With the publication of My Past is a Foreign Country, Zeba Talkhani lends her voice to the vital conversation around religious identity and feminism in Britain. She tells Julie Vuong about her memoir. and what it’s like to be a Muslim writer working within the book trade today
Brexit aside, there are few more incendiary topics today than what it means to be a Muslim woman. This thorny subject has generally removed the voices of these very women from the conversation. But change is in the air, and thanks to notable books in recent months, the publishing industry is striving to do its part. Among recent titles aiming to redress the balance and open up space for Muslim women to speak freely have been It’s Not About The Burqa: Muslim Women on Faith, Feminism, Sexuality and Race, edited by Mariam Khan (Picador), which was released in February, and Let Me Tell You This (March, 404 Ink), a poetry collection by Nadine Aisha Jassat exploring her heritage growing up in Scotland.
"It's a story of a feminist Muslim woman finding herself"
Next up is the publication of Zeba Talkhani’s My Past Is a Foreign Country (Sceptre), a memoir of growing up in Saudi Arabia under the gaze of the religious police, and of finding relative freedom in Germany and subsequently the UK. "The book focuses on reclaiming our [Muslim women] narratives, subverting beauty standards and rejecting traditional paths, and it explores feminism, faith and self-compassion," she explains. "If I could describe it in one sentence, it's a story of a feminist Muslim woman finding herself."
Freedom to live and write
Talkhani’s book is in many ways a redressing of the Western perception of what it means to be Muslim. "There is an idea in mainstream media about what a Muslim woman should be, and this book is taking control over how I want to be seen: as a human rather than being reduced to my gender or faith."
Though vastly different cultures, Talkhani reveals the worrying parallels between her childhood in Saudi and her experiences in the UK. "Growing up in Jeddah to an Indian family, I never saw women drive or leave home on their own, and that had a huge impact on how I felt about myself. I experienced my first taste of freedom when I moved to Germany: I was able to plan my own day - go to museums and bookshops. Here in Britain, my day to day life is amazing. I enjoy living here but I was struck by the similarities to Saudi: people speaking on my behalf, and the media obsession with how I choose to or choose not to cover my body. I was not prepared for the amount of airtime given to being a Muslim woman, I thought it would be different."
A lesson it taught Talkhani is to seize every opportunity. "I never take anything for granted, such as writing this book," she says. "When I started working in publishing in the UK after my Masters in publishing from Angela Ruskin University, I noticed that I was usually the only brown person in the room. I thought, maybe I was too Indian for them. When I spent more time here and my accent became more familiar to people, I still found that access to the industry was not there. It struck me that for a country as evolved as Britain there were still divisions. I started reading about the experiences of people of colour working in publishing and I came to realise that they had similar issues."
When hard work pays off
Talkhani, a production editor at publishing services company Newgen by day, is heartened to be part of a growing group of Muslim writers. "I’m really looking forward to Unicorn: The Memoir of a Muslim Drag Queen by Amrou Al-Kadhi (4th Estate), We Have Always Been Here by Samra Habib (riverrun), and Cut From The Same Cloth edited by Sabeena Akhtar (Unbound)."
Talkhani acknowledges a positive shift in attitudes towards writers of colour in recent years, and a significant push from publishers to level the playing field in employment opportunities. "I think there’s a change, but it’s a slow change. I was reading the Creative Access survey into book trade diversity this month, and it really resonated with me."
Talkhani refers to a report from the organisation into the views of 66 people from ethnic minority backgrounds it had placed in publishing positions. While the majority wished to stay in publishing, 33% said they found it difficult to progress in the industry.
"It’s amazing how much has changed in the book trade, but you look at the lack of diversity in management and see there’s more be done," Talkhani says. "Commissioning editors such as Kishani Widyaratna at Picador and Ailah Ahmed at Little, Brown are doing so much good work; and when you see books like Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams (Trapeze) do so well you can’t help but think the push for change is starting to pay off. What’s brilliant is that I don’t feel that people are waiting for permission to do what they want, everyone’s creating their own networks, like BAME in Publishing and Thrive at Hachette."
With the help of her editor at Sceptre Francine Toon, Talkhani has shaped her initial collection of essays into an honest memoir that lays bare her childhood and family experiences. "My parents are flying in from Saudi for the book launch in June. They are so happy and supportive, even though they had to sign a waiver - they have promised not to sue!" she smiles.
My Past Is a Foreign Country is published by Sceptre and released on 27 June.
Photo credit: Chris Boland