In conversation with... Uzma Jalaluddin

Hi Uzma! First of all, I would like to congratulate you on the publication of Ayesha At Last! Can you please briefly tell us what it is about?

A: Thanks Silvia! My novel has been described as a Pride and Prejudice remix set in a close-knit Toronto Muslim, South Asian community. My Mr. Darcy character is Khalid Mirza, a straight-laced, conservative young Muslim man who dresses in long white robes and sports a full beard. He looks like a walking caricature, but he’s actually gentle and kind and looking for love. My Elizabeth Bennett is portrayed as a fiery spoken word artist turned substitute teacher, Ayesha Shamsi, the daughter of immigrants from India, who is navigating her role in her family, and in her city. There are also lots of funny side characters because I enjoy writing large ensemble casts, as well as plenty of Shakespearean plot points on top of the Austen references! 

Did you have the plot entirely figured out when you started writing the book or did it take an unexpected turn as the characters grew on the page?

A: The novel took me eight years to write, and it changed quite a bit during that time as the characters evolved, or were written out of and into the story. I had a rough idea of where I was headed, but my first few drafts were mostly me stumbling around in the dark, trying to figure out my characters and themes. 

Are there any autobiographical elements woven into the fictional lives of your characters?

A: I like what the writer Sharon Bala, the author of The Boat People, said about her works: it isn’t the story that is autobiographical so much as the themes within. Like Ayesha and Khalid, I grew up in a close-knit Toronto Muslim community, I have faced some of the Islamophobia that Khalid faces, and I received some rishtas (formal marriage proposals common in South Asian cultures) when I was younger. The book also tackles family drama, and the search for self-identity, something I think most people can relate to as well!

If this novel was going to be turned into a film, who would you cast in the roles of Ayesha and Khalid?

A: My novel has actually been optioned by Pascal Pictures, the same company that made The Post and Into the Spider-verse, among others, so I’ve been asked this question a lot. My answer is that I will leave casting to the experts! 

Without giving too much away, can you tell us about a scene in the book that you love or that was particularly difficult to write?

A: I love the quiet scenes, where Ayesha and Khalid have important conversations about who they are and what they want. It’s fun to watch them both grow through these interactions. There is one conversation that takes place in an unromantic spot – a parking lot – and they are eating Twinkies together in the dark. I think about that scene quite a bit because I had a lot of fun writing it, and it’s an important moment in the book. Plus it is swoonily romantic!

Is there anything that didn’t make it into the final version of the book?

A: As I mentioned, this novel took me eight years to write. In that time, I re-wrote most of it, and threw out the rest. So…everything? Hehe. Seriously though, I thought as an English teacher and lifelong reader that I understood how novels worked. But writing Ayesha At Last over a dozen times over the years really taught me the importance of rewriting and revising. One thing I can say is that earlier versions of the book did not contain Ayesha’s grandparents, Nana and Nani, or Hafsa, or even Masood! So lots of changes over the years as the story evolved.

If you are already working on your next writing project, would you mind giving us a little anticipation of what we are to expect?

A: My new novel is set in the same world of Ayesha At Last, but features new characters. I am describing it as You’ve Got Mail set in rival halal restaurants. It deals with the way that successive waves of immigration change the face of neighbourhoods, as well as the impact of gentrification. Also, there is a central love story of course!

What are you reading at the moment?

A: I just finished reading Son of a Trickster by Eden Robinson, an award-winning Canadian author who writes about Indigenous characters with great care and compassion. My next read will be a re-read of S.K. Ali’s latest YA novel, Love from A to Z, which features unapologetically Muslim characters and young love. 

Due to the popularity of social networking websites, interacting with readers – be it via Twitter, Facebook Instagram etc. – is becoming increasingly important. How do you cope with these new demands on authors and do you think that they somehow disrupt your writing schedule?

A: I confess, navigating social media has been a challenge. Like many writers, I’m an introvert. I’m also a luddite and don’t really jump onto the new technology bandwagon easily. I didn’t actually use any social media, not even Facebook, until I started to write for a newspaper, The Toronto Star, around 2015. So I really only use social media to promote my writing persona. I use twitter quite a bit now, but I mostly retweet and use it to keep up with publishing news and trends. I recently joined Instagram, which is a fun place to be. I find it is relatively easy to stay off social media because I was never enamoured with it in the first place. Sometimes I have to remind myself to post about upcoming book events I’m doing, so I suppose it’s a learning curve for me.

What one piece of advice would you give to aspiring writers?

A: For this, I will quote Ernest Hemingway: “The only kind of writing is rewriting.” So keep working on those drafts and you will unearth the true story underneath! I also have trusted critique partners, other writers who will tell me the truth about my book. My first reader is always my husband, who has been reading my words for years now, and always has amazing insight even though he is not a writer.

Thank you for your time!

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