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Aamna Qureshi on Halal Romances and Hijabi Representation
Qureshi spoke to Fann about her journey as a young writer, writing halal romances, and navigating tropes about Muslims in books, film and television.
Fann’s “Fall Into Reading” series spotlights Muslim authors changing the game in children’s literature. Each week, we’ll sit down with a different author to discuss storytelling, representation and what it means to be Muslim in the world of publishing.
Aamna Qureshi is a Pakistani American Muslim author. Her debut, the award-winning YA fantasy romance novel “The Lady or the Lion,” is full of court intrigue in a Pakistan-inspired fantasy world. Her latest book,“When a Brown Girl Flees,” tells the story of a young girl who reaches her breaking point and runs away from home, only to realize that she needs to face what made her run away in order to live the life she wants. Qureshi spoke to Fann about her journey as a young writer, writing halal romances, and navigating tropes about Muslims in books, film and television.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Fann Staff: What inspired you to become a writer?
Aamna Qureshi: I've always loved reading. At some point, I thought about shifting that love for reading into creating my own work and my own stories, especially because I didn't really see myself in a lot of books that I was reading. I wanted to write stories that [were relatable], not just me but also my friends and my family members.
Fann Staff: When you were creating “When a Brown Girl Flees,” where the main character Zahra decides to run away from her family and ends up in New York trying to make a new life, how did you use nuance to navigate the “oppressive Muslim family” stereotype?
Aamna Qureshi: That [stereotype] was something that I was definitely very conscious of. Zahra does have a stricter family base that exacerbated her situation and led her to run away. I really wanted to portray that and be accurate. But I was also conscious of these negative stereotypes that are, of course, so prevalent in the media of the “oppressive Muslim family.” I handled that by having another family in the book that was more like a normal family; that didn't fall into those negative stereotypes; that showed Zahra that [the reality of] her background wasn't really everyone's experience; that there are non-oppressive Muslim families as well. I'm really lucky that my parents have always been very accepting and supportive, and they've never oppressed me or my siblings. I wanted to show both sides of that story and use it as a juxtaposition where there's one “good family” and one “bad family” to just show that there's range. Of course, one Muslim family in a book can't represent every Muslim family in America. There's such a range, so I really wanted to show both sides of that.
When I was showing her own family, I really wanted to show nuance and why her parents were acting the way that they were, especially her mother. I didn't want it to just be like she's this evil character; I wanted to show her thought process behind some of her behaviors. Her mother behaves in the way that she was taught by her mother. There's a lot of generational trauma that gets passed on unless you really face it and grapple with it and have those tough conversations and learn from them and then do better, which is a core theme of the book.
Fann Staff: I was really intrigued by the world building and detail put into “The Lady or the Lion.” Could you tell us a bit about the research process for the construction of a story that is also connected to your own identity?
Aamna Qureshi: A huge part of my research process was informed by [my trip to Pakistan] in 2017. We did this long road trip in the northern area and I was just so inspired throughout. It was a 10-day road trip. Every day, we drove somewhere new: we started in Islamabad and ended up at the border. Every day, I was so inspired and amazed by the natural beauty that exists in Pakistan that I feel like a lot of times [people] don't really see, and also [inspired by] this rich history in the land — the thousands-year-old forts and palaces, and these villages and everything. I was really, really inspired by that. [I] wanted to draw on that in a fantasy novel and create a world that was inspired by my own culture and heritage but still [took place] in a made-up world where it wouldn't be as confined by what's historically accurate. I created a world where I could highlight all of these beautiful aspects that I love about Pakistan and my culture and then entwined them into this romance story, because I also love romance.
Fann Staff: There's a lot of focus on the diversity in Pakistan itself, which I think is also not something that people understand. You talked about not being limited by the confines of history. I've been really intrigued by how people are starting to change the ways they talk about Muslim and South Asian representation. For a lot of people, that representation can feel like a burden and something difficult to navigate. Did you ever feel like that? If so, how did you navigate it?
Aamna Qureshi: I think in the fantasy space, even if you're writing a fantasy novel, a lot of times publishers or readers expect there to be some sort of commentary on real history. I think that's especially prevalent in stories by marginalized creators. There’s a bit of a pressure for those books to be educational, almost. When I was first writing “The Lady or the Lion,” I did have that in mind. Originally when I was drafting it, I started to do research into history and how I could entwine that into the story that I wanted to tell, and [started to figure out the] commentary that I might need to make regarding that. Obviously, there's such a long history of colonization in South Asia, and all of this heavy stuff. But then I kind of took a step back and I was like, “I'm not knowledgeable enough to be making any commentary on this, no matter how much research I do.” It's not my forte. It's not something that I've been educated in that much.
At its core, I didn't want to write an educational book, or even really focus on the history or politics as much as I wanted the book to be a romance story. For me, it was always, at its core, a love story. So early on, I took a step back and reminded myself that firstly, I'm not qualified enough to be making that commentary, and then secondly, I should just stick to what I think the core of the story is. That really helped me focus on the book. With that focus, I created a better product than [if I was] trying to do everything at once. I just let the story be what it was.
