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.

Diverse December – Why Do It?

The simple answer is that BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) writers are largely ignored. Underrepresented on agents’ books, publishers’ lists, review pages, prizes lists and recommended reads.

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The catalyst for this particular initiative was the revealing of the UK’s World Book Night list last week. In case you’re not aware of WBN, the idea is that members of the public sign up to be a giver. They choose a book from the list they’d like to distribute to non-readers and, if their application’s successful, are sent 20 copies of their chosen book. It’s a great initiative and I’ve been a giver myself. However, this year there isn’t a single book by a BAME writer on the list.

Responding to this, writer Nikesh Shukla wrote a piece for the Bookseller titled ‘Where Are World Book Night 2016’s BAME Writers?’ In it, he says:

…having BAME writers will encourage more BAME readers to become givers or to take a book, but also it’ll show that, on lists, we belong just as much as everyone else. Because we certainly belong in the prizes – look at this year’s incredibly diverse Man Booker shortlist. It was so inspiring.

Unfortunately, some people didn’t feel the same way, going as far as to suggest that including BAME writers on the list would be ‘tokenism’. Using that word in this context provokes some very grim connotations.

Let’s think about that in terms of statistics for a moment. 16% of the world’s population is white, which means 84% is not. 84% of people in the world are black, Asian or minority ethnic. In the UK, the 2011 census showed that 14% of the population identify as black, Asian or minority ethnic. In the USA, the 2014 census puts the equivalent BAME population at 22%. In both countries the white population is declining. While white people only make up 16% of the world’s population they still dominate it politically, socially and culturally, meanwhile the 14% of BAME people who live in the UK are barely visible and if we include them on a list of books it’s ‘tokenism’.

In yesterday’s Guardian, Shukla commented further on the issue with regards to the publishing industry in the UK:

“When you criticise prizes and review coverage and lists for not being diverse enough, you’re told it’s because of what publishers are submitting, that it just reflects what publishers are putting out. So you say OK, publishers, and they say what they publish reflects what they’re sent by agents, so you say to agents, ‘where are the brown people?’ and they say they don’t discriminate, they just aren’t getting submissions through.”

“So you say it’s the writers’ fault. So you speak to writers, and they say they look at the prizes, the lists, the reviews, the bookshops, and they don’t see themselves reflected. So whose responsibility is it?”

Shukla says he’s taken on the responsibility of shouting about it. So who’s listening?

Yesterday, Galley Beggar Press, the small independent press who published Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, tweeted that they estimate 85% of their submissions to be from men and suspect that 80% are white men. They’ve applied for funding to appoint a ‘Diversity Editor’, a role which will include making contact with writers and writing groups around the country, actively seeking work from people who might not otherwise submit their stories. Clearly they’re listening.

My friend Dan is listening. When I returned to Twitter following the negative comments about Shukla’s Bookseller comments, Dan had begun a hashtag #diversedecember and suggested that people read and recommend books by writers of colour for the whole of the month of December. He’s written about his reasons for doing so on his blog.

I’ve joined him because I think this is important too. I wrote back in January that I was aiming to read and review more books by women of colour because my unconscious bias meant I was almost entirely focused on white women. When I was asked to be Guest Editor for Fiction Uncovered in May, I wrote about being an outsider in literature and what it means not to be represented in the stories you read. I also suggested that it was time for readers to let the publishing industry know that we want a wider range of stories by a wider range of writers.

Next time you’re choosing a book, whether it’s physical or virtual, from your own shelves, a bookshop or a library, consider the writer for a moment. Are you choosing a book by a white man or woman over a book by a person of colour? What’s the reason for your choice? Is it the time to try a book you might not otherwise have picked up and see whether it’s for you?

I’m aware that possible answers to these questions are ‘I don’t see colour’ or ‘How would I know the skin colour of the writer?’ The latter’s easily answered by looking at the author’s photograph on the inside of the book jacket or with a quick internet search of their name. The idea that someone doesn’t see colour is a more complicated one, however. In a society dominated by white narratives, if we don’t see colour we don’t see black and Asian narratives. That makes us complicit in the maintenance of a dominant white narrative. It’s not a statement of equality, it’s a statement of ignorance and it’s a dangerous one.

If you really don’t believe you have an unconscious bias, have a go at Harvard University’s Implicit Association test. I did it yesterday and came out as having a strong automatic preference for light skin. Did that result make me feel uncomfortable? Yes it did. Did that result contradict everything I think I believe about how I conduct myself as a member of society? As someone who supports student teachers? As a stepparent? Yes it did. But now I’m aware of it, I can move to correct it.

The Harvard University tests don’t just cover skin colour, they also test for gender bias, sexuality bias, able body bias and more. Which leads me nicely to noting that I’m aware that diversity is about more than skin colour and if a person’s identity intersects with a number of non-mainstream categories or communities the less visible they become. Try and list books by brown-skinned members of the LGBT communities for starters…then move on to those differently abled. What about BAME writers, differently abled and identifying with LGBT communities? How many did you come up with? How many of those were women? Working class?

It seems pertinent here to mention positive discrimination. Someone (white, usually male) always says that surely most people would want to be recognised on merit rather than being given ‘a helping hand’. Well, yes, of course, but, as I’ve already mentioned, there’s an unconscious bias towards white people that’s allowed them to be positively discriminated towards for centuries. They’re less likely to live in poverty and so more likely to have access to the structures that allow them thrive. One of the outcomes of this has been some very high-profile appointments of people who proved to be mediocre at best.

On a personal, anecdotal note, in 2014 10% of the books I read were by writers of colour. Those books made up 12.5% of my books of the year list. So far this year, 30% of the books I’ve read have been by writers of colour and in the draft list of my books of the year I created a couple of weeks ago, books by writers of colour make up 40%. It might be a crude measurement but it seems clear that there’s a basic correlation.

If all that has convinced you to join us in shouting about books by BAME writers, it’s really easy. Use the hashtag #diversedecember and tweet about the books you’re reading. You can also use the hashtag and the Twitter account – @DiverseDecember – to find suggestions from other readers.

If you want a few ideas to get started, I highly recommend the following:

Citizen by Claudia Rankine – a blend of flash fiction, poetry and essay looking at what it’s like to be black in America in the 21st Century

Passing by Nella Larsen – a novella in which childhood friends Irene and Clare rekindle their friendship in 1920s Harlem. But Clare’s been passing as white and her racist husband doesn’t know.

Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged by Ayisha Malik – Sofia’s split up with her boyfriend who wants them to live in adjoining houses with his whole family; her mother thinks she shouldn’t wear a hijab, and her publishing house boss wants her to write a Muslim dating book. Sweary, funny romantic fiction.

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay – an essay collection on feminism, popular culture and Scrabble.

Springfield Road by Salena Godden – a memoir about Godden’s childhood and her largely absent father.

There are more suggestions on my ‘Women of Colour’ tab at the top of the page; the Guardian Reading Group are selecting a book from the Caribbean for this month, so you might want to read along with them, and below are a selection of great bloggers of colour who have plenty of reviews to choose from:

Folklore & Literacy

Les Reveries de Rowena

The Poco Book Reader

Brown Girl Reading

Kinna Reads

Looking forward to seeing everyone’s choices and selections throughout the month on #diversedecember.