When she was growing up in London, Radiya Hafiza used to love reading fairy tales, losing herself for days in the timeless magic of Cinderella, Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty. It wasn't until years later that she realised something was missing from these stories. People who looked like her.
And so, bored in a temping job, Hafiza began to play with ways of incorporating her Bangladeshi heritage and some aspects of her Muslim identity into a children’s book.
“I started imagining myself in Rapunzel’s shoes, trapped in a tower,” she remembers. The wonderful guiding principle to her debut came quickly afterwards – “Rumaysa, Rumaysa, let down your hijab.”
That take on the Rapunzel story is emblazoned on the front cover of Rumaysa: A Fairytale, published this month. It's a remarkable achievement; rather than simply amending these well-worn stories with names, locations and cultural references recognisable to South Asia, Hafiza embarked on something far more ambitious.
Her hero, Rumaysa, starts off in the tower recognisable from Rapunzel, but then drops into another story to assist Cinderayla, finally helping Sleeping Sara find her freedom.
What’s more, these are retellings where not everything ends happily ever after, a Prince Charming whisking them away to save the day. These girls are heroes in their own right.
“The characters began to take on lives of their own,” says Hafiza, “and as they did, it became apparent that they could save themselves; they could make their own happy endings through their celebration of sisterhood and friendship.
“You know, a lot of these classical tales do have some problems when it comes to the role of girls and women in society, and I wanted to write something that felt truer to my experiences.”
In fact, all three storylines feature girls who are desperate for escape. And while this isn’t in any sense a political book – these are gloriously readable fairy tales for children and their families – it does make some nuanced points about empowerment and gender equality.
“Growing up, I definitely felt that sense of specific things being expected of me as a girl, or being decided for me by society,” says Hafiza. “And so it was quite important that the book could have people breaking out of situations where they feel trapped.”
Hafiza first started to write about these expectations and prejudices in her wonderfully entertaining blog, The Good Assistant. Written anonymously – although she has since outed herself – it's a perceptive, witty and semi-fictional account of being "the Muslim" in a publishing office. "A banterous take on all the wild stuff white people say to anyone who … isn't white," as she puts it. It got her noticed by agents and publishers, and the blog and her children's debut share the same sense of wry, matter-of-fact humour.
One of its more powerful entries is You Will Not Fit In, in which Hafiza's character grapples with the difficulty of getting a job when she does not have an English-sounding name. When she gets that job, she has to then field "their incessant fascination with discovering how oppressed I am".
What she hopes Rumaysa can do is normalise the conversation at a much earlier age. Hafiza admits that when she finally did come across books with a “brown perspective” they usually featured arranged marriages, extremists or terrorists.
“I never saw just a kid’s book, where people praying or their skin colour was just there, a thing that they did or were, rather than the point of the story,” she says. “So I really hope Rumaysa works as a way of showing how these characters from a different ethnicity or background behave and interact with the world. Ultimately they’re just going about their lives; I feel like every writer of colour is expected to have a call to arms, actually I hope a children’s book where people from whatever background can read an adventure story for fun might move the conversation along, make everything a bit more normalised.”
It’s not just a fun read, either. Rumaysa looks wonderful, the adventures brought to life by Rhaida El Touny’s expansive illustrations. When Hafiza first saw the picture of Rumaysa throwing the scarf down the tower, it was an emotional moment. “It just hit me then; imagine if I had these stories growing up; maybe I wouldn’t have felt so different, so alienated. I mean, I used to believe people like me couldn’t feature in stories – I didn’t start writing from a Muslim perspective until I went to university.
“So yes, it’s so powerful for people to be able to see characters on a page with brown skin, just hanging out and going on adventures,” she says.
Rumaysa’s adventures in the world, you sense, have only just begun.