It was similar for “When a Brown Girl Flees.” [That book] definitely deals with a heavier topic, but I think that worked for the book — and for me when I was writing it — because it felt to me that Zahra's journeys with mental health and her religion were the core of the story. I felt qualified to speak on that [because Zahra’s story] closely resembled a lot of journeys that I've seen people go through[and my] personal experiences. Everyone's personal journey with their religion is so different and nuanced that people should be able to tell those stories without it having to be too educational.
Fann Staff: You said when you were growing up, you didn't really see yourself in media. When was the point where you did see yourself?
Aamna Qureshi: [This example] is not even necessarily my culture exactly, but “The Wrath & the Dawn” by Renée Ahdieh was my first non-Western fantasy that I read [that I really loved]. It was so beautifully written. I still love it so much, and I think that really inspired me to [know] not every fantasy has to be in this medieval English type of setting. You can write these stories in other settings, and you can create a beautiful story and a richly-created world. That was definitely inspiring for me. I think that was one of the first pieces of media that I interacted with and felt like there is room for these types of stories.
Fann Staff: I really am intrigued by how halal romance has become a category of its own and something that people are doing much more. Your upcoming book also features a halal romance — can you tell me a little bit about how you navigated telling that story?
Aamna Qureshi: I'm really glad that it's something that is gaining more traction in the romance genre, but even now I feel like it's not as popular as it could be. I can probably only think of a handful of authors who have done it. I feel like there is such a demand for it. There are a billion Muslims, and so many of those are readers; so many of them are practicing Muslims who want to see themselves in stories that they can actually relate to. The way that I've seen [halal romance] generally defined is no kissing scenes or anything beyond that, and more limited physical touch. Maybe just a hand brush, or limited things like in Jane Austen novels. Because you don't have that physical touch in these romance stories, there are creative ways for the characters to show that they care for each other. I really like the tension that it builds.
I think that it's a great genre of romance because so many people that I know have gone through similar storylines in their lives, where they don't want to date or do anything physical before marriage. It's mostly girls in their teenage years or in their early twenties. Just because they don't want to necessarily date or do anything physical before marriage doesn't mean that they don't have crushes or they're not developing feelings. I have so many friends and family members, and we're constantly telling each other all this boy drama. I thought it would be really fun to explore in a book, and it was something that I hadn't really read before. I feel like a lot of times, even if there are Muslim characters in novels, there are still kissing scenes and things like that — which I'm not saying is wrong, [but] I think that there should also be those other types of stories that other people can then relate to.
Fann Staff: What is your most hated trope about Muslims in media?
Aamna Qureshi: Oh, gosh! There are so many because there are so many bad examples of things in media. I guess [some people] latch onto these tropes and just run with them. I especially hate the hijabi girl taking her hijab off for the white love interest. It's not that I think that that doesn't happen in real life or it’s inaccurate or anything like that, I just don't like it. That seems to be the only story that places like Netflix or [other] big media corporations want to tell. It wouldn't bother me as much if it was [portrayed] one time with nuance in the story. I just think it's like a really reductive narrative. These Muslim characters, especially hijabi characters, don't feel fully fleshed out or complex or actually thoughtfully created. If it was a well thought out and intentional story, that part of the storyline wouldn't bother me, but it just feels like those storylines are never well thought out, and it doesn't seem like they ever consult actual Muslims.
Fann Staff: How was it like getting into this field so young? Did you find that you were able to join the network of authors when you were getting started?
Aamna Qureshi: I think the network is really, really beautiful. Everyone is so supportive, so kind — not even just Muslim writers but the community in general. Everyone knows how difficult it is. I actually wasn't really part of any writing community [before my first book deal] because I didn't even know it existed. But after I [realized] I needed to make a Twitter account and go public on Instagram, really try to make these connections, I was so floored by just how kind everyone is and how consistently supportive people are. I think Twitter is definitely a great place, although it is kind of dying now. Social media in general, even though it has its ups and downs, [is useful]. You have to interact with it carefully, keeping in mind your own mental health and everything. I still think I would recommend it to writers who are starting out and are really looking for fellow writers to communicate with. I have so many friends now just through Twitter. It's really nice to have those people who understand the industry and who are going through the same thing that you are in real life.
Fann Staff: Do you have any advice for Muslim and/or South Asian writers who are starting out?
Aamna Qureshi: My advice would be to just stop trying to be palatable, especially to the white gaze. Of course, publishing is a business first and foremost, so they just want what sells. But even if it's difficult, [you need] to keep trying and ultimately to write what makes you happy. Write the stories that you want to tell, even if it feels like it won't sell or no one wants it. I think if you just keep at it and keep trying and just do your absolute best, eventually at some point, it will work out. My main advice is to not give up. When you're on the other side, after all of that pain and struggle that you go [through], it will be worth it to get published.