First-time novelist, Ayisha Malik, is expanding the literary landscape – and also the minds of the British public - with her spritely, new Romcom, ‘Sofia is Not Obliged’. The title perfectly captures the book’s unapologetic energy, wherein we are presented with a fresh and humorous perspective on the world of Muslim dating. We follow the turns and trials of Sofia, a thirty-something Hijabi woman, trying to balance her job in the publishing industry and the hard work of an errant love-life, while also doing her darnedest to maintain a sense of self. “That’s actually how my story differs from Fielding’s Bridget Jones” Malik told us, “though Bridget was truly wonderful in her time, and there are many parallels with Sofia e.g both characters are very loveable and relatable, my heroine is more contemporary. Today, we might feel slightly uncomfortable with the focus Fielding had on dating, and finding a boyfriend as an end in itself. Much of my book is based on the same theme of struggling against awkward social expectation, but does not show marriage for the sake of marriage; there’s more to it than that. It’s bigger.” Indeed, the most exciting element of Malik’s novel is what it says about the wider zeitgeist: “I wanted Sofia’s being a Muslim to come across very organically. It’s really showing the everyday life of a Muslim woman; how ultimately, her dating life is not that different to that in mainstream western culture”. Now available to buy on Amazon and from bookstores across the country, the gradual, emotional integration exhibited by Malik's main character in the narrative, at once reflects a more unified representation in society.
What gave you the idea for the novel, Sophia Khan is Not Obliged?
A mixture of having heard about other people’s Muslim dating experiences and my own, and just loving Bridget Jones. The structure and tone of the novels are very similar. I also wanted to reflect how Asian women feel today; we are driven towards our careers as much as finding someone and settling down. While the latter is still a part of life, we are not just sitting around waiting.
The book is about Muslim dating and the dating scene at large; could you give us some highlights?
Sofia meets a variety of people online, one of whom does end up being a love interest. She also meets a lot of unsavoury people, which all makes good fodder for the dating book she is compiling for work. One of the dates she goes on, for example, is just one of these blah encounters– they spend a couple of hours having coffee – and there is nothing to it. But then the man messages her with the egotistical assumption that she’ll want to see him again. When she doesn’t reciprocate, he angrily responds with an aggressive character assassination. It gives you that insight into how the dating world can be; that level of expectation of some Asian men, that just because a woman is in her thirties, she should be grateful for any attention.
At one point, Sofia unduly gets some abuse from a passenger who calls her ‘a terrorist’. Does cultural identity come into the novel in very incidental way?
Yes, I couldn’t ignore the negative bias and Muslim coverage in the media, and it was always going to be about a Hijabi Muslim navigating her way through London. I felt it would be disingenuous not to add the sort of things happening to a lot of people in the community. At the same time, it is a light-hearted, every day aspect of life that the novel is centred on, so it wouldn’t make much sense to talk about how difficult it is for everyone. Cultural experience is there as food for thought, where unfortunately hostility is a part of the surrounding climate.
How did you get into writing?
I’ve navigated my through life with the view of getting published. I did a MA in creative writing, during which I was recommended to find a job in a publishing house as the best way to get into the business. You learn more about people and the industry; I was told ‘even if you get a position as a cleaner, take it!’ Finally, I ended up as a publicity assistant with Penguin Random House. A lot of the novel draws from this journey and my experiences along the way.
How did you stay motivated while writing the book?
The sheer will to finish! You love and hate the writing in equal measure. Many times I would wake up and wonder ‘why am I doing this to myself?’ because you do think about a project you are investing so much time and energy into. But when you are that passionate about writing, you can't not do it!
What are your top three writing tips?
Finish the first draft, and don’t edit as you go along. If you do that, you kill the flow of the story. Secondly; once you finish it, don’t look back for 6-8 weeks. Come back to it with a fresh perspective. Thirdly: get professional feedback. Don’t be afraid to do that.
Finally, what would be your advice to other young writers?
The publishing world is challenging; it’s not just about talent, but also your tenacity. You will have to accept several rejections and still not give up.