Tuesday, September 08, 2009

manchester muslim writers

‘Curry Mile’ author strives to get Muslims writing in Britain
by Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette 7 September 2009

Creative writing courses and groups have mushroomed in Britain in recent years. But as far as the novelist, poet and creative writing teacher Zahid Hussain [pictured above] knows, Manchester Muslim Writers (MMW) is the first society for Muslims who write fiction, poetry or non-fiction. The group covers not only novels, short stories and poetry, but screenwriting, travel writing, feature writing, memoirs, textbooks and technical writing.

Hussain initiated the setting up of MMW in the northern English city of Manchester in May [launch event pictured] , and said that he feels a sense of duty about this. “I believe Muslims have not been able to show the world the strength of our art and literature; we have to get Muslims writing,” he told Saudi Gazette in an interview. He sees MMW as “a stepping stone” to the mainstream, and hopes that “one day Muslim narratives will become part of British mainstream life.”
The MMW website and its links, including those to Hussain’s own website and blogs, are full of practical advice on writing. On its website, MMW describes itself as a “UK collective”. Inclusiveness is a key to Hussain’s approach. He wants MMW to access the vast range of local Muslim communities and to school them in writing. “I don’t just want them to write, I want them to write well.”

With no definition of a typical member, the youngest participant is 13, the oldest in their 60s; MMW is open to non-Muslims as well as Muslims, and attendees at its events have included a couple of non-Muslims who are interested in Muslim culture.
Hussain himself originated from a family of poets, and writes on his personal website: “My maternal grandfather and great-grandfather wrote poetry in Pushto and Urdu”. He was born in the northern English county of Lancashire to “a hard-working and traditional Pakistani family”. He is particularly well placed to start a group to nurture the writing of Muslims. He is a published novelist and poet himself, and has much hands-on experience to impart. He also teaches creative writing in schools.

At the same time he is a founder of the charity Regenesis Squared, a social enterprise headquartered in the Shakespeare House community center in South Manchester. Regenesis delivers innovative community regeneration projects and it supports MMW, whose classes are free of charge. (Hussain notes that among the other groups that use the facilities of Regenesis is the Saudi Men’s Club which meets there on Fridays. Manchester is said to have a Saudi community - spearheaded mostly by students - of around 1,000 families).
Hussain’s debut novel “The Curry Mile” was published in 2006 by Suitcase Press. The novel is named after legendary Wilmslow Road in the Rusholme district of Manchester, a road famous for its numerous South Asian - mainly Pakistani - restaurants. The novel’s plot is woven around a curry magnate Ajmal Butt and his spirited daughter Sorayah whom he has disowned after catching her living in London with a boyfriend. After her return to Manchester, she confronts the dilemma of whether to help her father’s threatened curry empire to survive.
The novel has universal themes and is highly accessible; both full of humor, while tackling important issues. It has received considerable praise, and one of the leading Muslim intellectuals in Britain, Ziauddin Sardar, chose it as one of his books of the year in the New Statesman magazine. Hussain has now completed his second novel along the working title of “The Somniloquist” - someone who talks in their sleep - and focused on one of Sorayah’s brothers, saying that it may become part of a “Curry Mile” series of novels.
MMW’s activities include workshops on single topics (such as metaphor, conflict, and writing for children), two reading circles a month – one combined with a visit by a well-known author – and seminars on subjects including great Muslim writers.
The group has some 120 people on its database, and varying numbers of people have attended its events. Hussain sees the Reading Circle, in which participants read their work out aloud and receive feedback from others, as the backbone of MMW. There will be also opportunities for members to submit their writing to group magazines and anthologies in due course.
The first guest speaker was Moazzam Begg [pictured], a British Muslim who was seized in Pakistan in 2002 and held for nearly three years, mostly in Guantanamo Bay. In collaboration with the journalist and activist Victoria Brittain he wrote “Enemy Combatant: A British Muslim’s Journey to Guantanamo and Back” published in 2006 and subsequently translated into several languages including Arabic. While in prison he was moved to write poetry on his terrible ordeal.

The second speaker, Qaisra Shahraz [pictured], was born in Pakistan and brought up in Manchester from the age of nine. She is the author of two published novels, “The Holy Woman” and “Typhoon”, and is also eminent in academia and in teaching creative writing.

The third monthly author speaker, scheduled for early October, is likely to be Sufiya Ahmed (the pen name of Sophia Ahmed), who grew up in the East End of London and is the author of “Zahra’s First Term at the Khadija Academy”.

Hussain hopes an initiative similar to MMW will soon take root in the city of Birmingham and that similar Muslim writers’ groups will eventually be started in many other British cities and towns with sizeable Muslim populations.
Birmingham already has a major role in the promotion of Muslim writing, through the Muslim Writers Awards (MWA) which Innovate Arts launched there in 2007. For the first time this year the MWA moved to London for the glitzy annual awards ceremony held in May in the Hilton Hotel on Park Lane.
The MWA ceremony showed the impressively high caliber of those writers of Muslim origin whose work has excited interest in the mainstream British literary arena. The winner of the Published Fiction category was Kamila Shamsie for “Burnt Shadows”.
She was in competition with Robin Yassin-Kassab (“The Road from Damascus”), Daniyal Mueenuddin (In Other Rooms, Other Wonders), Tahir Shah (In Arabian Nights) and Farahad Zama (“The Marriage Bureau for Rich People”).
Hussain sees the activities of MWA and MMW as complementary. MMW is concerned with the practical development of Muslim writing, while MWA celebrate the excellence of writing by Muslims. “There is now a pool of Muslim authors, and we would like to do a tour of the UK,” Hussain remarked.

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