Sufiya Ahmed’s Book Launch, Tuesday 13th March, 1pm, Whalley Range High School
Words and photograph by Claudia Conerney
This afternoon Whalley Range High School for Girls are hosting the second day of Sufiya Ahmed’s tour to promote her first book for teenagers, The Secrets of a Henna Girl. The book tells the story of Zeba, a British-born Pakistani girl filled with hopes and dreams of a promising future. However, on a holiday to Pakistan with her parents, Zeba’s world is turned upside down when her father forces her to marry her cousin in order to protect the family’s honour.
Fittingly, this Manchester Children’s Book Festival Trailblazer event, organized in conjunction with Manchester Libraries and Puffin Books, is taking place during International Women’s Month. I am reminded of this fact when I enter the school’s reception area. Here the walls are adorned with engraved honour lists of past pupils, dating back to the 1890s. As I wait for Sufiya to arrive, I consider how these young women were also trailblazers in their day, achieving academic success at a time when educated females were frowned upon.
Like the teachers at Whalley Range High School, Sufiya Ahmed is also committed to empowering young women. Indeed, it is at the very core of the BIBI Foundation, which she set up to encourage teenagers from deprived and diverse backgrounds to visit the Houses of Parliament and learn more about the democratic process.
Over lunch in the staffroom I ask Sufiya about her journey from the corridors of Westminster to the halls of Britain’s secondary schools. She pauses to reflect on a long and impressive career; “Before I became a full time writer, I worked as a parliamentary assistant and later as a communications advisor to Harriet Harman during the last Labour government. This was where I met some amazing, very courageous women who were all victims of forced marriages. They were lobbying MPs to help gain more support to reach out to potential future victims. That’s where I discovered the whole issue and I would say that those brave women were really my inspiration for writing the book and being here today. Just listening to their experiences made it very clear to me that this was a story that had to be told.”
Sufiya is certainly not afraid to confront controversial topics; her previous work was a radio play about honour killings. I am keen to know whether there was any hesitancy on her part to write a book for teenagers on the equally contentious issue of forced marriage; “It is a sensitive subject and I was advised by people not to write it because of the potential for a backlash. But I felt very strongly about the subject and I knew that I wanted to approach it the right way. I had a very good relationship with my editor, who understood exactly what I was trying to achieve. Although the main character begins the book as a victim, the overall aim of the story is to empower girls to find the courage to escape from a desperate situation. The other thing I was very careful with was the portrayal of religion. Although my characters are Muslim and the book covers Islam, I wanted to make it clear that forced marriages are not permitted by any religion.”
Coffee cups drained, I then ask Sufiya why she thinks her visit today is so important; “Children need to meet authors and touch them to feel that they are real and not just a name on a book. I think it’s fantastic that the Manchester Children’s Book Festival provides them with this opportunity because it does help to bring books to life and makes children think about where stories come from, how they’re created and inspires them to write their own.”
With lunch over, it’s time for the launch of the book we’ve all been waiting for. There is a real buzz of excitement in the air as we enter the school’s hall to the sounds of girly giggles and chatter ricocheting off its art deco walls. Blogger, Bookwitch, is also here with hubby in tow, to report on today’s event. Then silence, as Sufiya takes to the stage to read an extract from her new novel, followed by a powerful and insightful presentation on her background in parliament and the subject of forced marriages. It is clear that the girls are engrossed and their imaginations ignited when a swarm of hands move frantically through the air, each one signaling a myriad of enquiries.
Asked by home school pupil about what advice she has for budding writers in the audience, Sufiya replies, quite simply, “read.” She herself was an avid reader from the age of 8 and cites Enid Blyton’s books among her favourites as a child. She believes that reading fed her imagination and equipped her with the tools to produce her own work. Sufiya also recommends entering competitions, “Having your work read by strangers is very different from your friends and family reading it. Of course, everyone likes to be praised. However, it’s important, if you’re serious about writing as a profession, to put your work to the test and to receive objective and constructive feedback. This will allow you to grow as a writer and to develop your confidence.”
The interaction doesn’t end there. Several girls from Whalley Range and Chorlton High Schools are lucky enough to be invited onto the stage to try on the many Muslim wedding outfits Sufiya has brought, and to receive a henna tattoo from the author. Music booms through the speakers and the excited girls begin to dance and parade around the hall, cheered and clapped by their friends and teachers. Nevertheless, this gleeful little scene is also a stark reminder that in any religion and culture, a young woman’s wedding day ought to be one of her happiest.
With the presentation and festivities at an end, the girls scamper to the back of the hall to get to the front of the queue to have their newly purchased books signed and to steal a photo opportunity. It’s clear that Sufiya’s advice has not fallen on deaf ears, as many are already beginning to chat about their entries for the All Write! competition.
Rachel Hockey, the Library Resource Manager at Chorlton High School, thinks the afternoon has been a success, “we’ve had a fantastic time. All of the girls I brought here are interested in reading, but I think the subject was really pertinent today. Meeting an author and listening to them talk about why they write is highly inspiring and I know they’re desperate to return to school to begin reading the book and drafting their own creative offerings.”
Laura Upton, librarian at Whalley Range High School, is also excited by the prospects of today’s trailblazer event, “We are very proud to welcome Sufiya Ahmed here today. The girl’s have been looking forward to this and we know that they are keen to read the book. I’d already taken a large number of advanced orders and today I’m hoping I have enough to meet the every growing demand. An event like this presents so many opportunities for our girls and we will certainly be encouraging them to get involved with creative writing workshops and to enter the All Write!competition.”
To keep up to date with Sufiya Ahmed’s work and ideas visit her blog, Sufiya Thinks… If you want to know the Secrets of a Henna Girl, you’ll have to purchase a copy. It is available now in bookstores and online. It comes highly recommended.