Day one of the Festival saw experienced political activist turned children’s author, Sufiya Ahmed, visit Manchester Metropolitan University’s Geoffrey Manton building to share her tips on becoming a published author and talk about her debut novel, Secrets of the Henna Girl.
Prior to becoming an author, Sufiya’s career in marketing and politics exposed her to various new experiences, enabling her to discover her true passions. She started out working for an advertising firm, which allowed her to travel across the world, visiting parts of America, Asia and Europe. Following this, she went on to work in Parliament, where she met members of a lobbying group who campaigned against forced marriages.
Inspired by these women’s stories of courage against adversity, Sufiya wrote Secrets of the Henna Girl. The book deals with the controversial topic of forced marriage, based on the experiences of a fictional 16-year-old girl called Zeba. Although harrowing, Zeba’s tale is ultimately one of hope and empowerment. Sufiya hopes to convey the message that it is possible for women to make a change and break free of forced marriages: “The story is about how she finds the courage to come back home”, Sufiya said.
Although focused on women’s rights, Sufiya’s talk also touched upon aspects of her experience as a writer. Sufiya explained how she conveys a sense of place to her readers – despite having sometimes never visited her fictional destinations – and shared her experiences of working with publishing houses: “There’s absolutely no point sending anything to anyone unless it’s done to the best of your ability.” Publishers rejected Sufiya three times before she was successful. On meeting some of her readers, Sufiya said:
“I think it’s really important to reach out and meet your readers. It’s also important to give them a chance to ask about the writing process so they can learn about it. I think the lesson I’m trying to communicate is that despite taking fifteen years to get published I didn’t give up. It’s important to keep plugging away.”
Many students local to Manchester attended the event, including pupils from Whalley Range 11-18 High School, The Lowton Church of England High School, Canon Slade School, and Smithills School. The event was very audience-friendly, encouraging students to test their knowledge of women’s rights and share their opinions. Sufiya’s talk ended with a short Q & A session and a book signing.
A further highlight was the prize book draw. Mohima Ali, a Year 7 pupil at The Lowton Church of England High School, won a signed copy of Secrets of the Henna Girl. Mohima was delighted with her prize and said: “It was really surprising to win…I’m gonna read [the book] now!”
A group of eight pupils from Whalley Range 11-18 High School then met with Sufiya to discuss women’s rights in modern day Britain. Sufiya was keen to hear their thoughts on forced marriage – particularly how it’s addressed on the school curriculum. Year 10 pupil, Aala Alshami, said: “I thought it was really interesting to meet Sufiya Ahmed and hear about forced marriage because it could happen to anyone.”
Overall this thought-provoking and at times challenging event encouraged pupils to think about the author’s artistic licence and opened their eyes to the harsh every day realities behind the books they read.
– FM & SA