Author Sairish Hussain on the inspiration for her debut novel: 'where was my story being told?'

British writer Sairish Hussain tells Malcolm Forbes of her novel attempt to avoid one-sided depictions

The year 2020 was not a complete write-off for Sairish Hussain. Towards the end of the year, a silver lining appeared in the form of that one thing all debut writers yearn for: recognition. Hussain received news that her book, The Family Tree, which took five years to write, had secured a place on the Costa Book Awards shortlist for First Novel.

“I didn’t win the category in the end,” Hussain says, “but just to have the book on the shortlist, especially when there were so many incredible debuts to choose from, it made my whole year.”

Her novel is an immersive, big-hearted multigenerational saga about a British Muslim family living in the North of England. It follows a widowed father and his two children through three decades of collective problems, shared pain and personal upheavals. Each character is skilfully drawn and warmly sympathetic.

Single-parent Amjad tries to stay strong and in control while battling his grief. Saahil starts out as a good pupil with bright prospects until a tragedy sends him into a downward spiral of addiction and homelessness. And angry, feisty Zahra, who becomes socially aware and politically engaged, turns to writing to make sense of the world around her.

Bradford-born Hussain began work on her novel while studying creative writing at university. She had influences – James Baldwin, Khaled Hosseini, Kamila Shamsie – "writers who are known for writing back from the margins of society". But at this stage in her life her dream of being a writer was tinged with disillusionment. Her doubts were not to do with her ability. Instead, they revolved around how she was perceived as a British Muslim.

“I could quite happily relate to all the characters I read as a child and young adult, whether it was the Roald Dahl books, or the Harry Potter series,” she explains. “I think the problem is that publishing folk felt like no one could relate to somebody like me. That the only time I would be interesting enough to write about was if I ran away to become a jihadi bride or if my parents were forcing me into an arranged marriage. Unsurprisingly, I was doing none of those things. Neither were my friends. So where was my story being told?

“Sometimes people talk about representation in a very superficial way, like it can simply be achieved by seeing someone who looks like you on a magazine cover. It’s much deeper than that. It’s about feeling seen and validated, and not in a tokenistic way. It’s about demanding to be recognised as a full, complex human being. I believe stories are where we can start to address some of these issues.”

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<span> The only time I would be interesting enough to write about was if I ran away to become a jihadi bride or if my parents were forcing me into an arranged marriage</span>

Hussain’s story is one that she wanted to tell and one that she imagines her younger, more frustrated self would have wanted to read. Right from the outset she had a clear vision: she would write a family drama about British Muslims, which focused on normal lives and everyday concerns – “not about them being Muslim”. Just because her characters happened to be, as she puts it, “brown, Muslim, working class and northern”, she would not limit the narratives they could be a part of.

“Muslims, South Asians and people of colour in general also experience grief, bereavement, illness, financial difficulties and addiction,” she says. “Why can’t books feature characters tackling these issues? Again, why are we only interesting if we’re blowing something up or if we’re victims of an honour killing? Life happens to us too, though this has been largely ignored in artistic portrayals.”

Throughout her book, Hussein eschews stale tropes regarding attitudes towards Muslims. However, she was acutely aware that there were certain issues she couldn't completely sidestep. The events of 9/11 cast a shadow over the lives of her characters, as indeed they did for her. "It was the beginning of being treated with suspicion, distrust and, at times, contempt," Hussain says.

“There is a certain trauma that comes with growing up feeling like your country hates you. And that has been reinforced by the dehumanisation of Muslims on the news, in films, books, as well as in everyday interactions. As much as I was determined to distance my work from that post-9/11 fascination with Islam and Muslims, just completely disregarding that aspect of our lives is also not quite the whole picture.

“It’s like telling half a story. As Muslims, we are politicised because of who we are. If I’d ignored 9/11 and its impact, that doesn’t reflect our lived experience, which is why Zahra is the character who actively engages with current affairs and world events.

"At the same time," she says, "not all Muslims are political or interested in politics, and I can't overstate the importance of this. Arguably, it's been thrust upon us. More pressing problems affecting young Muslims today include relationships, mental health, career prospects and financial security. I tried to portray this with Saahil."

Hussain could have overwhelmed her readers with her characters’ problems. Fortunately, the book contains memorable moments of light relief. A perfect comic creation is Amjad’s mother, who is keen to help and quick to interfere, particularly in her efforts to find her son a new wife from Pakistan. And a stand-out set piece is the family’s disastrous trip to Birmingham to celebrate Eid with Amjad’s boastful brother Javid and his spoilt-brat offspring.

Flitting between humour and pathos while all the time toppling expectations and challenging stereotypes, The Family Tree feels like a breath of fresh air. Does Hussain think British publishers are now allowing more authentic stories to be told?

“It is changing for the better,” she replies. “An example of this would be the success of diverse authors in genre fiction such as Kia Abdullah, Ayisha Malik, A A Dhand and Abir Mukherjee. Writers of colour don’t just have to write epic, sprawling novels about identity, they can write crime fiction, courtroom dramas or romantic comedies.”

Hussain’s next novel is none of these. “It’s an ‘unlikely friendship’ story between a grandfather and his granddaughter,” she says. “She’s a neglected, moody teenager and he’s an elderly man who is suffering from delayed trauma from experiences during the partition of India.” The book is due out next year and, like its author, is one to watch.

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