I’m a Cambridge-based author. My father came from East Pakistan, (now Bangladesh) in 1957 and settled in Cambridge, opening one of the first Indian restaurants there. My mother arrived in 1963. My siblings and I were all born in Cambridge. I was married off at the age of 18 in Bangladesh. I have four children; three sons aged 22, 15 and 12 and a daughter of 9. After my daughter Aminah was born, I started my journey into writing.
Here is my story…
I didn’t plan to become a writer; I decided to write about a subject very close to my heart. My eldest son, Ibrahim, grew up with a condition called semantic pragmatic language disorder, part of the autistic spectrum disorder. Autism is a life-long developmental disability and affects people in different ways. Ibrahim had difficulty understanding what we said to him, and he didn’t understand how to use speech to make himself understood. He didn’t understand social situations.
By the age of two, we knew something wasn’t right about him. We kept records of all of his progress reports. I wrote down my own experiences and decided to turn it into a book. I wanted to highlight the lack of awareness of the condition in our society and particularly within the Asian community where autism wasn’t widely recognised. I felt isolated. I wanted to be heard. The book is called “Ibrahim – Where in the Spectrum Does he Belong?” I self-published, under my own book publishing company, Perfect Publishers, which I launched in 2005 (www.perfectpublishers.co.uk) Self-publishing means the author is financially responsible and in control of the entire publishing process. It requires a lot of hard work and effort.
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I run my company from home; I work around my children and choose the hours I wish to work. We outsource most of our work. We have a team of editors and graphic designers, and they all work from home too. So, we have correspondence with them via email.
Ibrahim is now 22 and, Alhamdulillah, he has now graduated from University. His graduation day hit me very hard. I was riding a rollercoaster of emotions. I am grateful to Allah (SWT) for helping me through the difficult times with him. Having sabr is very important in Islam, and I am grateful for all the progress he has made.
I decided to write a historical novel, which I completed in 2006, called “Lascar”. My mother once told me that my paternal ancestor was a Lascar and this inspired me to write the novel. The word Lascar means ‘sailor from East India,’ (now present day Bangladesh.) “Lascar” is set in the 1860s and is the epic story of one man’s journey to fulfill his destiny. Ayan, a Bengali Muslim Lascar is forced to leave poverty-stricken Bengal by becoming a Lascar – shovelling coal in the bowels of the steamships that trade between India and England.
Lascars have largely been forgotten in history. For over 400 years, Lascars were recruited for work aboard British ships, ferrying back cargoes containing tea, coffee, sugar and spices in times of peace and war. Many Lascars were Muslim. Lascars were a multiracial crew from Africa and the Middle East and the Indian Subcontinent who worked alongside British seamen.
It took me about a year to complete the novel. Many people do find history boring; with historical fiction, you can take a piece of history and make it interesting, in any way you like as long as it’s historically accurate. But most important of all is getting across an interesting story in an interesting way.
I decided not to self-publish again. It was hard to get my book out there to a wider audience, and I didn’t want to go down that route again. So, I sent out proposals to many agents and publishers.
When I received the first few rejections, I thought that there was something wrong with my novel. It’s easy to change your novel after receiving a rejection from an agent or publisher. I started rewriting certain chapters. After a few more rejections, I asked myself, would I do this every time I receive a rejection? I received dozens and dozens of rejections. I received a lot of positive and encouraging feedback and took all constructive criticisms on board. Just because one publisher didn’t like my book didn’t mean no one else would. Rejections are not personal, but at times it felt that way. If I don’t feel enthusiastic enough about my work, then I shouldn’t expect someone else to. I really believed that it would be published one day.
I decided that I had to draw the line somewhere. I couldn’t carry on rewriting and rewriting. The publishing industry is as tough as ever, and I wanted the best possible chance for “Lascar” to succeed. I needed to move on to new projects, but it was difficult as my mind was solely focused on getting “Lascar” published.
I wrote a radio play in 2009 based on the novel, for ‘Silsila Productions’, The Lascar Seamen History Project. “The Lascar” is a teaching resource that includes a short radio play on an audio CD with an accompanying activity pack. The teaching pack explores the heritage of the Lascars. You can listen to it in full here:
I had articles published, such as ‘Currying Favour’ in the Best of British magazine and ‘Speech and Language Disorders in Bilingual Children’ in a US online magazine called ‘Children of the New Earth.’ I contributed ‘The Integration of the Hijab into Police Uniforms’ to an anthology called Behind the Hijab, published by Monsoon Press in 2009.
I read books and newspapers in order to help my writing. I read books I would not normally read. Writing “Lascar” made me realise that this is what I want to do. I have worked extremely hard to improve my writing, especially the structure and composition, the building of characters and the way they interact with each other. It can take years to develop a ‘style’ of writing and that comes from practice – just as playing the piano or winning an Olympic medal (although not quite the same thing!).
“Lascar” was shortlisted for the Muslim Writers Unpublished Novel Award 2008 and was longlisted for the Brit Writers Unpublished Novel Award 2010. It gave a chance for my work to be recognised in a wider audience. After five years of rejections and tears, I finally received a ‘yes’ from Indigo Dreams Publishing in 2011. Thanks to Allah I, “Lascar” was published in June 2012. I had been waiting years for this. It takes just one ‘yes’ answer and everything changes. Allah I answered my prayers. This journey taught me to be patient and to be honest; I am happy that it took so long! I needed time to learn all about the publishing industry.
Cambridge News ran a story about my novel before the book launch. I am now talking about my book at events and festivals. I particularly enjoy meeting new people who are interested in my work. Talking about my book in front of an audience was something I thought I could never do, and it was the hardest thing I ever did. I hated the thought of standing in front of people, but I did it – not once, but a few times.
I then went on to co-author a screenplay called “India Ink”. It was shortlisted for the Circalit Story Department Contest and reached the finals of the Write Movies International Writing Contest 2011.
Throughout all of this, I have always made time for my children. I always put them and house duties first. I hope to continue with my success. I am now writing my second novel and hope to complete that in a year, insha Allah.
Finally, a word for all writers aspiring to get published; be prepared for lots of rejections, criticisms and tears. Any writer will tell you the same story – writing is difficult. However, the rewards of seeing the words you have written on the page make this difficult journey worthwhile. You need lots of patience, persistence and perseverance, as it can take years to get published. If you truly believe in your book, then someone else will. If you don’t feel enthusiastic enough about your work, then don’t shouldn’t expect someone else to. This will show in your writing.
Make sure to read, read and read! It will help your writing. Also, find the right agent or publisher for your work and never give up. If you get a rejection, don’t despair. It hurts, but keep focused. Move on and keep trying. Hopefully, someone will love the story as much as you do, and your book will be published, insha Allah.
Shahida’s first historical novel, “Lascar”, was published in June 2012. It was shortlisted for the Muslim Writers Unpublished Novel Award 2008 and longlisted for the Brit Writers Unpublished Award 2010. Shahida also contributed to Behind the Hijab, published in 2009. She has been published in the Best of British and Children of the New Earth magazines. She has also written a radio play for the Lascar Heritage Project which aired in 2011. Shahida is married with four children. More details about her work can be found on: www.shahidarahman.co.uk
Read an Excerpt of Lascar HERE
Check out the SISTERS review of Lascar HERE
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