiple identities. We’re multifaceted’.

She says she was honoured to be asked to ghost write Nadia Hussein’s novels (the second has recently been completed), although it ‘might be because I’m the only hijabi Muslim in publishing right now’. She describes the process as ‘a very different kind of writing. It’s quite prescriptive; the ideas are very much hers. I take myself completely out of it. I think that’s part and parcel of the process’. She agreed to do it because the publishers were transparent that it was Malik doing the writing.

The final event of the festival is one designed to help our mental health. Rachel Kelly is a former reporter for The Times and the author of Walking on Sunshine. She begins the event by asking us to stand if we or a member of our family has ever experienced a form of mental illness. If there’s anyone left seated, I can’t see them. She then asks us to remain standing if we’ve felt we could speak openly about it. Around 50% of the audience sits down. Kelly says she hopes she can contribute to changing that stigma.

Kelly tells her story: in 1997, she was working at The Times and had two small children. One night she couldn’t sleep. Her heartrate speeded up, she felt sick. She gripped the bed because she felt as though she was falling. She started to think that if she couldn’t get to sleep, she wouldn’t be able to go to work. If she couldn’t go to work, she wouldn’t be able to pay the mortgage which would result in her losing the house and then her children. She was ruminating and catastrophising. She didn’t sleep for a further two nights. On the third night, she assumed she was having a heart attack and went to A&E. At the hospital she saw a psychiatrist who told Kelly her fight or flight response had become chronic.

She tells us that mental illness happens in a context and you can alter that context. (I think that’s too simplistic a response which doesn’t take structural factors into account.) However, Kelly didn’t change anything in her life except for taking the medication she was prescribed for a period of time.

In 2007, she became ill for a second time. This lasted for two years. This time around she became aware there was a pattern emerging and that if a form of mental illness occurs once it’s more likely to occur again. She changed her lifestyle.

The rest of the event consists of Kelly giving us some ideas as to how we can help ourselves. She begins with a breathing exercise during which we close our eyes and she talks to us about focusing on our breathing and our bodies. The reason for this is that we can only breathe in the present; it helps slow the sensation of time down. If you’re physically relaxed, your mentally relaxed, she says.

Kelly goes on to tell us some jokes about cheese – for example, Which kind of cheese do you use to disguise a small horse? Mascarpone – because laughter is good for us. She also recommends exercise and happy foods, which she says are oily fish, dark green leafy vegetables and dark chocolate. She tells us she’s providing us with a toolkit and knows that not all of her suggestions will work for everyone.

The final two things she mentions are the ones that appeal to me the most: first, we have to do an active listening exercise in which we tell someone we’ve never met before three things we’re grateful for and then they do the same. The idea is that we focus on the good things in our lives but, to be honest, I’m more interested in the other person’s story and we have a good chat about our lives. It’s a nice reminder that I like meeting new people and finding out about them. The second is about the idea of Flow as documented by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. I haven’t thought about this in years (there was a point when it was trendy to discuss it in relation to teaching and learning) even though I know I love it when I’m in a state of flow reading a book or playing music. Kelly says that she learns poems off by heart and proves it by performing Love by George Herbert for us. I think about how much time I spend on social media and vow to book myself some long promised piano lessons when I get home.

Then it’s all over bar the long journey home for me. Jersey Festival of Words 2017 was bigger and more interesting than ever. I’m already looking forward to 2018.

The Other Half of Happiness – Ayisha Malik

The Other Half of Happiness is the sequel to Malik’s debut, Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged. While the books can be read individually, I can’t write about The Other Half of Happiness without spoiling the end of the first book. You have been warned!

‘I’ll be shot for saying this,’ said Sakib, ‘but I always thought women preferred romance to feminism.’

Brammers shook her head while he wasn’t looking, as if it was just the typical thing a man would say.

I took another biscuit, thinking about Conall. Romance versus feminism. ‘Whoever said you can’t have both?’

We re-join Sofia on 1st January 2013 in bed with Conall, to whom she is now married. They are living in Karachi while Conall works on his documentary with Hamida, a situation which Sofia isn’t thrilled about. She still dislikes Hamida and she’s missing London and her friends. While Conall sleeps, she exchanges messages with Suj, Foz and Hannah.

Sofia’s mum’s upset that she’s married without telling anyone and, on a Skype call with her sister, Maars, some family grievances are aired:

‘It was all very quick.’ She leaned into the screen, her eyes looking bigger than usual. ‘I mean, how well do you actually know him?’

‘It’s Conall.’

She raised her eyebrows. ‘Yeah, but who’s his family?’

‘I didn’t realise we were living in a Regency novel.’

‘You can tell a lot about a person from their family,’ she said.

‘I hope not,’ I replied as she stuck her finger up at me.

She handed Adam a rusk and added: ‘You never just marry one person. You marry their whole family.’

