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Kendra Winchester and Sumaiyya Naseem Discuss This Month's Theme
In this episode of Reading Women, Kendra, Sumaiyya, and Joce discuss this month’s theme: Marriage stories!
From the episode:
Kendra: This month, we’re talking about marriage stories—which, Sumaiyya, was one of the first themes that you picked for this year.
Sumaiyya: Yeah, we will be discussing books that feature married couples. One of us is married, and it’s not me. So as a Muslim who is in her twenties, I do spend a lot of time thinking about marriage and what it means to me. So I wanted to talk about books with Kendra that looked at marital relationships because I feel like it’s so, so intense and complicated and intimate. And I’m really excited about the books that we’ve selected.
Kendra: And one of the things that I have learned, I mean, since getting married—and I got married, oh, wow, I’m old . . . I got married seven years ago—so one of the things I’ve learned, though, is that all marriages look differently. And I think oftentimes, before I got married and even after I got married, it was this . . . there was this ideal marriage that I was trying to achieve in my head. But that’s not how it works because there’s no marriage like yours. Right? You’re married to someone, and that’s a unique relationship. And that’s one of the things I liked about all of these books is that each the books that we’re going to talk about today represents a unique relationship.
Sumaiyya: Definitely. And just a side note, I feel like this is something that I’ve learned in my own life, even though I’m not yet married, but I have been looking at, you know, what I expect from marriage, what I would bring to a marriage. And one of the things that me and my Muslim friends always talk about is how we all have this idea of what marriage is supposed to be. But as we grow older, as we learn and educate ourselves, we discover our individualities. And that kind of gives us a better idea of what we would be interested in rather than the formula that seems to exist in society sometimes, which actually is a fantasy.
Kendra: Yes, exactly. And I think that when you realize that this idea of marriage is a fantasy and not a reality, I think it frees you up to then be more open minded to the different possibilities for your marriage and what it might look like, whether you do get married or maybe the future of a marriage that you’re currently in.
Sumaiyya: So my first pick for marriage stories is Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged by Ayisha Malik. This is a backlist title that was published by twenty7 in 2015. And I think, Kendra, you’ve read this book.
Kendra: I did. It’s so wonderful. I laughed so hard.
Sumaiyya: Yeah. And it’s actually one of the first books that I read that features a Muslim character who was entertaining, relatable, and kind of like not wrapped up in the usual stereotypes that we tend to see Muslim characters subjected to in fiction or even in the media, actually. So this book is written in a diary format. And that diary belongs to Sofia Khan.
She is a British Muslim who lives with her family in London. She works in publishing, which is my dream job. So her colleagues actually get intrigued about the Muslim dating scene when she tells them about her latest dating disaster. And yeah. So she explains to them how, compared to Western dating, it’s really different because it’s essentially the modern Muslim version of approaching arranged marriage. It’s basically a when a man and a woman date with the intention to find a partner for marriage. And that’s completely different to what Western dating is, I think, because it’s very casual. Right?
Kendra: I also dated with the intent to marry. So I’m not exactly the best person to ask about this!
Sumaiyya: I’m generalizing there. So that’s why these conversations are so important to have. Anyway. So Sofia’s boss tells her to write a book about Muslim dating based on her personal experiences. As the story unfolds, we get to know more about Sofia’s family life, her parents’ marriage, also her sister who is engaged to be married. So we see her personal life and also the struggles that she is going through. And because this book is essentially her diary, we see the inner life of Sofia. And we see the complications that come up as she tries to find a man who she is compatible with, being a modern Muslim woman who is kind of in between cultures because she has a South Asian heritage and she was born and raised in the UK. Sofia is sure about what she wants and does not necessarily want to compromise in the way that previous generations were expected to.
One thing that stands out about Ayisha Malik’s treatment of the character is that she is an imperfect Muslim. And that makes her realistic because she experiences the highs and lows of faith. And I really appreciated this in the book. We often see Muslim characters who are so boring because they’re portrayed as either completely good, pure Muslims or sinful wrongdoers. Like there’s this, you know, like polar opposites. And they’re really bland characters in a way. They’re really basic. When this book was published in 2015, it was quite remarkable at that time to have a Muslim female character who swears sometimes, who enjoys the occasional cigarette, and who also wears the hijab. And she prays. And you know, she’s sure about her faith as a Muslim.
So this book is a romantic comedy. And Sofia does find someone by the end of the book. And I don’t really think this is a spoiler because it’s a romance novel. Their story as a married couple actually extends in the second book, which is The Other Half of Happiness. And I feel like I’m cheating a bit because this book selection is actually two books if you’d like the complete experience of Sofia Khan’s story, which, you know, captures the highs and lows of life and of marriage and of basically, you know, finding the right partner for yourself.
