Tuesday, 10 August 2010

A book for Ramadan

My last post was about learning about other cultures through books, and the book that I've learned most from in recent months has been Boy vs Girl by Na'ima B Robert.
Na'ima's book wasn't teaching me about far-away countries though, but about people I see every day, British Muslims.
One of the things that has shocked me about returning to live in the UK has been the amount of blatant Islamophobia expressed in the media. Just in the last week I've read snide comments about halal meat being on offer in London schools, seen an item on television in which white Christian school children were completely negative about sharing a classroom with Muslim teens, and then there was this article in the Independent, in which the writer's rhetoric was breathtakingly, unashamedly offensive. I wrote a response in the Jewish Chronicle here.
So, in these bigoted and ignorant times, hurray for a writer who reaches out and portrays a faith and a culture as well as Na'ima does. Boy vs Girl is set around the Islamic Ramadan period of fasting and prayer - a period that is just about to begin - and it focusses on a girl's spiritual journey as much as her romantic life - a slant that is so unusual in teen fiction that it made me think a lot about the narratives that we writers offer young women.
As I was reading it I noticed so many similarities with my Jewish family, and I learned a great deal about Islam and Pakistani culture, but never felt that the story was overtaken by the message. Na'ima has a way with description that makes you feel as though you are right there in the kitchen, school or mosque with her characters.
Most of all I was struck by the strong female characters, particularly the niqab-wearing auntie who, I suspect, may well have a great deal in common with Na'ima herself. In an age when wearing the hijab and niqab are so often portrayed as demeaning to women, it was challenging and fascinating to read about a girl deciding whether to embrace modesty, as a step towards self-determination.
I asked Na'ima to write about this aspect of her book for my blog, and I'm so happy that she agreed - at what must be very busy time for her. Thanks Na'ima!

I am delighted to have been invited by Keren to contribute to her fantastic blog. Let me just say something right now: I am a serial failed blogger.I have tried and tried, without any kind of sustained success, to maintain a blog that will connect me to my readers, explore the process of writing a book and discuss the books that my readers and I like. My attempts have been, in a word, pathetic. So, I have decided to accept that regular, faithful, monogamous blogging is not for me - and have decided to be a carefree, swinging blogger instead, writing several guest posts for other 'real' bloggers who make the YA blogosphere what it is. Bless their typing fingers. :)

Onto the subject of this post, which Keren has kindly allowed me to write about: my new book Boy vs. Girl. In a nutshell, Boy vs. Girl' tells the story of a twin brother and sister from a Pakistani family who are about to embark on their first true Ramadan - but find that their old lives, friends and enemies, won't let go so easily.

But Boy vs. Girl is about a lot more than that. There's inter-generational strife, communal prayers, graffiti artists, a forbidden romance, gangs, fights, drugs and loads of Indian/ Pakistani food too!

Keren and I had good fun comparing notes on Muslim and Jewish culture, interfering aunties and different levels of religious covering. Because religion, identity, covering and the idea of female empowerment (and where such empowerment originates) are central to the issues that 'Boy vs. Girl' covers.

There's Farhana, a gorgeous, popular 'A' student who's had her heart broken and is inspired to make this Ramadan really mean something - to fast, pray, be a better Muslim and wear the hijab, the headscarf. Because, contrary to popular belief, Ramadan is not just about fasting, not eating from sunrise to sunset: it is a time for spiritual growth, purification and reflection. Not typical YA fare, I know, but stay with me here.

One of Farhana's biggest influences is her Auntie Naj, a nose ring-wearing, Mini Cooper-driving, university educated 'niqabi' (someone who wears the face veil). But Auntie Naj is not what she seems either - does dressing as she does make her a conformist? Or a rebel? A chequered past and an unusual choice of husband may provide clues to that question.

Then there is Farhana's mother, traditional, conservative, but totally opposed to the hijab and niqab. The standards she has set her her daughter involve plenty of restrictions and talk of an arranged marriage, but she is not willing to accept her daughter's more orthodox interpretation of their shared Islamic faith.

Are Farhana and Auntie Naj those much sought-after 'strong female characters'? I think they are, albeit not in the traditional sense.

These are women who engage with their principles and religious faith on their own terms, who are prepared to risk censure and ridicule to practise it as they see fit, who won't be put off by peers or authority figures, not even the words 'I love you' from a gorgeous guy with a voice like melted chocolate.

In a world of bare-all starlets, boy bands and Botox, maybe a story in which the female characters are not obsessed with make-up, making out and choosing between a vampire and a werewolf might just prove to be a breath of fresh air ...

Find out more about Naima on her website
See the Boy vs Girl trailer here
Check out her first YA book here
And you can buy Boy vs Girl here


  1. Very interesting post and a refreshign change from a lot of the more recent pop culture characters.

    I agree about the British media perception of Islam - it is awful.

    Kate xx

  2. I didn't read the article as I was away on a course at the time, but I saw the outraged headlines about halal meat in schools and I was absolutely shocked. I really hope that we can turn a corner somehow away from this anti-Islam slant :( And maybe books like Boy vs Girl will help? I hope so anyway.

  3. Thanks, Keren and Na'ima- this was fascinating. I love the idea of portraying girls' and young women's process of discovering their identity, not just from a romantic/sexual perspective, but also from a spiritual one. This time of life can very often be a time of questioning all the deepest issues- it certainly was for me, and yet I realize that this was, for the most part, not reflected in the books I was reading at the time. Maybe that's why Anne Frank's Diary continues to be such a popular choice.

  4. I haven't seen any of these articles, but I'm glad to have books like this around to redress the balance.

  5. Islamophobia is "In" with the press at the moment, unfortunately, fuelled on by ignorance and prejudice.
    Good luck with your book Na'Ima, anything that can humanise a religion so castigated by the press can only be a good thing.

  6. very excited to read your book Na'lma! Keren - read your post on the Jewish Chronicle - speechless!