Saima Mir on Her Favourite Books Featuring South Asian Women
Saima Mir, author of exciting new crime thriller The Khan, has been gratified to note that there is now more publishing centred on strong female South Asian protagonists than there was a few years ago. In this piece, Saima picks those novels (and characters) that have spoken most deeply to her.
When I was growing up there were very few books featuring South Asian women, and even fewer featuring British Asian women. In a tiny bookshop behind Bradford’s Arndale Mall I discovered a shop called Shared Earth that had stories and writings by African American women. This was as close as I could get to the experiences of women of colour.
When Waterstones opened in the beautiful Wool Exchange in the centre of the city, it had a section by Black writers and of course, there was the option of ordering books. I learned a lot about that part of the world, and the experiences of black men and women. It made my desire to read stories about women like me, even greater.
Thankfully, in the last few years, the landscape has changed. There are now books featuring South Asian women found across the genres. Memoir, chick lit, historical fiction, literary fiction, and others, are all starting to bloom with untold stories.
Here are some of those books, old and new, that tell stories about South Asian and British Asian women.
Kartography by Kamila Shamsie
One of the first books I read that featured a South Asian woman was Kartography by Kamila Shamsie. Set in Karachi, the city that was once home to my parents. It is a love story between childhood friends Karim and Raheen, set against a political backdrop. I loved it for Raheen’s feistiness, and for the phrase ‘spine-to-spine’ which has stayed with me ever since.
How We Met: A Memoir of Love and Other Misadventures by Huma Qureshi
This beautiful memoir is the story of how Huma met her husband, Richard. A tale of our times, it’s about grief, family, love, and discovering oneself. It has a quiet, deep strength about it. Huma’s story is one that is rarely heard, but is an increasingly common one.
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
The Booker winning novel tells the story of twins Rahel and Estha. Rahel is clever and outspoken, the kind of girl who never quite fits in. Impulsive and wild, her later life, remains unfulfilled. The book is beautifully written, and there isn’t a stereotype in it.
Kololo Hill by Neema Shah
The story is set against the wider backdrop of the Ugandan Asian expulsion, and the movement of people to the UK. It is about finding freedom and carving one’s own path. The women in Kololo Hill aren’t meek or timid. They’re wilful and headstrong. There’s newlywed, Asha, who has discovered that her husband Pran is keeping things from her, and her mother-in-law Jaya, the matriarch of the family.
Take it Back by Kia Abdullah
Zara Kaleel is a high-flying barrister who quits her job to work at a sexual assault referral centre. When a young white girl accuses four Muslim classmates of rape, she takes on the case. Zara finds herself at the centre of a media frenzy that spills out onto the streets of East London. Zara shows strength in quiet and familiar ways: by refusing to yield her values to please other people, by making decisions for herself, by standing up for the weak but also asking for help when needed. She is flawed and vulnerable but also intelligent, persistent and resilient. Perhaps most interestingly, she encourages us to question what Muslim women in the public eye are and aren’t allowed to be.
The Things We Thought We Knew by Mahsuda Snaith
Ravine Roy is the central character of Snaith’s first novel. She's brought up on a Leicester council estate and has chronic pain which has left her bed-bound in her mum's flat. She's great because she is complex: funny, irreverent but also full of fear and inner conflict. Her Bangladeshi heritage plays a part in her story but is not the central focus. Her Britishness, class, surroundings and the people she knows also contributes greatly to who she is as a person.
Sofia Khan is Not Obliged by Ayisha Malik
Challenging media stereotypes of young, hijabi women, Sofia Khan is a sort of Muslim Bridget Jones. There are more and more of these types of books now, but five years ago it was still a rare thing to have a protagonist like this. The book was met with critical acclaim, which for its genre was quite unique – Muslims and non-Muslims alike seemed to think it both funny and heartfelt.
The Family Tree by Sairish Hussain
An intergenerational story about love, loyalty and hope. It tells the story of Amjad and his children Saahil and Zahra. Zahra’s world is alight with politics and activism. It is a story about love, laughter and resilience.
Would I Lie To You? by Aliya Ali-Afzal
Faiza is a British-Pakistani who is married to white, British, Tom. She’s fiercely protective and devoted to her family, but she has been lying to them. A strong, funny woman who can hold her own in any situation, she also experiences the insecurities that we all do, around getting older. She speaks Urdu and Russian and used to have a high-powered job in the City, but now organises balls and auctions on the cliquey school charity committee.
It’s wonderful to see the differences in characters and nuanced writing, that has previously been hard to find on our bookshelves. Stories change us in whispers. They build bridges from our experiences to those of others, and in doing make the world better for all of us.
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