Kendra: And it’s a wild ride. I really loved it. And I think that, you know, Sofia Khan finds herself in so many different situations. And also the practical life, everyday life of a Muslim woman—like finding a room to pray at work and what it’s like when you have your rear end in the air and someone walks in accidentally not realizing you’re using the room for prayer. You know, like, just these really funny situations that just point out how her life is and the difficulties of that. But also the triumphs of that. It’s a beautiful book.
Sumaiyya: Yeah, definitely. And it shows you like Islamophobia as it’s experienced by people. And you know, just how she manages everything while also trying to find, you know, someone to settle down with. And, you know, someone who hopefully does not make her compromise the things that she believes in. And that’s so important, especially in today’s day and age, I think. So that was Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged by Ayisha Malik. Kendra, can you tell us about your first pick for marriage stories?
Kendra: Yes. So I picked a memoir for my first pick, and that is Brown, White, Black: An American Family at the Intersection of Race, Gender, Sexuality, and Religion by Nishta J. Mehra, and that’s out by Picador. And this book is about Nishta’s marriage to her wife.
Now Nishta is a Indian American woman who went to a Christian school, but her family is practicing Hindus. And then you have also she married a white woman, and then they adopted a African American child, who ends up being gender queer. And so you have this very complex story of what her marriage and what her family looks like and how that’s different than the norm. And I thought it was really important as we’re looking at this portrait of marriage that we look at a queer marriage and what that looks like for them. You know, Nishta is . . . I believe she’s bisexual. And so she did have a relationship with a man. And how her more traditional Indian parents thought that she was cured of her “problems.” And, you know, how that relationship with her parents changed, depending on who she was with. And when she eventually married a woman, it was a big, big deal for her family.
Sumaiyya: Yeah. So that sounds like an incredible book. And you mentioned that they adopted a son. So does she discuss that process of adoption? And, you know, like motherhood in general in this book? Because I feel like it’s a very nontraditional kind of family. And it does reflect in so many ways what a family in America is right now. You know, the different ways that that definition is changing.
Kendra: Definitely. And I find it really interesting because she does talk about adoption and their process of adopting and, as two adoptive parents, what they wanted to do with that. And just the practical things like, you know, what would their child call them? Would it be confusing? But then when they adopted Shiv, who is black, and they would be a very much a multiracial family. She talks about the different reactions that people had. So with her wife, who is white, they would always be thanking her for adopting Shiv. But with her, it’s like, you know, she is Indian. So she could be married to a man who was black. You know, it could be her biological kid and just the differences of that, how people treated her when they see her with a child that isn’t her own race or appears not to be and how complicated that is on an everyday basis. Just even going to the supermarket is complicated sometimes.
Sumaiyya: Yeah. And I think that kind of family setup would reveal the biases and prejudices that people would have in general, like, you know, the preconceived notions that people come up with when they look at such a multiracial family. So it sounds like an incredible book, and I’m so glad I already have a copy of this. I can’t believe that I haven’t read it, you know. It’s been sitting on my shelf for a while now.
Kendra: I found really interesting was how people perceive the relationship of Shiv and their various adults in their life. And so you have, you know, Nishta’s mom (Shiv’s grandmother) who only speaks Hindi to Shiv upon Nishta’s request so that Shiv will learn the language because Nishta had to learn it almost as second language because her parents spoke English to her or she only spoke English. And you know how that often happens when you immigrate to another country. And so I found it very interesting in how they’re raising Shiv in, you know, that Hindu religion and just that experience.
And I wanted to also note that later, after the book came out, that they now use she/her pronouns for Shiv. So at the end of the book, it’s noted that Shiv is most likely gender nonconforming or something like that, but they’re not sure because Shiv is so young. And at the point that I went, and I was looking up Nishta’s website and different things on social media, they now use she/her pronouns. So it appears that Shiv is trans. So being a trans Black girl is going to be very complicated. And so I kind of hope there’s a follow up memoir to this. So that is Brown, White, Black: An American Family at the Intersection of Race, Gender, Sexuality, and Religion by Nishta J. Mehra. And, Sumaiyya, you have the next pick.
Sumaiyya: Yeah, so my discussion pick is A Pure Heart by Rajia Hassib, published by Viking in the US and Scepter in the UK. It’s available in print and digital formats, along with the audiobook version. So A Pure Heart is the story of two Egyptian Muslim sisters who are polar opposites in terms of their personalities and priorities. And as a result of this, they choose very different paths in life.