Tell me about your two new books, A Million to One and The Dos and Donuts of Love. One is described as Titanic with an Ocean’s 8 makeover; the second as A pun-filled YA contemporary romance.
A Million to One is about four girls from marginalised backgrounds who board the Titanic in order to steal a jewel-encrusted copy of the Titanic, in the hopes that it’ll lead them to a better life. In the process, they deal with old grudges, new romances, and the fate of the ship.
The Dos and Donuts of Love is about Shireen Malik, a Bangladeshi-Irish girl who enters a reality competition called The Junior Irish Baking Show. When she gets there, she finds herself competing against her ex-girlfriend and a new competitor she’s developing a crush on. She has to try and balance her feelings with the intensity of the competition!
You were born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and have lived in Dublin, from the age of 10. Has that been an enriching experience to straddle two cultures, or more of a challenge?
It was a mixture of both. A lot of people who grew up with a mix of different cultures refer to themselves as “third culture”, because essentially the blend of our cultures leads to us creating our own unique culture, which is a really rewarding thing. Growing up in Ireland, there were definitely a lot of difficulties. I faced discrimination being brown, Bangladeshi, and Muslim. Some of this was subtle, some of this was overt, and I definitely internalised many harmful things.
Ultimately, I grew up to have a healthy relationship with Bengali culture and also with my own identity, being Irish and Bangladeshi, but it was a long, arduous process and needed a lot of self-reflection. It’s an enriching experience now because I had the opportunity to learn and grow as a person, and I had access to community and education.
Time Magazine called your debut, The Henna Wars, one of the best YA books of all time and it won two KPMG Children’s Books Ireland Awards. Your second book, Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating, won the YA Book Prize 2022. Tell me about them and what such accolades have meant.
Both The Henna Wars and Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating are queer romcoms that centre Bengali girls. It’s been amazing to have these accolades specifically for these books because even now there are very few books written by and about Bengali people, let alone about queer Bengali girls. It’s been amazing to see readers celebrate these books, and to see the stories resonate with them.
How important is humour in your work?
Humour is really important in my work, especially since I write for a younger audience. I love balancing some of the heavier themes in my work with lighter moments. This is actually a staple in a lot of South Asian media, like Bollywood, where humour and serious themes go hand-in-hand, often playing off each other. I think this is often how real life is too, and we often use humour as a way to alleviate the more serious things we experience. So, in my work, I wanted to try and do something similar.
Diversity in literature has been important for you as a young person and as a writer. Can you tell me why it matters so much?
The more globalised our world becomes, I think the more important diversity in literature is, especially in literature for young audiences. When I was younger, there were very few books by or about people of colour being published, so as a result, I grew up thinking only books by and about white people could exist. For a long time, I was writing books that centred white people and didn’t feel authentic to me, because I thought those were the only books that were allowed to be published.
Now that there are more books by and about people of colour, I think everybody is benefiting from it: from the kids who are seeing reflections of themselves on the pages, to the kids who are seeing and understanding diverse perspectives and experiences of the world.
What advice would you give to your younger writing self?
When I was younger, I had a lot of ideas, but I didn’t know how to finish writing anything. I loved jumping from idea to idea, without the drive to see a story through to completion. So the advice I would give to my younger self, and to all writers, is to finish your work. It’s the only way to actually get better at writing because it’s only once you’ve completed writing a story (be it a short story, a novel, or anything in-between) that you can sit back and see how to make it better, and through that become a better writer.
What current book, film, TV show and podcast would you recommend?
I would highly recommend fellow Bangladeshi YA books, The Love Match by Priyanka Taslim, and This Is How You Fall In Love by Anika Hussain.
What is the most beautiful book that you own?
I own a beautiful leatherbound copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, which I received as a birthday present many years ago. It’s stunning.