Buy “Runway”



Love, InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women

This week I had the privilege of interviewing Ayesha Mattu, co-editor of the anthology Love, InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women and Zahra Noorbakhsh, one of the contributors to the anthology, about Love, InshAllah and the success it has seen since it debuted in February of this year. After being featured in the New York Times in January, it was the most emailed/read Books article for three days running, it catapulted to #1 on the Amazon women’s studies and Islam bestsellers’ lists, and it was listed by Amazon as one of the top 200 books in the nation.

Zahra Noorbakhsh is a writer, actor and stand-up comedian, whose one-woman shows All Atheists Are Muslim and Hijab and Hammerpants have appeared at the New York International Fringe Theater Festival, San Francisco Theater Festival, and Solo Performance Workshop Festival, with widespread critical acclaim. She is a graduate of the UC Berkeley in Theatre & Performance Studies. Though she began as a stand-up comic, her love of storytelling drew her into the world of theater and ultimately the art of short story writing.

Ayesha Mattu is a writer and international development consultant. Her first book, Love, InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women has been featured by global media including the New York Times, NPR, BBC, The Guardian, Washington Post, Times of India, and Dawn Pakistan. Ayesha’s writing has appeared in, The Huffington Post, the International Museum of Women and Religion Dispatches. She was selected a “Muslim Leader of Tomorrow” by the UN Alliance of Civilizations and the ASMA Society. She has served on the boards of the Women’s Funding Network and IDEX and currently serves on the board of World Pulse. Ayesha is working on a memoir about losing -and finding- faith and love, and blogs at Rickshaw Diaries.

MW: What does Love, InshAllah, mean?

ZN: Love, Godwilling.

MW: Who came up with the title?

AM: The title and subtitle were both contributions of my husband. Love, InshAllah captures the aspirations of the love and the hope that it will have spiritual blessing in it as well, which is important for a number of the writers in the collection. The subtitle was not the original subtitle. We had an incredibly boring, dry title that was something like “An Anthology of American Muslim Women’s Courtship and Dating”—it might have even had “rituals” at the end—and then we got dumped by twelve publishers. Then we were walking down the street one day and my husband said, “Your book is really about secret love lives. The Muslim community doesn’t acknowledge that Muslim women even have love lives, unless they’re in a strict marital framework, and the broader community has never heard these stories. Plus, it makes for a hell of a good provocative title.”

MW: Can you describe the collection for us?

AM: Twenty-five nonfiction stories about American Muslim women searching for love. These include marriage, dating, one-night stands and lesbian and heterosexual relationships by women from many different ethnic and racial backgrounds, geographical locations, and age ranges from their 20s and their 60s. They are single, married, and divorced, and they bring a whole range of perspectives to the search for love.

MW: Ayesha, do you have a favorite story?

ZN: Mine. You don’t have a favorite one besides mine, right?

AM: Each one holds a sacred space. You are all my children. You are all equal.

ZN: Two of my favorites are Najva Sol’s and Suzanne Shah’s. Powerful powerful stories, and genuine.

AM: I really love Suzanne’s story as well because she goes to a real place of vulnerability where she talks about being raped and being disowned by her mother because she later wants to marry an African-American Muslim man and [her mother] is racist. How she negotiates losing her mother and finding the love of her life and relying on her faith in God in those circumstances is a real testament to her love and faith. My other favorite story is by Tolu Adiba, who is negotiating faith and sexuality in ways that are not neat little boxes. The bleeding, tattered edges and the honesty are what really drew me into her story and lent it an air of authenticity.

MW: Where did you get the idea for the book?

AM: About five years ago, my co-editor and I, Nura Maznavi, were sitting in a Union Square café here in San Francisco. I had just read yet another article on arranged marriages in the Muslim community and I thought, sure, that’s one story, but that’s not the only story. That’s not how I met my husband. That’s not how my friends met their husbands. A lot has been written about Muslim women by journalists, researchers, and politicians, but no one is stopping to ask us our own opinions and stories. So we thought it was time we told our own stories. We started with this very important simple but subversive idea: Muslim women in love.

In the current political climate, most people don’t associate Muslims with love, and yet love is integral to Islam. Not only is it one of the names of God, but Rumi is one of the bestselling poets in America, and all of his poetry is about love and connection and spirituality. And everybody loves a good love story. Jane Austin continues to reign supreme, and all of the romantic comedies—we’re each looking to love and be loved for who we are. … This was a way to connect the reader in a very intimate way to Muslim women beyond the headlines where they could meet heart to heart and each see their lives reflected in the other person.

