Alisa Ahlam is a Somali author and journalist who writes under a pen name. The Arab Season, her debut novel, reflects the plight of the daughters of muslim immigrants who are charged with the responsibility of upholding family honour while being raised in the more permissive environment of the UK, and all the things that can go wrong by being neither here nor there. As a journalist Alisa has written for the Guardian newspaper and Al Jazeera, she has also worked as a fashion and lifestyle magazine editor in London. Here she gives her opinion on Ayaan Hirsi, the wisdom of taking Hemingway to dinner, and on her book being dubbed “Muslim style Sex and the City”.
Which of your major characters would you be happy to have as a cellmate?
Hamdi, without a doubt. She’s a tough cookie that one, very feisty and is always the one to rescue the others from trouble. In a tricky situation, I would like to have her in my corner.
What is the first thing you remember writing?
Very bad poems
Where/when or with whom have you been most impressed to see a copy of your work?
Well, my debut book was released on kindle last month, and has just been released on paperback, but what has stunned me is the number of people who responded to the chapters I had initially posted on the blog, from there on, I have seen links of my blog being shared by others bloggers. The speed at which the whole thing caught fire online before anything was even released really impressed me, I have to say. The support and encouragement I have received is awesome, and I am very thankful for it.
What one book by another author do you wish you’d written?
My book has been described as a “Muslim style Sex and the City”, which I take as a great compliment because I love the TV series.
Name one author that you consider overrated.
I think Gabriel García Márquez is a wonderful writer, but the book One Hundred Years of Solitude was the most boring that I read in a long time, but it received incredible reviews. I love Paulo Coelho, but I sometime think he’s still coasting on the back of The Alchemist, some of the stuff released after that has disappointed me as a fan.
Shakespeare: Genius or Bore?
Sell a million copies or win the Nobel Prize for literature?
I write to entertain and not for prize and accolades, with that in mind I want my work to be accessible to everyone and read by as many people as possible, so I am going with selling a million copies.
Write one classic or have a sustained career of good books?
A sustained career of good books, definitely.
Best perk of being a writer?
It means day dreaming is part of the job and I am not wasting time doing so. I love living inside my head: It’s beautiful to give life to characters and watch them grow on paper.
Worst thing about being a writer?
Remember your best and worst reviews? Let’s hear them.
Mercifully, I have had a quite a number of good reviews, but on the book blog I had this woman who was very critical to the point of ranting at me: she basically accused me of making Somali people look bad and then she went on to compare me to Ayaan Hirsi. I can’t stand Ayaan Hirsi: I disagree with her politics and what she stand for, so all of sudden to have someone tell me I am just like her was kind of bizarre. Her review was also unfair as she had only read a couple chapters but somehow managed to reach such a hate filled conclusion. But what was really annoying was that she assumed that everybody else who left positive comments on the blog was somehow related to me. In her narrow mind she had concluded that if she didn’t enjoy what she read, then nobody else could have enjoyed it.
One thing you wish you’d known starting out as an author?
I never thought I would finish this book, and I stressed myself over that fact a lot. I wish I had known that it was all going to be ok.
How much would you say the characters in your book are based on real people? Could you give an example?
There is a lot of scenarios in the book that I think most children of immigrants will relate to; the whole things about translating for your parents because their English isn’t as good as yours, trying to bargain the price of items in shops because nobody paid a fixed a price in shops and markets back home. Also, a lot of places that my characters hang out in are places that a lot of young Somalis frequent, i.e. the shisha cafes on Edgeware Road, the night clubs such as Blue Bar and Maddox are all real.
What book are you ashamed to admit that you haven’t read?
I haven’t read any of the Hemingway books. I am really ashamed of that, especially at dinner parties. People assume because you are a writer, then you must have read all these classics.
What is your guilty reading?
I love historical fiction/romance. Julie Garwood and Phillipa Gregory own this genre.
What’s the most challenging part of your creative process?
Writing down the first couple of chapters is always difficult as the story is still very abstract and often I don’t know the exact direction I want to take.
And the most pleasurable?
As soon as I complete the first half of the book, everything becomes clearer. The characters are well defined and the story writes itself, at this point spending time in front of my computer becomes pure bliss, because I am hooked on what happening and I want to know how things are going to end.
What are you likely to be most critical about in other authors’ work?
Repetition. As stated above, Julie Garwood is excellent at writing historical romances but if you read a couple of her books, you will notice she has a formula that does not change. Her heroines always seem to have freckles on their noses, and smell like roses, which can be damn annoying.
I also don’t like it when authors simplify things too much, if you must assume anything about your reader, make it a positive assumption, i.e. that they are smart.
If you could bring something back from the past what would it be?
My father, he passed away when I was a child.
Read the first few chapters of The Arab Season on her blog, and see reviews on Amazon
Read others in the Author Q&A series