It’s the first day of #RamadanReadathon 2020 and we’re exploring the theme of culture. I’m so excited to announce that I’ll be collaborating with the South Asian Reading Challenge (co-hosted by Samia & Rumaanah) this month to celebrate and explore the South Asian aspect of my identity and how it intersects with my identity as a Muslim.
Culture means something different to every single one of us as it’s multi-faceted and layered with our identity, religion, ethnicity, and family experiences. The three of us represent different parts of the South Asian-Muslim diaspora so we sat down to ask each other some questions about our initiatives and the way that books have infused more meaning to our identities.
To read my answers to these questions, head over to Rumaanah’s blog!
Why did you join the South Asian Reading Challenge?
SAMIA: When I saw Fanna’s announcement about SARC, I thought it was a brilliant way to encourage people to read more South Asian books this year, regardless if you’re South Asian-identifying or not. Within the last 3 years, I’ve seen so many more South Asian books—henna on hands and people in beautiful hijabs & South Asian clothes grace the covers. There is still a need for this diverse body of work to be uplifted.
In December 2019, Fanna put out a call for co-hosts to help create and promote content for SARC. I took a chance and applied, recognizing that I’m not primarily a book blogger but would love to be a part of this initiative. I was chosen as a co-host, and 4 months later, I feel like I’m part of this amazing online community of readers. I definitely noticed that I’ve started to read more South Asian books, especially from diasporic communities that are underrepresented in the media. Shout-out to Fanna & Nandini, the co-creators, and the amazing co-hosts of SARC!
RUMAANAH: I remember seeing the announcement that Fanna and Nandini – the creators of the South Asian Reading Challenge – were looking for people who may be interested in working with them and being hosts. While I had never been part of anything like this project before, I’d always wanted to so I decided to apply and amazingly, I was chosen to be part of it all. I am passionate about reading and I really believe in the power of a good story and what representation can do for people so I’m super happy to be part of this team. I also loved that SARC really makes an effort to represent all the cross sections of our community and everyone is always going out of their way to find new releases, authors and voices to uplift. It’s great feeling like a part of something positive and working collaboratively with our team who are located all over the world.
Tell us about the first time you were represented in a book?
SAMIA: I grew up in the South Bay Area of California, and there was a significant South Asian population at my high school. Not to be cliché, but I read The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri in high school and was struck by how the main character Gogul navigated life as a South Asian-American. I connected with the way that he struggled to grasp his identity in the form of embracing his name. It was a winding journey for him.
I went by a different pronunciation of Samia, one that was more palatable to the American tongue by emphasizing the ‘mia’ part of my name, throughout my public school education. It was the third year of high school where I felt empowered to tell people that my name is Samia, pronounced ‘Sum-yuh.’ I even wrote a college application essay on this topic, haha. In retrospect, it seems like a smaller moment of cultural awareness in my life, but it did give me the confidence to not choose between Indian, Muslim, or American, but rather, identify as Indian, Muslim, and American.
RUMAANAH: Growing up in the UK, London to be precise, I don’t really remember reading any books as a child or even as a young adult which I feel really represented me. At the time I didn’t really realise that I was reading stories about characters, mostly written by white authors, which I didn’t connect to: I was just into the story. It was only when I was a bit older and started getting more conscious of this and I sort of re-examined it all. I don’t think it was until I came to secondary school or maybe even university where I actually felt seen in a book. I can’t remember the first book I read which I really felt represented by, since I read a lot but I took a class called Making Memory and I remember the reading list was diverse and it was such a great feeling!
Do you have any favourite cultural traditions? What do you love most about your culture?
SAMIA: I have a huge family. My mom’s 9 siblings, their kids, and grandkids live in the Bay Area, so Eid and big life events are celebrated with yummy food, gorgeous clothing, and there’s always some element of spirituality at our gatherings, like saying a collective dua. It’s interesting to see how we’re creating community and tradition during Ramadan, outside of the mainland context of being Indian and not living in a Muslim-majority country.
I used to not like wearing bright Indian clothes on Eid—all that itchy wire and beading. I’ve grown to appreciate all the styles, intricate patterns, and vivid colors. I also love the food. Every Eid, my parents make sheer khurma (a vermicelli-milk-dry fruit dessert), and since my family lives closest to the local mosque, family members visit all throughout the morning, followed by a celebration at night-time.
RUMAANAH: What I love the most about my culture and South Asian cultures as a whole is the focus on family and the act of being together and sharing food, presents and general celebration. There’s a strong focus on community rather than individualism and it’s something I really value.
Food is obviously a huge part of any Asian gathering, and I never used to really comprehend how much it adds, but the varieties and different kinds of dishes which are so far ranging is part of it all. Feeding other people and sharing in this one basic act is an act of love and care. I think as a Muslim and Indian living in the UK, there’s a push and pull which exists between these different part of my identity and it used to be a lot harder to navigate but in recent years I’ve grown to appreciate them all in different ways.
What 3 books with South Asian and/or Muslim representation do you recommend?
A Place For Us by Fatima F. Mirza — Last Eid, my cousins, sister, and I couldn’t stop raving about this book. Fatima F. Mirza is attune to the Indian-Muslim-American experience and how fragile yet important the value of family can be.
Love From A to Z by S. K. Ali — I love that this novel is told candidly through Zeynab and Adam’s respective ‘Marvels & Oddities’ journal, as well as the spirituality infused in this book.
The Royal Abduls by Ramiza S. Koya (May 12, 2020) — I received an ARC of this novel and was struck by Ramiza S. Koya’s specific & meditative narrative about a secular Muslim, Indian, 2nd gen. American family.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy — beautifully and poetically written, this novel follows one member of a marginalised community in India and also paints a vivid picture of the history and politics of the region, ranging from Old Delhi, Kashmir and beyond.
Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie — this is such a moving and heart-breaking novel of generational trauma, displacement and finding family in the most unlikely of places. I liked that there was a mirroring between the South Asian and Japanese experience here.
Mad, Bad & Dangerous To Know by Samira Ahmed — a richly woven and entertaining read, which merges fact and fiction in the most delightful ways. A young Muslim woman in the present retraces the steps of a forgotten Muslim woman in the past and it’s a blend of art history, literary mysteries and old fashioned detective work!
ABOUT THE BLOGGERS
SAMIA: I’m a writer and blogger who is passionate about intentional storytelling and Muslim + South Asian representation in the media. I have a BA in Creative Writing and I’m a content team member for a South Asian beauty brand called Kulfi. On my blog, you’ll find a myriad of content on books, writing, life, and my Dreams In-Progress interview series, which explores how Gen Z-ers & Millennials are taking steps toward their dreams. My blog: samiaabbasi.com
RUMAANAH: I’m a 23-year-old blogger and reviewer. I have a BA in English Literature and I’m also a member of the South Asian Reading Challenge team. My blog is devoted to reading and all things book related where you can find plenty of reviews, updates and other book related content. I’ve loved reading all my life and am especially a champion of diverse fiction and representation in literature. I can usually be found with a cup of tea and a book, probably in bed! My blog: rumsthereader.blog