MW: Do you have a piece in the collection?

AM: I do. As editors we felt it was important for us to both put our own skin in the game, that if we were asking writers to go to that place of vulnerability and intimacy, we’d have to be willing to do the same. I think both of us put it off as long as possible.

MW: What is your piece about?

AM: My piece is set two weeks after 9/11. It was a time of great turmoil and in that turmoil, I am in a space of being on a journey back to the practice of Islam and at the same time ending a relationship with someone who is not Muslim because faith had come between us. I had just made a resolution that I was going to stop dating non-Muslim men and give Muslim men a try, which I had never done before. And as soon as I made that resolution, I walked into a music hall to hear a concert, and I met a non-Muslim man that I fall in love with. And I had to negotiate my relationship with him and our different perspectives on faith and life and our families, all set against the backdrop of 9/11. It’s a very American story. He’s third generation Albanian-American. I’m second generation Pakistani-American. We met in Boston right after 9/11 and had this opportunity to learn from each other and make a life together. There’s something uniquely American about that, about creating what that identity means to you.

MW: How did your parents react to the book?

AM: My parents had been incredible supporters of the project during the five years that it took from conception to publication. However, even though they knew the details of my love story, there was shock value in seeing it in written form and knowing that their community would read that story and pass judgment on my behavior and my parents. Because of that fear of potential public shaming, they ended up disowning me and withdrew from my life and their grandson’s life for a period of time. It was very difficult to be at a point of great professional success as the book was featured by press around the world, acclaimed, and sold out of four editions, and at the same time to be negotiating a real personal loss.

It’s given me a lot of time to think about how we as writers go to a place of sharing our truth but also recognize how that affects our loved ones in ways that we can’t control and that isn’t always a comfortable space. Ultimately, it’s about continuing the conversation, finding ways to talk about it in bits and pieces with each other, breaking the silence between us, and writing with greater compassion and inclusivity while still maintaining an authentic voice as a writer and storyteller. Looking back, having heard the story two weeks before the book came out was probably too late in the game [for my mother]. I could have included her earlier in the process and had more time to engage her. It’s definitely been a learning experience for me as a writer and as a daughter.

MW: Zahra, how did your parents receive your show, All Atheists Are Muslim?

ZN: They loved it. My parents are my biggest supporters. They manned my ticket booth opening night. My mom made baklava for everyone, and Persian tea. When my father saw the show, he said, “It’s good. I like it much more than your comedy” because my comedy was performing at 10 o’clock at night in dives, telling raunchy jokes to keep up with the demographic. When he got to see my show and see his own voice reflected in it, he really loved it. One of the comments he made to my mom was, “All those times I talk to her, she’s listening.”

MW: How did your parents react to your piece in the anthology?

ZN: The title is called “The Birds, the Bees, and My Hole.” They read the first half.

MW: The part about the birds and the bees?

ZN: Yes. They didn’t read the second half, which is about losing my virginity. I told my dad before I wrote the piece, “I’m writing this piece, and it’s about losing my virginity, and I think it’s important for women to tell these stories and to talk about them more.” And he said, “Well. Okay. I’m never going to read it.” But I think all fathers should read the piece, just not my father. He doesn’t need to read about my panties.

AM: It’s true. No father needs to read about his daughter’s panties.

ZN: But now he’s getting frustrated because there’s so much talk about it. He sent me a text one night that said, “Zahra, I just had a private moment with my wife and I wrote about it. I put it on and it’s all over my Facebook, but I don’t want you to read it.” It helped that they’d seen my performances before the piece came out, with the comedy and being on YouTube. We’d broken that barrier before the book came out. And they were so proud that I was published. And when it was in the New York Times, it was like I’d gotten my PhD and married a doctor all at once.

AM: My parents were totally different. They were like New York Times, Washington Post, BBC, yeah, whatever. But when it came out in Dawn, Pakistan, the biggest English-language paper in Pakistan, they printed out a copy for themselves, even though they weren’t speaking to me. That’s when I finally arrived.

MW: What advice do you have for someone writing personal essay or memoir who is concerned about the reaction of family and friends?

AM: My advice would be first to write without fear of anyone else reading it. To allow space for the raw story to exist on the page.

Next, as you begin to develop and refine the narrative, ask yourself: Am I being truthful about the other person? Am I being compassionate? Fair? Am I honoring their complexity as an individual? You can hold your truth and write from a place of complexity and compassion for others. In fact, doing so will only strengthen the honesty and resonance of your writing and insights.

