I have been obsessed with books since I learned how to read. I’ve been obsessed with books of every genre. Books about adventure, mystery, romance...really, everything under the sun. And when I was younger, books were a way for me to navigate the world around me. As a Bangladeshi Muslim immigrant in Ireland, I felt intensely alone in so many of my experiences. But books gave me a way to escape, to understand worlds that I’d never had any insights to.
There was just one major problem: none of the books I read had characters who looked like me, or had experiences that I had. So, while I loved being whisked away into different worlds and into the heads of different characters, I didn’t stop feeling alone. My loneliness instead simply transformed into a simmering self-hatred.
I learned from my beloved books that kids like me didn’t get to exist in stories, and so for years I wrote myself out. I wrote stories about white characters, straight characters, non-Muslim characters. Characters who didn’t look like me, didn’t sound like me, had absolutely nothing in common with me. And in real life I tried to distance myself from my own culture, religion, ethnicity. Not because I didn’t love all of those things about myself, but because those parts of my identity felt like obstacles to myself and my dreams.
The experience of coming back to writing about characters who look like me, who share my culture, religion, sexuality was a difficult one. It meant having to unlearn years and years of ideas ingrained both in myself and in people all around me. But one of the things that helped me, and still helps me, is the rise in diversity in books. Books were my first love, my first way of relating to the world, of escapism, and so it was books and stories that finally helped me realise that I don’t have to distance myself from important parts of my identity in order to be myself, or to achieve my dreams.
How It All Blew Up by Arvin Ahmadi is perhaps the first book I read which authentically and beautifully represented the queer Muslim experience. It's a story about family – both the queer family you sometimes have to find to make a place for yourself in this world, and the family you have by blood, who don't give up on you even when you may think they have. It's definitely a book that would have helped me feel less lonely when I was younger, because it helps me feel seen now.
A book like The Sound Of Stars by Alechia Dow takes so much of our real world and creates a brilliant science-fiction story, that is equal parts fun and escapism, as it is serious. Not only is it a sci-fi book which stars a Black sapphic main character, but it's also a story that deftly navigates colonisation and oppression in an alternate version of our world where aliens exist. At the same time, it weaves in real-world tensions that exist today. Having a book like this that not only engages with politics and features queer characters of colour, but is also about two kids who love books and music just as I did as a teen, would have meant the world to a younger me. It would have helped me feel seen, but also been a source of escape.
In a similar way, Girls Of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan explores some incredibly heavy topics in a fantasy world. But it also focuses on the sapphic relationship between its two main characters and positions the hard realities of their oppression against the power and affirmation that their love brings...not just for themselves, but in order to fight their oppressors and to bring justice to their world. Seeing queer characters of colour whose love is not a weakness but strength would have been incredibly affirming.
The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta is one of the best books I've ever read. Not only does it tell a powerful story about its biracial gay main character, but it's ultimately a story all about self-acceptance. It's something that I believe all teens, but especially queer teens, would benefit from reading, and certainly a younger me would have loved this book with all her heart.
As a young teen finding her footing in feminism, Cinderella Is Dead by Kalynn Bayron is a book that would have eased my transition. For a long time, I only understood feminism as it catered to a very narrow spectrum of women: white, middle-class, able-bodied, cis, straight...but there is so much more to what true feminism should be. Something that caters to all the experiences of women and other marginalised genders. Cinderella Is Dead is about two queer Black girls who team up to fight the patriarchy which uses the story of Cinderella is their fantastical land to oppress and harm women. Despite its tackling of serious issues, it's a fun fast-paced book that delves into what it means for women to rise up and fight their oppressors. A story that many young girls need, and one that I certainly could have used.
Lastly, I think the books that I am writing would have been immensely helpful to my younger self, who was trying to navigate being this very specific identity that nobody else seemed to have. Being Bangladeshi and Irish, queer and Muslim, and many other things outside of that too. I often write thinking of the books that I didn’t have when I was younger. The stories that might have helped shape me differently. That may have helped me love myself and who I was at a younger age rather than deep into my adulthood. So that’s why I write the books that I do. The ones that give queer brown girls their happy endings, even if they don’t always look like the happy endings we may expect.
Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating by Adiba Jaigirdar is published by Hodder’s Children’s Books in paperback, at €7.99