Celebrating Muslim Literature with “Unadulterated Joy”: A Talk with Publisher Asmaa Hussein
How do you learn about the lives of interesting people? You might be lucky enough to bump into one at a party. You might read about one in a random blog post. Or you might encounter one as a friend of a friend. Author Rukhsana Khan was actually the person who introduced me to the work of one Asmaa Hussein. A registered social worker, writer, mother and widow, she’s the founder of Ruqaya’s Bookshelf, a publisher dedicated to, “bright, fun, and engaging children’s books to add to your home and school libraries. All our books feature Muslim characters and protagonists, because we believe representation matters!”
I was curious to know more and I had a suspicion that I was not alone in that curiosity. Happily, Asmaa was willing to answer my questions today:
Betsy Bird: Asmaa, thank you so much for joining me on my blog. If you could, please tell me how Ruqaya’s Bookshelf came to be
Asmaa Hussein: Ruqaya’s Bookshelf was officially established in early 2015. After becoming a single mom in 2013, I quickly realized the content available to my daughter wasn’t what I was looking for. I wanted her to see people who looked like her, believed in what she believed, and celebrated their stories with unadulterated joy. The more I searched, the more I realized there was a gap in the market for Muslim kids. Most “Muslim” stories at the time were either instructional religious texts, or stories in which Muslims were poorly, stereotypically represented. I wanted to see fun, bright, engaging fiction for Muslim kids to enjoy.
It took quite a bit of gusto and a lot of research to finally decide I wanted to tackle this issue myself. I wrote and published Bismillah Soup and Yasmine’s Belly Button in 2015. They were received wonderfully by the Muslim community in North America, and I was able to move forward with multiple other titles per year. Each year, the business gets a bit bigger and we build more trust in the Muslim community.
BB: As author Rukhsana Khan once told me, the success of your book A TEMPORARY GIFT made you realize, “how starved the Muslim community was for AUTHENTIC literature that reflects the Muslim experience.” Can you speak a little more to that gap and where you fit into it?
AH: “Own voices” literature is still a fairly new movement in the literary world, and little did I know, I was a proponent of this before the term “own voices” was coined. Literature that truly captures the Muslim experience is the work that’s written by insiders, without reference to the mainstream, non-Muslim gaze. What I’ve found to be true over the years is that our stories are watered down to versions that are palatable to a mainstream audience. Unfortunately, this may also means literature that reinforces orientalist, Islamophobic tropes was the norm.
There are amazingly great strides being made in this arena, and many Muslim authors who are doing the work to really represent Muslims authentically. Ruqaya’s Bookshelf is simply a part of that movement. We seek out stories that are unapologetic in their Muslimness.
BB: I think that if you were to say “Muslim themed books” to a traditional American publisher they’d get a very specific thought in their heads as to what that means. What does it mean to you?
AH: “Muslim themed books” means books written from the perspective of Muslims, with Muslim protagonists, that tell the stories of Muslim families as they are, without filters or reference to other audiences. While our books are accessible to any audience, they’re written with Muslim kids in mind. This means we don’t dissect or over-explain Islamic concepts, translate every word in parentheses, or worry about cultural elements not being understood by the reader.
This approach gives us the ability to focus on telling a good story instead of getting caught up in how the book will be received by the mainstream.
BB: You are, in many ways, a grass roots children’s book publisher. What advantages do you have in being independent of a larger company? What are some of the challenges?
AH: There are many advantages to being independent! When a great manuscript comes across my desk, I can decide right away to take it on, without any other middlemen. I also have the pleasure of working closely with authors and illustrators to refine their work. My authors get quite a bit of one-on-one time with me and their editor. This has empowered our authors to improve their writing skills significantly due to the attention and coaching they’re able to receive.
The challenges are also many. Without a large organization and funding to develop projects, it can take quite a long time for a book to be launched. Many decisions that would normally be made by teams of people, are made by one person (me!). While I’d like to think that I’m good at everything, having extra pairs of eyes on the design and text of a story would elevate the quality of each title.
BB: What types of manuscripts are you typically looking for? What do you hope for with each submission?
AH: Right now we’re accepting picture books and chapter books! I would love to see submissions from writers who have really taken the time to examine what they’d like to achieve through their storytelling. I always pursue well-written fiction with a strong Muslim angle. Both these elements have to be present in order for the story to fit in with our catalogue of books.
BB: Finally, what do you have coming up next?
AH: We are currently working on releasing two more pictures books this year: “My Garden over Gaza,” a story about a girl who battles hopelessness when a drone carrying herbicides destroys her rooftop garden. And “Amir’s Blue Jacket,” a touching story about a boy trying hard to hold onto the memory of his late grandfather through an old wool jacket.
Great thanks to Asmaa for taking the time to answer my questions today.
To hear Asmaa tell her own story, please check out this interview as well:
Filed under: Interviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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