Lastly, offer your loved ones the opportunity to read the piece well in advance of it being published. Allow them the space to tell you how they feel about it. By listening, you are honoring their voice, not necessarily agreeing to edits. As writers, we have a driving need to tell our stories and to be heard. Our loved ones have the same need.

ZN: Do you think that would have changed what you had written?

AM: I don’t know that it would have changed it, but if I had emailed her a Word document and asked her for her feedback, I think she would have said these are my areas of concern, so at least she would have had the chance to say what she wanted to say. I’m sure I was subconsciously reluctant to share it with her.

MW: You wouldn’t have changed the parts she didn’t like?

AM: I don’t think so. It was less about what I had written and more about not being included. I think that I would have not necessarily adjusted what I had said because I would have written it from a place of compassion for her. If you do that, I think they can take it that you have good and bad in the description. It’s when it’s one-sided that they get upset.

ZN: When my parents saw my show, it was in an audience of people, so when they saw the response and how positive it was, it’s was freeing.

AM: Yes, it’s the fear of what might be said more than what has been said.

MW: Was it difficult to get the book published?

AM: Yes. It was a five-year-long journey during which we landed an agent almost immediately. We were quite naïve about the process and probably didn’t ask some of the questions we should have asked. She sent it out to twelve of the major publishers in New York City, and one by one we were rejected by every one –whether it was “Anthologies don’t sell,” or “This isn’t chick lit. How can we sell this?” or “American Muslims are an untested consumer,” or “Many of these are unknown writers.” After this, our agent dumped us because she said she no longer had faith in the project. Then Nura and I were high and dry for a year.

In September 2010, we went to San Francisco’s Litquake, which is the largest literary festival in the nation. They were having a contest called Pitchapalooza, a sort of American Idol for the literary set during which writers have the opportunity to make a 60-second pitch in front of a live audience and an industry panel of experts. There would be a fiction and a nonfiction winner at the end of the night, who wins a consultation with two of the experts each. Names were being drawn out of a hat, so we had no guarantee that we would even get to pitch that evening. Then Nura’s name was picked and she went up there with her scarf on her head and said, “Muslim women just can’t catch a break” and the crowd went wild. At the end of the evening we won the nonfiction prize and a consultation with the book doctors, David Henry Sterry and Arielle Eckstut, who write The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published.

They became our literary fairy godparents. They gave us an invaluable critique on our book proposal, basically behaved as our agents, and introduced us to Laura Mazer, the managing editor of Soft Skull Press in Berkeley at the time. We had a conversation around our vision of the book, and she ended up offering us a publishing contract. Soft Skull Press was an amazing partner in respect to our content, context, cover, and title and really allowing us as writers to have full control over our narrative. This was crucial, especially as first-time writers, for women of color, of faith, who are very stigmatized minority in the U.S., who are rarely given control over their own narratives or allowed to speak for themselves.

MW: What kind of success has the book had?

AM: The book has been very successful. It’s received international media coverage from the New York Times to the BBC to the Times of India to the Jakarta Times. It’s sold almost 10,000 copies. It’s in its fourth edition. It went into its second printing before the first edition even hit the shelves. It was just sold in Indonesia, which is the most populous Muslim nation in the world. There are European markets interested in translations, including Italy, Germany, and France, where it has received press coverage as well. There’s a Sikh American women’s anthology which was inspired by this that is being put together right now.

As editors, Nura and I hope that there will be international editions where Muslim women in different countries and contexts will tell the stories that are important in their lives and what their own realities are: Love, InshAllah Maylaysia UK, South Africa, etc. where we hope that local writers and editors will work together on issues that are important to them. We have a website where we invite men and women of all backgrounds and faiths to share their wisdom and perspectives on intimacy and relationships of all kinds, divine or mortal love, familial, friendship or professional relationships, and we’re particularly interested in showcasing the voices of men, who don’t have a lot of space to talk about intimacy and the role of love and intimacy in their lives.

34 comments to Love, InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women

  • Kristan

    ROFL: "And when it was in the New York Times, it was like I’d gotten my PhD and married a doctor all at once."

    This sounds like an amazing, wonderful book, and I absolutely love what both Zahra and Ayesha had to say about the writing process, involving their parents (or not) and the consequences, and most of all, the motivation behind the project. I'll definitely be adding this to my TBR list. Thanks!

