• Burhana Islam

One Year On

Updated: Jul 9, 2018

In light of International Women’s Day, I thought I ought to collect reflections of my own writing journey so far. There’s a phrase that I love that usually makes its rounds about this time of year. It’s the one that goes:


'To strong women,

May we know them,

May we raise them,

May we be them.'


In this day and age, we should embrace the idea that empowered women do actually empower other women too- what they say is actually truth. I’m lucky to have been born and raised in a family where women have taken the reins. My mama bear, my aunties and my sisters-from-other-misters have shown me what real strength looks like. Decades ago, before I was even thought of, they crossed the foreign sands of the Indian ocean and found themselves on the concrete shoreline of the West. To give us the life we lead now, they’ve given everything they’ve ever known up and I’m not sure that we can ever repay them for that, but I hope that maybe one day, they’ll see that we tried.


Lately, I’ve been hoping that my writing plays its part in that. I want to make sure that the stories that I write honour the women in my life. Now I’m beginning to realise that despite its male narrator, and any reservations I initially had- to make him a boy who grows into a man- STICKS AND STONES is no exception to that rule.


If I’m honest, I was never really one who took writing seriously. Yes, there were times when I’d finish reading a book I was lost in, and I’d wonder what it’d feel like to make someone fall in love with the words that I, myself, had penned. But that was the furthest it ever got. That was at least until the day I was told a story that really did demand to be heard.


Her name- it’s not important- but what she represents is. She’s a Syrian refugee, trying to make a home away from home in the city we were in. And one day we found ourselves sitting on the old floors of a high-rise flat. It was winter and the nights were long and the darkness longer. And we sat with copies of the Qur’an in our hands, staring out towards the dull glow of the streetlights. And the cars, they seemed tiny, almost like little ants crawling on the path.


And that evening, she told me her story.


It started before the revolution, but even then peacetime was a glass all ready to be broken. And we talked about the early days, that age when swapping snacks at school wasn't the only thing to be excited for.


But then it all got messy, almost like someone had thrown all the pieces of a chessboard into the air, and when they landed, both of the queens, both of the kings, and the knights and the pawns, they didn’t recognise each other- not anymore. And in between a regime designed against her, broken homes and broken families, prison walls and uncertainty- in between all of that- everything she had left had driven her to the border where Syria met Lebanon. And her dad, he said to her to leave because there was no place for her anymore.


Then in between tears and screams, she said "I’ll stay with you. I’ll die here too."


But men like that, they push their daughters away, knowing safety and sanctuary weren’t things they could provide anymore. Men like that, they give all they have left to save the ones that they love. And they spend their whole lives separated, their blood-ties on opposite ends of the Earth, not knowing if they’ll ever be together again, but praying anyway, hoping that one day God will bring them back.


And that’s where it all started: STICKS AND STONES. It was inspired by her story, that moment alone. And in time, I got to watch Hassan grow. I got to watch him grow from a little boy into a man. And at no point did I feel like this was my story. It was almost like this whole thing had a life of its own and I was just relaying it.


But I wouldn’t have got that far without being introduced to the world of verse by Clelia Gore, the woman behind the Muslim Writers Open Call in the US, the woman who ignited that initial spark on 16th March, 2017. Nor would I have believed that this was something seriously worth listening to without Tricia Lawrence and her ongoing, invaluable guidance, reminding me always that not everyone has a catch, and that goodness, sincerity and the desire to see someone else succeed gives inner peace. Or Sophie Minchell, for everything and more- name-dropping a friend who will likely take the mick out of this if, by chance, she comes across it. And my cousins, Rahima, Nuhah and Madeha, who aren't so little anymore, who listened in silence to every, single word. Nor would I have gotten further without Siena Parker’s WriteNow scheme and her belief in the need to champion marginalised voices. Not forgetting Naomi Colthurst either, children’s editor at PHR, who managed to see through my stumbling words and faltering voice when I couldn’t seem to keep anything together. Or even the women in the bathroom that day, whose encouragement I’ll never forget.


Ultimately, when it comes down to it, I think I can accept it if little ever comes of STICKS AND STONES. I’m a total believer in meant-to-bes and the process has taught me so much more about myself already. That's half the beauty of it, right? It’s cathartic to know that I started something like this, that, for a moment, I made someone feel the way I did when I found myself lost inside a book I loved, and I’m hoping that I’ll see it to the end- whatever form that end may be.


It’s almost been a year now. I’m four drafts in, 360 pages through and I’ve handed it to my editor. A year ago, I would have said that this was something outside my realm of possibility. Time, I guess, surprises everybody.


I started writing this post on International Women’s Day to remind myself to be grateful for the women I’ve been given in my life.


And I am.


I am grateful.

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