The latter comment is what lies at the nub of the novel. Conall rarely mentions his family but, when Sofia ends up back in London, Sofia’s mum decides Sofia and Conall are having another wedding. Amongst the 300 guests, Sofia’s mum invites Conall’s parents. His mum attends and, before the wedding’s barely over, Sofia discovers a huge secret Conall’s been keeping from her.

While the problems which ensue form the main plot of the novel, there’s a number of subplots. Sofia’s back in London because Katie, her editor, and her new co-worker, Sakib, have proposed she writes a guide to marriage from her unique perspective. Her mum’s getting remarried to a man she knew 40 years ago who she’s rediscovered via Facebook and her Auntie and friends have a variety of different issues in their own lives, mostly around relationships and children.

Malik explores life beyond the ‘happy ever after’ with the added twist of a marriage between a Muslim woman of colour and a white, Irish man who’s converted to Islam. This allows her to look at the way in which the practices related to Islam are treated with suspicion. She also expands her look at diversity in publishing, which she touched on in the first book, by introducing Sakib, who’s name Katie can’t even pronounce:

‘Sakib’s here to build our list of diverse authors,’ said Brammers. ‘He’s of Indian descent and Muslim. Like you,’ she added.

‘I’m Pakistani,’ I said.

While the novel’s still very funny, it’s much darker than the first instalment and, I would argue, better for it. Sofia and her friends have steep learning curves which feel intense and realistic. She comes to realise that life doesn’t always work out as you intended it to but sometimes it’s the events you don’t expect that lead to a more interesting path.

People talk of milestones in life – graduating from university, getting your first job, buying a house, getting married, etc. – but no one really thinks about the milestones that are offered to you. And how they can mean so much more when they’re unprecedented.

Malik challenges the traditional trajectory of the romantic comedy with the strong feminist streak that runs throughout the book. I was so invested in the outcomes for Sofia, that when she did choose her path, I found myself sobbing over her decision. The Other Half of Happiness is an empowering, feminist novel and one of my books of the year.

I spoke to Ayisha Malik about writing romantic comedy, female friendships and being a ghostwriter.

You can buy The Other Half of Happiness from AmazonWaterstones
or support your local independent bookshop.

You can buy Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged from AmazonWaterstones or support your local independent bookshop. If, like me, there isn’t one near you, I recommend Big Green Bookshop.

Thanks to Bonnier Zaffre for the review copy and to Ayisha Malik and Emily Burns for the interview.

Book Lists for All Humans #3

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Today’s list comes in reaction to this list on Publishers Weekly: The 10 Funniest Books, only two of which are written but women and none by writers of colour. Note to us all: only  white men are funny.

Or not. I’m struggling a little with this one as funny isn’t my go-to so please add your suggestions, especially books by women of colour from beyond the UK and USA.

Animals – Emma Jane Unsworth
friends, booze, debauchery

What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day – Pearl Cleage
HIV, religion, love

Love, Nina – Nina Stibbe
nannying, working class nanny meets the literati

Is Everyone Hanging Out with Me? – Mindy Kaling
memoir

Crooked Heart – Lissa Evans
war, evacuees, survival

Mr Loverman – Bernadine Evaristo
homosexuality, London, family, Caribbean

The Table of Less Valued Knights – Marie Phillips
quests, feminism, sexuality

Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu – Yi Shun Lai
dating, mothers, following your dreams

Yes, Please – Amy Poehler
memoir, feminism

Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged – Ayisha Malik
hijabs, dating, writing

Links are to my reviews

Book Lists for All Humans #2

BookListsforAllHumans

I didn’t expect it to be so soon but here we are, courtesy of this list of Top 10 Books to Make You a Better Person in The Guardian. Four white men (sounding good so far, right?), three men of colour, three white women. Verdict = could do better (the pun wasn’t intended but I’ll take it).

There’s a problem with this list because I don’t know what making someone a ‘better’ person means. Who decides the criteria?

I’ve gone for books that made me think about the world differently (and avoided any I included in list #1 although they’re all relevant too); feel free to interpret it in your own way and leave your suggestions in the comments.

An Untamed State – Roxane Gay
Haiti, kidnapping, rape, privilege, poverty

The Country of Ice Cream Star – Sandra Newman
Dystopia, AAVE, disease, love, war, religion

Under the Udala Trees – Chinelo Okparanta
Love, religion, ‘cures’ for homosexuality, Nigeria, women

Just Call Me Superhero – Alina Bronsky (translated by Tim Mohr)
Disability, friendship, love, sexuality

Blonde Roots – Bernadine Evaristo
Counterfactual slave narrative, race reversal

The Repercussions – Catherine Hall
War photography, Afghanistan, love, women, history

Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged – Ayisha Malik
Hijab, dating, religion, family, writing

Tell No Tales – Eva Dolan
Far right, immigration, politics, crime, corruption

The Book of Memory – Petina Gappah
Race, class, albino, women in prison, perspective

The Glorious Heresies – Lisa McInerney
Working class, feminism, religion, crime, coming of age

(Links to my reviews.)

