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Locally Writ: Sabina Khan’s ‘Zara Hossain Is Here’ features Muslim LGBTQ+ teen heroine

UPDATED: Tue., April 20, 2021

Sabina Khan grew up reading constantly, but it wasn’t until her 20s that she finally started seeing herself in literature.

“We need to see a lot more books so that everyone can see themselves in the stories,” Khan said. “Not just a certain part of the community, but every child, every reader should be able to find at least one if not many more books where they feel like their lives are reflected on the page.”

Khan knew she wanted to contribute somehow, but it wasn’t until her 17-year-old daughter came out a few years ago that she found the right inspiration. If there was hardly any literature being written about Muslim teenagers, surely there was even less about LGBTQ+ Muslim teenagers. So, she gathered her storytelling skills and set to work.

Since then, Khan has published two young adult fiction novels featuring heroines who are queer and Muslim: “The Love & Lies of Rukhsana Ali” and “Zara Hossain Is Here,” which was released this month. She’ll talk about her latest novel during a virtual gathering of the Northwest Passages Book Club hosted by Mandy Manning, Washington’s 2018 National Teacher of the Year, at 7 p.m. Monday.

For Zara Hossain, growing up bisexual in Corpus Christi, Texas, as a Pakistani immigrant hasn’t been easy. She came to the U.S. with her family as an infant, but, to some of her classmates at the conservative Catholic high school she attends, she’ll never belong. As her family’s visa finalization process drags on and the racist acts of her peers start to escalate, Zara’s situation becomes even more tenuous.

Both of Khan’s novels address the obstacles faced by Muslim teenagers who find themselves living in and between cultures. But Zara and Rukhsana have different struggles with and around their sexuality and religion. Zara’s parents accept her sexuality; Rukhsana’s parents do not. Rooted in homophobia, Islamophobia or anti-immigration sentiment, Rukhsana and Zara are continually contending with discrimination.

Khan’s novels come to her in rounds of inspiration. “I just have these bursts of writing where I write pages and pages, words and words and words, and then I can’t write anything for a couple of days until I have another kind of outpouring,” she said, explaining how the first draft of “The Life and Lies of Rukhsana Ali” was finished in 16 days. “I was writing 10 to 12 hours a day in a sort of frenzy … because I was so afraid that if I didn’t put it all down on paper, it would just disappear.”

She tried writing an outline for “Zara Hossain Is Here.” “I don’t think I looked at it again until after I finished the book,” she said. “And then I laughed through everything because the book was nothing like what I had outlined.”

The characters come first, “long before I ever write a single word,” she said. Then the plot starts coming to her like scenes in a TV show. “I’m very visual in that way,” she said. “I literally see them playing in my head; I can see the characters and their body language and their facial expressions. Then I translate it all into words on a page.”

The stories and characters come easily, she said, because they’re heavily based in reality, on experiences that she and her family and friends have had throughout their lives. “They feel the feelings I had and know the people I was surrounded by when I was growing up,” she said.

Khan hopes that her stories empower her readers, especially those like her young protagonists. “I want them to know that no matter what their background is or what they’re insecure about that their feelings are valid and that what is important to them is important,” she said. “They have the right to feel safe in their space … and a right to push back.”

To aspiring authors, Khan offered the following advice: “It sounds trite, but don’t give up. There’re so many reasons that people will give to try to shut you down. But if you have a story in your heart, and you want to tell it, do it. It’s not going to be easy, but, if you just write the story, eventually it will find the readers who are meant to have it.”

“Zara Hossain Is Here” is available at Wishing Tree Books and Auntie’s Bookstore.

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