I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m of the Guilty Pleasure bunch – the type who pretend chick-lit is just an occasional indulgence because they’ve misplaced their Jonathan Franzen. It’s not like I’ve ever stayed up until the wee hours of the morning, precariously positioned on my bed as I devoured a Marian Keyes novel that moved from hilarious to heartbreaking over 450 pages.
Then again, unlike many from her chick-lit realm, Keyes steps into Real Life territory in most of her books, with characters who aren’t shiny, sanctimonious twats whose biggest problems are shoe fetishes and hangovers. Keyes’ characters suffer depression; get dumped and get better; have drug addictions; and are, like just about everyone else, trying to attain a level of contentment in their lives. They’re fully fleshed, imperfect people, and her first novel, Watermelon, is pretty much what made me want to write something as funny, moving and real. More specifically, it planted the seed for Samira, my Muslim chick-lit heroine who prays five times a day and can quote Catch-22.
When I launched my novel Courting Samira, first as an e-book then later in print, I found myself in the precarious position of having to explain myself, a lot. I wasn’t sure how to articulate why I spent a solid four or five years (on and off) writing about a Muslim chick who, rather unoriginally, hated her job and couldn’t find lurve. Moreover, I marketed the book as a member of a genre famed for shopping, superficial #firstworldproblems and sex.
Courting Samira features very little of any of that, if at all. The heroine of my novel is a 27-year-old virgin who hasn’t even been kissed. So, making matters more difficult, I had to sell what seemed implausible – Muslim chick-lit that could be marketed as funny and sexy, without the sex.
In a point of difference from your garden-variety chick-lit, Samira has to navigate all the ordinary challenges life gives us, within religious and cultural constraints. When you’re the meek type, that’s kind of a bum deal.
It wasn’t so much difficult as weird discussing the motivation for such a quirky story when, in my mind, it was all quite simple.
Q: Why did you write Courting Samira?
A: Because no one else had.
And it really came down to that. Growing up, I was fed a steady diet of Judy Blume, The Babysitters Club and Sweet Valley High. My move into reading literature and, yes, chick-lit, provided insight into other worlds, but I never felt I could relate or, worse, that despite living in a Western society, I didn’t feel I was a part of those worlds. Even classic literature depressed the hell out of me – at one point, it felt like the sisters in Pride and Prejudice led more interesting lives than me, because they had more social interaction with guys than I did.
Forget Muslim hero(in)es – Muslims aren’t even incidental sidekicks in pop culture. We’re absent in Western fiction beyond tokenistic stories about honour killings, fundamentalism and terrorism. It’s like we don’t exist, unless we’re extreme, repressed or running a convenience store.
I didn’t just want to write a character whose humanity overtakes labels by the end of the story; I wanted her to be funny, irreverent, messed up and more than a little lost. And I didn’t want to have to spell it out and hit the reader on the head with the standard-issue disclaimer that Muslims are human too.
Meanwhile, I had an inordinate amount of stories to share – not just my own, I must emphasise – about the intricacies and horrors of Muslim courtship, and the challenges of growing up in Australia when everyone around you can, like, do stuff. Think blind dates are awkward? Try a lounge-room meeting with parents present. Not even chocolate biscuits can dim the cringe in these first meetings.
Without knowing it, I also wanted to tell a love story, but not by simply invoking romantic comedy staples – you know, clumsy, struggling heroine who puts salt in her tea instead of sugar, faux-tough until she lets her defences down and just learns how to love, dammit.
Samira’s love story runs deeper than triangle guy-meets-girl love story – apart from the friends and family in her life, the biggest lesson in love is the one that involves herself. If we ever truly come of age, her trajectory begins quite late. A broken being who can laugh at her inadequacy? She’s someone to whom I can relate.
No matter how silly chick-lit seems, it dips into reality in a way more serious fiction doesn’t, unburdened by the need to impress or trawl the darkest parts of humanity, over and over again.
So I wrote Samira, and I wrote the kinds of people I believe would surround and shape her. After all, didn’t Maya Angelou say ‘There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you’?