If you are an avid fan of the Great British Bake-off, then there can be no doubt that, like myself, you also have a huge sister crush on the awesome woman that is Nadiya Hussain. Winner of the 2015 series, and most probably the most popular winner of all time, Nadiya is the perfect embodiment of what it means to be British: intelligent, warm, strong, witty, and a fabulous hijabi Muslim woman. She captured the hearts of millions and had us all sobbing with joy as she held up her Bake Off trophy. And who could forget her inspiring words? “I’m never gonna put boundaries on myself ever again. I’m never gonna say I can’t do it. I’m never gonna say ‘maybe’. I’m never gonna say, ‘I don’t think I can.’ I can and I will.”
She certainly has broken numerous boundaries since her victory two years ago, Nadiya has written two recipe books (one for children with accompanying stories), she’s baked the Queen’s birthday cake, she’s appeared on various TV shows, she’s starred in the documentary The Chronicles of Nadiya in which she travels to Bangladesh to learn more about her culinary heritage, she’s been a columnist for The Times, she’s presented the Junior Bake Off and there are rumours that she will be hosting a new baking show on the BBC. Oh, and of course she’s written a novel! Whew! Did you have to catch your breath there?
Nadiya’s novel, The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters, follows the lives of a dysfunctional Bengali family of four sisters struck by a tragedy through which various family secrets are exposed, threatening to tear the family apart. Despite the seriousness of the storyline, The Secret Lives is a fun and light read, as popular fiction should be. I feel that Nadiya has chosen the right genre for her intended audience through which she discusses issues that affect Muslims such as religion, culture, the clash of first and second generation immigrants, but also issues that any person could relate to, like love, marriage, family, gender roles, body image and eating disorders, social media and being a teenager. Nadiya opens up a little window into the lives of British Muslims to show that, actually, Muslim women are not so very different from other women.
The characterisation in The Secret Lives is interesting; despite having the same upbringing, each of the four sisters is completely different from any other sister. Nadiya uses these personalities to subvert many stereotypes that people have about Muslim women, reminding the reader that all Muslim women are different and cannot be boxed up together and labelled. Each sister is distinct in terms of both personality and temperament: the eldest is shy Fatima who is struggling to pass her driving test, has a complicated relationship with food and is looking to find meaning in her life; the twins Bublee and Farah couldn’t be more dissimilar, one desperately trying to break with tradition and culture by living in London and working as an artist, the other longing to be a mother after having a happily arranged marriage; Mae is the youngest and still at school, struggling with teenage issues and creating havoc with her social media obsession.
The story itself is a little predictable, but I think it is safe to say that that is what one might expect, and even want, from lighter fiction. That doesn’t mean it is not an enjoyable read – since it’s chick-lit we’re reading, don’t we kind of expect a predictable storyline where things go predictably wrong and things predictably sort themselves out? It’s for this reason that there was some unpleasantness when Nadiya first released her novel, namely because some seem to believe that Nadiya can’t possibly be a baker and writer (er, what?) and that her shelf-space should be left free for “real writers”. Yes, I agree that popular fiction takes up too much shelf space, and yes I also agree that celebrities are also given far too much shelf space, but how many of those authors or celebrities that hog the shelves are Brown, Muslim women? For once, do we not just get to enjoy some mainstream fiction about people like ourselves written by people like ourselves?
Her novel would not have got the same reception had she not also been a celebrity baker, but why should Nadiya, like so many other celebrities, not use her status to do, what I consider, community work? By writing this book, Nadiyah is able to reach out to non-Muslims across Britain and even the rest of the world, and make a voice for British Muslim women. Sure, there are other British Muslim women writers who have written better novels, but Nadiya immediately has a larger and more varied target audience, and making it an exceptional opportunity to further the voices of Muslim women. And what more could British Muslims want than to see one of our own faces on the screen, embodying many of our values and thoughts, being accepted into the media? Doesn’t Nadiya just make you glow with pride? (Okay, I’m gushing now).
Other unpleasantness surrounding the release of The Secret Lives arose from the assumption that the novel is ghost written by Ayisha Malik and was not Nadiya’s own work. In her acknowledgments Nadiya thanks Ayisha for helping her through the writing process (not writing it for her), and in an interview for the Radio Times, Nadiya confirms that she has been writing since she won a poetry competition when she was seven years old and that she went back and borrowed lots of material from her old writing for her novel. So, who said you can’t be an amazing baker, TV presenter and writer if you wanted?!
A reformed literary snob, I believe that everyone should have access to diverse literature and that we should not be limited to literature about the white western experience, in any genre, on our bookshelves. By writing The Secret Lives, Nadiya is helping to change the face of mainstream fiction in Britain, and she has also done what Nadiya does best: making us laugh, giving us subtle food for thought, and showing the world that she – we – are all inherently human.
Hafsah Zamir-Khan is a dabbler of all things creative, including writing, teaching and crochet. She blogs at www.esotericsips.com. Follow her writerly dabblings @esotericsips on Instagram, and her hooking adventures @yarnofpearl