    • meghancward

      Kristan, I found Ayesha's advice about how to handle the reactions of family and friends to memoir and personal essays particularly helpful. And our book club has put it on our TBR list, too!

  • annerallen

    Fascinating interview. Sounds like an amazing book.

  • lindseycrittenden

    I heard Ayesha & Zahra read from the book a few months ago at Booksmith in the Haight. Lively, funny, touching. I love what Ayesha says here about writing memoir & the reaction of family & friends. Loved reading this, Meghan.

    • meghancward

      Ah, I just replied the same thing to Kristan – that Ayesha's advice about memoir writing was so well thought out. And if you ever get the chance to see Zahra's show, it is HILARIOUS. I wish it were still running, so I could send everyone to see it.

  • […] the rest of the interview, here. Like this:LikeBe the first to like […]

  • This is amazing… I feel the need to pick this book up now! And I love the story behind how it got published. :)) It was inspiring to me, a newbie author.

    Megan, thanks soooo much for your site! I peruse it when I need inspiration as a writer and it always makes me smile and learn something new. You're awesome.

    • Love, InshAllah

      Thanks so much for your comment! I'd love to hear your feedback on the anthology & wish you much success as a writer!

      Love & light,

    • meghancward

      Aww. Thank you! And thanks so much for reading and taking the time to comment!

  • lexacain

    This is wonderful! I'm an American living in Egypt. I have a Christian-Muslim romance in my book and try to give some cultural background and insight into the Middle-East and Islam. I think it's time the West heard different perspective than what's shown on the news.

    • Love, InshAllah

      Thanks for the comment, lexacain! I agree that a diversity of perspectives are necessary to increase understanding & dialogue. Good luck with your book!

      – Ayesha

  • Cheers! It is the best time to make some plans for the future and it’s time to be happy. valisholidayss Webseite

  • However these perspectives are shallow. With hostile to Muslim opinion at unsurpassed highs in this nation, any exertion to adapt Muslims, regardless of how tight the degree, ought to be backed by the general open.

  • That is a very good tip especially to those fresh to the blogosphere.
    Brief but very precise info… Thank you for sharing this one.
    A must read post!

    Also visit my web site … free christian dating co uk

  • I like it when folks get together and share ideas. Great website, continue the good work!

    Here is my homepage … meet asian singles toronto

  • Look, I’m not here to tell anyone to do or not
    do porn, but if you are thinking about it, the first
    thing that you should know is that if you get any amount of non-porn fame after the fact,
    the company you made porn for is going to out you faster than
    I could crank one out to your clip.

    my site girls do porn

  • I like in here is what readers altogether share their ideas through its comment … Just like I love the topic on how muslim women preserves there love..

  • Hi! I know this is somewhat off topic but I was wondering

    if you knew where I could get a captcha plugin for my comment form?

    I’m using the same blog platform as yours and I’m having difficulty finding one?

    Thanks a lot!

  • I had not considered that they may have done it to reduce the number of people eligable for Klout perks. That is an interesting take. I have my own metrics which I use to decide how I am doing and they aren't even as accurate as my gut telling me I'm goofing off too much. So I too have lost my love for Klout. It was a fun game for a while.

  • When someone writes an paragraph he/she keeps the plan of a user in his/her brain that how a user can know it.
    So that’s why this article is amazing. Thanks!

  • Hi there, its pleasant post regarding media print, we all understand media iss a wonderful source of information.

  • They are single, married, and divorced, and they bring a whole range of perspectives to the search for love.

  • Hello, I think your website might be having browser compatibility issues.

    When I look at your blog in Chrome, it looks fine but when opening in Internet Explorer, it has some overlapping.
    I just wanted to give you a quick heads up!
    Other then that, great blog!

  • This is amazing… I feel the need to pick this book up now! And I love the story behind how it got published. :)) It was inspiring to me, a newbie author.

  • You actually make it seem really easy with your presentation however I find this matter to be really one thing which I
    believe I would by no means understand. It seems too complicated and extremely vast
    for me. I’m taking a look forward for your next submit, I will try to get the cling of it!

  • Greetings! I have been reading your website for some time now and finally got the bravery to go ahead and give you a shout out from Lubbock Thanks! Just wanted to tell you keep up the fantastic job! Thank you so much and i want more.

  • great. , fanatastic interview. may be i must come to this blog every momment

  • Hmm… I interpret blogs on a analogous issue, however i never visited your blog. I added it to populars also i’ll be your faithful primer.