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Saima Mir on Her Favourite Books Featuring South Asian Women

Posted on 22nd February 2021 by Mark Skinner

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.

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A beautifully realised love story teeming with memorable characters and artfully constructed prose, Shamsie’s tale of sibling connection in the whirl of modern Karachi brilliantly interrogates notions of community and borders.
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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.

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Full of warmth, wit and compassion, Huma Qureshi's memoir details a childhood spent trying to reconcile school life in Walsall with the expectations of her Pakistani parents, and how the events of later years - and her falling in love with a non-Muslim - were shaped by both these experiences.
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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.

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A profound meditation on history and humanity in all its forms, The God of Small Things transformed Roy into a literary sensation and raised the bar for multi-layered prose writing at the close of the twentieth century.
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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. 

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Set during the expulsion of Ugandan Asians by Idi Amin, Shah’s stunning debut tracks a fleeing family from Kampala to London in an emotionally acute exploration of the power of home and the fear of fresh starts.
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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.

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Placing the reader in the kind of moral quandary that real-life jurors have to face, Take it Back presents two sides of a complex and emotive court case and asks who should be believed.
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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.

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Both an engaging character study and deftly drawn mystery, Snaith’s debut revolves around a reclusive loner on a Leicester council estate haunted by secrets and intrigues.
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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.

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Boasting a wonderfully endearing and relatable lead character, Malik’s side-splitting comedy paints a series of vivid set pieces of modern Muslim romance, family and womanhood.

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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.

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As compassionate as it is unflinching, Hussain’s poignant debut about a British Muslim father and his two children tells an inter-generational story of love, loyalty and hope.
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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.

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Tackling themes of class, race and social expectation with a wicked wit and warm heart, Would I Lie to You? finds a wife and mother prepared to do almost anything to preserve the lifestyle she has painstakingly built up.
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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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