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In Conversation With Abāyo House: “I Do Not Place My Hopes in the Traditional Publishing Industry to Accommodate Rarely Heard Voices. ”

by in Careers on 1st May, 2023

In 2020, following the murder of George Floyd, there was a surge in publishing requests for books by Black authors. Subsequently, the popularity and conversation stirred by #PublishingPaidMe, saw a rise in mentorship opportunities and prizes centered around books by underrepresented books. By the end of the year, The New York Times published a visual article depicting just how white the publishing industry remains.

Nearly three years on, and it might seem that there are more books out in the world by Black and Muslim authors, but the story is not as rosy as it sounds. Publishing continues to control the narrative, choosing what stories by Black and/or Muslim authors suit the agenda they aim to portray. ‘You should write joyful stories’ because that’s what they want, since race and islamophobia conversations are now out of fashion. 

At the end of 2022, while compiling a publishing showcase for Sapelo Square, of books by Black Muslim authors published in the last two years, I was reminded of how pressing this issue remains. I also found that several Black Muslim authors resorted to alternative ways to get their book out in the world such as self-publishing or creating their own independent publishing house. 

I sat down with Juweria Yusuf, one of the four Somali-Canadian sisters who started their own publishing house, Abāyo House, in 2020. One of the sisters, Aisha, had completed her young adult mystery novel – Race To The Finish Line – at the age of 19, but struggled to secure a publishing deal via the traditional route. The four sisters decided to take matters into their own hands and create space for themselves. 

Juweria and I talk about all things publishing, what it’s like working with siblings, authors who inspire her, the ways in which the Muslim community can support them, and much more. She also shares some of the books on her reading list!

Can you tell us more about the journey to starting your own publishing house?

Inspired by Toni Morrison’s quote: “if there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it,” Aisha, my sister and one of the founders, started her book, at age 15, after becoming fed up with the lack of representation and diversity in the books she read. She also wanted to change the negative portrayal of Muslims and especially Muslim girls and women in literature. 

Her book, Race to the Finish Line, tells the story of Aaleyah, a 17-year-old girl who moves from Canada to a small town in the U.S. and must navigate the challenges of racism and isolation as she uncovers a dark secret that threatens her and her family. Along the way, she finds strength and resilience in the face of adversity, and she learns the importance of standing up for what she believes in.

Aisha queried several agents who emphasized and required diversity and #ownvoices, but was met with rejection after rejection with agents expressing that they were not confident they could sell/represent her story as it deserves to be. However, we weren’t about to let her story go untold, so with Allah’s help and permission, we came together and started the process of publishing her manuscript which was published on March 12, 2021.

Since then, alhamdulillah we published 5 more books, as well as 2 books written by 2 fifth-grade classrooms, and we have more books on the way inshaAllah!

That’s amazing! I love that you decided to create space when they refused you room at the table. I also love your solidarity in coming together for your sister. With the help of the community, we can work towards creating the change we want. With that being said, running a publishing house cannot be easy. What are some challenges you have faced since starting?

Embarking on this publishing journey definitely had a steep learning curve, but Allah helped us and guided our every step. There are different stages to transform a manuscript into a book, from the editorial process, to the formatting and layout, to the cover design and finalizing for print. Each stage required a learning and application process and, for the most part, it was quite enjoyable. However, what made it challenging was the lack of easily accessible information. Finding relevant information and learning took the most amount of time and energy, and when we couldn’t find a suitable blueprint to follow, we created our own methods and systems.

I find it strange that for something as global as publishing, it’s quite difficult to figure out the steps on your own, and I wonder if this also stems from the gatekeeping that takes place in the industry. I love to hear that you found the process enjoyable, and I can’t help but wonder if it’s because you work with your siblings. What has it been like working together?

Alhamdulillah it’s been a real blessing to work with people you know and trust intimately. It definitely took an adjustment period to learn how to be co-workers and business partners on top of being siblings and living together. We learned so much about ourselves and each other, and we experienced growth and maturity both individually and collectively.

We are all passionate writers and storytellers, so our visions were already closely aligned, and that made working together so much easier and enjoyable. Storytelling and publishing books is a dream we all share, and that’s a driving force that helps us keep pursuing this dream.

I absolutely love to hear this. I’m not a fan of the narrative ‘never do business with family and friends’. I think if it’s a relationship of understanding and trust, it could work. Beyond this beautiful relationship, what has been the highlight of doing this?

Every time we are able to publish a new book – with the help of Allah – is a major highlight. Publishing a book from beginning to end takes time and can be taxing, but holding the final printed copy is truly the best feeling, and makes us want to do it all over again. 

Another major highlight is co-authoring and publishing a collaborative book with my sisters called: Dear Abāyo, it be like that sometimes. It’s a collection of poems, love letters, memories, lessons, and intimate recollection of the growing pains of Somali and Muslim womanhood.

