Interview by Julie Bull
Beyond Imposter Syndrome
I spoke to writer and publisher Farhana Shaikh about breaking down the barriers in publishing, supporting writing talent, and doing things that scare you.
She knew that the only way to change this would be to start a literary magazine herself and that is exactly what she did. The Asian Writer was founded in 2007 and is the established voice of British Asian writing, providing a platform for emerging and established Asian writers to showcase their work alongside one another. It might have seemed a challenging prospect for a relatively inexperienced new graduate but Farhana was clearly not easily daunted.
‘I’ve never been one for an easy ride. I had some experience and skill, I had a business mind but also the confidence of someone in their twenties who believes they can do anything.’
The Asian Writer is more than the publication or website. The allied short story prize is now in its sixth year. Previous winners include such luminaries as Deepa Anappara, Mona Dash and CG Menon. For many of the writers she has worked with, it’s this vital first exposure via publication that launches careers.
In addition, the magazine is a platform for a 12-week online writing course for South Asian writers from anywhere in the world. Farhana herself facilitates ‘Becoming a Writer’ and the pleasure she gains from this work and her pride in those who participate in it, are very evident and very close to her heart.
‘There has been so much joy in that process. I see the women (they are predominantly women) developing their craft but also developing confidence. Watching those writers grow and do amazing things has been wonderful.’
Farhana is clear that many writers of colour face far more barriers in getting to a writing course, in starting to write at all, than others. She organizes Leicester Writer Meet Ups and still finds that the room is full of white people. ‘Me being there in a headscarf is not invitation enough,’ she says, and goes on to describe courses she has run in libraries which provide further ways to reach out to those who might not be able to get to other types of writing groups or find a writing community. She is passionate about this work.
Dahlia now publishes up to four titles a year. Farhana knew from the outset it would be a not-for-profit venture. It has developed organically over the time it has been running, as Farhana has developed her business model and her own editorial skills. She’s seen the quality and quantity of submissions rise and rise over this time--‘people have upped their game,’ she says. Since its inception, she has become much clearer that Dahlia is more than a conventional publishing house, and she had found ways to work with more people. ‘It’s about what we can do to build a resilient community of writers.’
While she may have aspirations to double the number of authors Dahlia publishes in any one year, she acknowledges that that isn’t the current priority. Dahlia continues to work small, most authors coming to them via routes other than the standard submissions process. ‘It’s more usual for authors to come to us via wider conversations, short story writers I know about and I suggest a collection for example.’
While there are no plans for a big expansion in the number of titles published, there is an interest in working internationally, in reaching writers and readers from the Indian sub-continent.
Given the range and scope of things that Farhana is involved in via The Asian Writer and through Dahlia, it is easy to forget that she has a busy creative career in her own right, and it is almost impossible to work out how she fits it all in. She writes fiction and non-fiction, has worked on a theatrical piece which has been performed at The Curve, and she continues to develop her own writing in a number of ways.
In 2017, Farhana won the inaugural Travelex/Penguin Next Great Travel Writer competition, having submitted a piece she wrote quickly following her trip to a Turkish Delight factory. This success made her realise she should be submitting more. Further success (along with some inevitable rejections) have followed. She writes feature articles, poetry, short stories and scripts. She was a participant in Curve Leicester Cultural Leadership Programme and has recently published a book bringing together her learning so far. It is based on a number of case studies of cultural leaders. I ask her what her participation in the Curve programme has offered her and she reflects on what lies at the very root of all her projects.
‘I was challenged to ask myself ‘who are you at your core? What’s at the very centre of all the things you do?’ and the answer is that it’s writing and me being a writer. The other thing is I realised was that I often felt like I don’t really belong in a space and so I have worked through that, through the imposter thing, though no doubt it may come back.’
When I ask Farhana to highlight her proudest achievement, it is not surprising, given the breadth of what she does, that she finds it hard to pick a single thing. She eventually highlights her recent individual grant from the Arts Council to develop Middle Way Mentoring, a two year programme designed to support seven Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) writers from the region to further their practice. There is an investment of £33,000 over two years to make this happen.
‘It’s a really beautiful project because the people selected did not necessarily come from a writing background.’
I ask her what inspires her dedication to and pleasure in, supporting new and emerging talent.
‘For writers, especially those starting out, it can be all ‘ it’s all about me’ and that’s ok because we need to protect our writing space but then we also have to think about what we can do for other people and what we could get from that.’
When I suggest to Farhana that we’re finally beginning to make progress in breaking down the white middle class bastion of publishing, she puts me straight. It’s easy to get the wrong impression through social media—that a bigger shift is happening—but that is far from the reality.
‘We’ve not come nearly as far as we need to, we’re regressing if anything because society has continued to become more and more multicultural as publishing has continued to be the opposite. Go to the London Book Fair and you will still see 99.9% of the people are white and middle class.’
The answers, she suggests, lie not in increasing the number of entry-level opportunities, but in putting BAME and working class people in senior leadership positions, opening up new ways of working remotely so that all the jobs are not for London-based applicants. We should guard against the impression given in the social media publishing bubble, that’s it’s all changing for the better. Reflecting on social media as a tool for furthering the cause, she does admit the power that it has, to open things up.
‘The positive thing is that we can connect more easily and find new ways to create and tell our stories and find audiences.’
She sees no particular issue with the label ‘Asian Writer’, nor with equivalent labels for other under-represented groups. It’s not new, she suggests, for publishers to find a ‘hook’ or brand for an author. She says that there is power in owning what makes you the writer you are, and this is part of your story. It’s not the only part though, and we need to get more nuanced about ethnicity and class, for example, so that it’s possible to be Asian and working class, as indeed she is.
‘Where it does become a problem is when people in positions of power start trying to influence what you write on the basis of your background, when they try to force their expectations on you of what Asian writers write about. Then you have to resist. The advice I give people is always write what you want.’
Farhana though, does not want to be put in any box. As she herself points out, at each step of her career, she has challenged herself to do something else, something as she puts it, ‘a bit more scary’. I doubt she’ll be doing any thing other than this for the foreseeable future, so watch this space.
Julie Bull is a writer who lives in South London and Sussex, which sounds much posher than it is. In another life she was a civil servant but now writes full time. Her short stories have appeared in MIRonline and the Retreat West Anthology, The Word for Freedom. She is currently working on a story collection. She is nothing if not nosey, so she finds interviewing people to be a great non-fiction writing opportunity. You can find her @juliebu72