 

In the Media: January 2016

In the media is a fortnightly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous fortnight and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.

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January’s been living up to it’s reputation as the most miserable month in the calendar. There’s been the misogynistic and racist response to Sarah Howe’s Young Writer of the Year Award and TS Eliot Award wins. Poet, Katy Evans-Bush responded with ‘TS Eliot prize row: is winner too young, beautiful – and Chinese?‘ in The Guardian.

The deaths of David Bowie and Alan Rickman at least inspired some great writing: Stacey May Fowles, ‘Reconciling David Bowie‘ on Hazlitt and Sali Hughes, ‘I’ve had it up to here with the grief police‘ on The Pool. Gwendolyn Smith, ‘Forget Snape – in concentrating on him, we leave out one of the greatest roles Alan Rickman ever performed‘ in The Independent and Daisy Buchanan, ‘Alan Rickman’s Colonel Brandon taught me an important lesson about love‘ on The Pool

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In happier news, there were a number of other prize wins for female writers: Kate Atkinson won the Costa Novel PrizeAnuradha Roy won the 2016 DSC prize for south Asian literature; A.S. Byatt won the Erasmus Prize, and the writers shortlisted for the Costa Short Story Award were revealed, including Annalisa Crawford, Peggy Riley and Erin Soros.

Glamour welcomed a transgender columnist: Juno Dawson will chart her journey in the magazine. I’ll add Juno’s column to the regular columnists list once it has a permanent URL.

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The Observer revealed their New Faces of Fiction for 2016 and Joanna Cannon wrote this great piece – The Monster Under the Bed – about her inclusion.

And the woman with the most publicity of late is Amy Liptrot with ‘I swam in the cold ocean and dyed my hair a furious blue… I was moving upwards slowly‘ in The Guardian; interviews in The Independent and The Pool.

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The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

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Personal essays/memoir:

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Feminism:

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Society and Politics:

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Film, Television, Music, Art and Fashion:

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The interviews:

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The regular columnists:

In the Media: October 2015, Part One

In the media is a fortnightly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous fortnight and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.

In the media is back in a slightly altered format. You might have spotted a change in the opening paragraph – this feature will now appear fortnightly rather than weekly. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be bigger than it was before, however. When I started this feature, the plan was to focus on fiction writers with published books but as I started to read more widely, I realised how many brilliant women columnists and features writers there are and it seemed ludicrous not to include them. I want to keep supporting them so you’ll notice as you scroll down that I’ve reduced the number of categories but I’ve added a regular columnists category to link to those writers who are consistently good/interesting.

This fortnight’s been all about whitewashing. First there was the Sufragette film which ignored any women of colour involved in the movement. Anita Anand asks ‘Were the Suffragettes racist?‘ in the Telegraph. Victoria Massie tells us about ‘3 black women who fought on the front lines for women’s suffrage‘ on NTRSCTN and a piece on Asian Suffragettes on British Protest at Home and Abroad was highlighted. Eesha Pandit writes, ‘The discomfiting truth about white feminism: Meryl Streep, Amy Poehler & the movement’s long history of racial insensitivity‘ on Salon while Henna Zamurd Butt asks, ‘So Nadiya won the Great British Bake Off, why the big deal?‘ on Media Diversified and Nadia Shireen says, ‘Why the world needs more Nadiyas‘ in The Pool.

And then there was Meg Rosoff who said,“there are not too few books for marginalised young people”. This came at the same time Leila Rasheed posted, ‘A New Scheme Hopes to Promote BME Voices in Children’s Literature‘ on The Asian Writer. Responses to Rosoff came from Camryn Garrett, ‘this is how the industry lives now: five signs that you might be suffering from white privilege’ on For all the Girls Who Are Half Monster; Edi Campbell, ‘SundayMorningReads‘ on Crazy QuiltEdi (whose Facebook page is where Rosoff made her comment); Kaye M, ‘This Is How I Life: An Open Letter to Meg Rosoff‘ on Medium; Radiya Hafiza ‘Why we need mirrors in literature‘ on Media Diversified; KT Horning, ‘Spouting Off While White‘ on Reading While White, and Debbie Reese, ‘About Meg Rosoff’s Next Book‘ on American Indians in Children’s Literature, which includes an up-to-date list of responses so far. And how about this for a radical idea: ‘Is Hermione Granger White?‘ Monika Kothari answers on Slate.