Finally, a third major highlight was having the opportunity to work with two grade 5 classrooms in Qatar and publish their books, earning the title of published student-authors.

Wow, Abāyo House has a lot going on! May Allah continue to instill His Barakah in your work and grant you all that you need to continue to undertake this beautiful, blessed mission. Ameen. So alongside your faith, what keeps you going?

Our passion for storytelling, writing and inspiring other writers and future authors, as well as lots of dua is what keeps us going.

What books would you like to see more of?

I would like to see more books from voices and stories that are underrepresented in the literary world. I want to see books written by people who look like me—Muslim, Somali, African, women who share my values and worldview writing on various topics.

Can you share a few authors who inspire you and why?

The authors that inspire me are authors that I know, have had the privilege of working with, and the pleasure of meeting. One such author is my sister Aisha who worked tirelessly to turn her dream book into reality, and it made me proud to witness as a big sister. 

I also had the privilege of working with Sara Hatoum who authored her debut children’s book: A Change of Heart published by Abāyo House. Her book is based on her experience with heart disease and how it impacted her life and loved ones. Sara’s book means so much to me not only because of the story, but because of who she is as a person. She was resilient, professional and determined to see her book published amidst her dire health complications. Working with her taught me so much and I’m forever grateful.

Another author who deeply inspires me is Abdulahi Hassan. He reached out to us in the early stages of writing his now published memoir: “Speaking My Truth”, which details Abdulahi’s experience trying to lead a normal and fulfilling life despite being born with a physical disability called Cerebral Palsy. Regardless of the daily struggles he faces physically and mentally, he is slowly learning to speak his truth and taking control of his own narrative one step at a time with a single beautiful smile. Abdulahi spreads kindness, words of affirmation and positivity wherever he goes. He was and is our biggest supporter and a constant motivator for us to keep moving forward.

Thank you for sharing, I’ll be adding their books to my reading list! What are you currently reading?

“A Bedouin Dies in the City And Other Works” by Muna Abougoush and “Ramadan Reflections: A guided journal” by Aliyah Umm Raiyaan 

Next in queue are: Samira Hussein’s, “The Queendom of Araweelo: The Golden Age and The Era of Return” and Ayaan Mohamud’s, “So You Think You Know Me.”

What books can people expect from Abāyo House in the future?

People should expect books that are authentic, inspiring, uplifting and which align with our faith and values. They should expect stories that capture complex human experiences in a real and humane way without compromising our values and faith.

How can people submit to you?

Currently we are working on capacity building to accommodate people’s publishing needs. We are a very small team and the demand is high – which we did not expect. So our priority is expanding and building a system where we can help as many authors as possible through our publishing services. We’ll announce when submissions will open via our websitesocial media and in our newsletter. People can look out for those inshaAllah.

In what ways can the Muslim community support Abāyo House?

By supporting our authors through buying their books and leaving reviews on pages like Goodreads, Amazon or wherever they purchase their books from. 

They can also join our online communities via social media and subscribe to our newsletters. Your prayers are also needed and appreciated!

What are your thoughts on the publishing industry as it stands?

I am not impressed with the traditional publishing industry. It’s a highly gatekept and heavily tight-lipped industry with secrets kept very close to the vests of industry elites. Their “diversity and representation” promises and commitments are underwhelming to say the least. It’s an industry that presents itself as progressive and future-forward, but in reality it is the contrary.

I do not place my hopes in the traditional publishing industry to accommodate rarely heard voices. Rather all of my hopes and support are in indie publishing, hybrid publishing and self-publishing industries. Times have changed, and there are a lot more tools available for individuals to self-publish their works or even establish their own publishing company.

What advice do you have for a Muslim woman who may be considering starting an independent publishing house?

Absolutely do it! Muslim women are needed in the publishing industry to take up space, fill the gap and meet the demands of emerging authors who have been restricted or outright denied access in the mainstream book world. It’s imperative for Muslim women to be the champions and carriers of their own stories from the beginning to the end of their book formation. The emails we get tell us there’s so much need for publishing services, and if there are any sisters who are thinking about establishing a publishing company, I highly encourage them to pursue it. 

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Suad Kamardeen

Suad Kamardeen

Suad Kamardeen is a British-Nigerian Muslim writer, editor, engineering graduate and a Creative Writing Masters student at the University of Oxford. She is also a founding editor at WAYF journal. She recently launched Qalb Writers Collective, a platform and community dedicated to helping Black and/or Muslim women finish their novel manuscripts and get ahead in the publishing world. She is committed to documenting histories and cultures, as well as impacting people’s lives positively through storytelling. Her young adult novel, Never Enough, won the SI Leeds Literary Prize 2022, and her adult novel was shortlisted for the Stylist Prize for Feminist Fiction 2021. Her writing has also appeared in Bad Form Review, Sapelo Square and The Unheard Stories anthology. You can find her on Twitter/IG: @suadkamardeen