Reactions to Chrissie Hynde blaming herself when she was raped continue. Ann Friedman writes, ‘We Shouldn’t Let Chrissie Hynde Off the Hook So Easily‘ in The Cut while Tracey Thorn says, ‘Chrissie longed to be one of the boys. Unlike us, she didn’t have riot grrrls‘ in The New Statesman.

Finally, while there wasn’t a female winner of the Man Booker Prize, there was a female winner of The Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize. Congratulations to Kirstin Innes who won for her novel Fishnet. Unfortunately, both the Samuel Johnson Prize and the Goldsmiths Prize shortlists were somewhat lacking in women. Michael Caines offers an alternative all-female shortlist to the latter on the TLS while Cathy Rentzenbrink on blistering form in The Bookseller writes ‘On Noticing‘.

The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

Personal essays/memoir:

Feminism:

Society and Politics:

Film, Television, Music and Fashion:

portrait_walsh_colourThe interviews:

The regular columnists:

Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged – Ayisha Malik

‘Maria is getting married, Sofia. Now it is your turn, nah?’

I tried! I did! But what normal human being would ask another human being to live with a cohort of mother, father, brother and sister-in-law with two children, complete with a sister and brother-in-law and three children next door, and a hole-in-the-wall joining the two houses? (Just writing that sentence about so many people confused me; imagine living with them.) I had to pretend it was the chilli sauce that made my eyes water.

Sofia’s got problems: she’s split up with her boyfriend due to the hole-in-the-wall situation; her mother thinks she shouldn’t wear a hijab; a man on the tube calls her a terrorist; she doesn’t believe in sex before marriage, and her boss at the publishing house where she’s a publicity assistant wants her to write a funny Muslim dating book.

She signs up to an online dating site for research through which she meets Naim, a New Yorker living in London. While their on/off relationship forms a significant part of the first half of the novel, Sofia’s sister and friends also provide ample fodder for the book. Sofia’s sister, Maria, is getting married; Hannah’s becoming a second wife; Fozia’s boyfriend Kam is ‘a tosser’, and Suj, who isn’t Muslim but does have brown skin, is seeing Charles:

He’s black, that’s what he is.’ She threw the apple core in the bin. ‘Can you imagine what my family would say: her mum died and then she fucked off with a black guy.’

And then there’s Conall, the Khan’s Irish next-door neighbour who lets Sofia use his house in his absence to get on with writing the book.

The novel takes place across a year in Sofia’s life. It’s structured like a diary, divided into months, days and precise times, although not every one of the 365 days has an entry. The chronological structure works well although I did wonder whether it was slightly too long – Naim’s part in the story dragged a little, slowing the pace in the middle of the book.

On the whole, I really enjoyed Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged: it’s funny, it’s sweary, it’s well plotted and while Malik shows us what’s unique about life as a hijab-wearing Muslim, she also shows us how much of Sofia’s life is no different to any other young woman’s life in a western city.

Considering the debate around diversity in novels, there’s a really interesting passage towards the end of the book where her editor calls her in to talk about the manuscript:

‘Anyway, we do feel that, though entertaining, there needs to be more sex.’ I folded my arms. ‘Just so that it’s appealing to a wider readership.’

Wider readership? What? Like bored housewives and people who need something to read before the next Mills & Boon comes out?

‘Can I be candid, Sofia?’ Smile. ‘It’s an admirable way of life, really. No drinking, no sex before marriage, up at the break of dawn to pray. It’s really very committed…’ Sounded more like she thought I should be committed. ‘But it’s also a little tricky for people to relate to. And what readers want is something they can understand.’ She twisted in her chair. ‘Of course they want something new and unknown, but really it should also be relatable, you see?’

‘Right.’

‘We’re not talking about an exposé or anything. Just maybe one chapter involving something sex-like.’

‘Sex-like.’

I stood up to leave as Brammers began typing an email. Just as I was about to walk out of the door, she said, ‘People always get side-tracked by sex. It’ll save you from explaining why you decide to live the way you live.’

I didn’t know I had to explain my life to people as well as get through the process of actually living it.

Quite. Considering the findings of the Spread the Word Writing the Future report, it wouldn’t surprise me if this were an actual conversation someone had with Malik. The idea that a novel about young women dating, negotiating the wishes and desires of their parents and living and working in a city isn’t relatable is laughable as is the idea that white readers – because that’s the subtext here, as if only white people read novels – will be put off reading the book because of the protagonist’s choices. Somehow Patrick Bateman’s choices didn’t put thousands of us off reading American Psycho and I really hope that doesn’t mean swathes of the population relate to the way he chooses to live his life.

Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged is a good bit of commercial fiction. It’s funny, it’s heart-breaking, it’s heart-warming and it has a protagonist who’s determined to live life and write her book her way. An enjoyable read.

Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged is published by new imprint twenty7. It’s available in ebook now and in paperback in January.

Thanks to twenty7 for the review copy.