We first met Nura Maznavi and Ayesha Mutta at our Pitchapalooza during San Francisco’s legendary LitQuake. Lots of great writers pitched lots of great books that night. But when Nura pitched her anthology revolving around the love lives of Muslim-American women, we were blown away. She took charge of the room like a seasoned professional, she was funny, charming, articulate, and she had that indefinable It that makes people go: Wow! Plus, the book was so timely, so valuable, so necessary when the world is trying desperately to move from combative intolerance to respectful inclusion. From war and terrorism to peace and understanding. We helped them develop their proposal, hone their pitch, and when the time was right, we introduced them to a fantastic publisher who does exactly the kind of book they wanted to write. This is a mistake so many writers make. They don’t get their book into the hands of the person who is most likely to love, represent and/or publish it. In this case, that publisher was Laura Mazer at Soft Skull. As we suspected, she fell in love with the proposal, and offered them a contract. Right place, right time, right stuff. Nura and Ayesha gathered 25 Muslim-American women writers, and lo and behold, their pitch is now a book. Love InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women came out last week, and already they’ve had a feature in the New York Times written about them, and the demand has been so large, they sold out of the first printing practically before the book was even out.
THE BOOK DOCTORS: So, this must be a very exciting time, congratulations, we’re so excited for you.
NURA & AYESHA: Thanks, it is. We worked so long and so hard on this book, and there were so many times when we were sure it would never happen, so to have all this great response been fantastic
TBD: So many writers don’t consider who their audience will be, or in fact if there is even an audience, before they write their book. Why did you write your book, and why did you think there would be an audience for it is?
N&A: People are fascinated by Muslim women, but we didn’t see ourselves or our opinionated, independent and intelligent friends reflected in media stories, TV plotlines or movies. We decided this was the perfect opportunity to raise our voices and begin telling our own stories. And what better stories to tell than love stories? As Muslim women, our roadmap to love may be unique, but the destination is universal.
TBD: Most writers don’t understand how important a pitch is. It’s what a writer uses to get an agent and/or a publisher, it’s what the publisher’s marketing team (if they have one) will send out to the media, what the sales team will use to get bookstores to carry your book, what will entice readers on your author page, and on the back of your book, it’s what booksellers will tell customers when they’re looking for a book like yours.
N&A: Exactly! That’s why we spent so much time writing the pitch and practicing it aloud, to make sure it flowed well, that it really displayed what was unique and valuable about our project.
TBD: We always tell people to pitch their book as often as possible. To friends and family of course, but to your mailman, your waitress, your priest, total strangers, whomever. Every time you pitch your book, it’s an opportunity to test market your product. To figure out what works and what doesn’t, and how to make it better. And we meet a shocking number of writers who are afraid to talk about their book because they’re scared someone will steal it. Or hate it. But if you don’t tell anybody about your book, there’s a good chance it will and up just being a file buried in your computer. And you never know who’s going to be friends with somebody in publishing. That’s how David got published. He told an old friend about his book. Unbeknownst to him, her goddaughter was a literary agent. She took him on as a client. Then she married him.
N&A: That’s so romantic!
TBD: In a very book-nerdy way.
TBD: Since you won Pitchapalooza with your kick-ass pitch, go ahead, lay it on us, what’s your book about?
N& A: Love InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women is a groundbreaking collection of 25 writers speaking openly about love, relationships, sexuality, gender, identity and racism for the first time. Everyone seems to have an opinion about Muslim women, even (especially!) those who have never met one. We thought it was about time you heard directly from Muslim women themselves. You’ll be captivated by these provocative, funny, moving and surprising stories — each as individual as the writers themselves.
TBD: What made you decide to pitch the idea at our Pitchapalooza?
N&A: Our book proposal was dead in the water, publishers were unwilling to take a chance on this book. When we heard about LitQuake Pitchapalooza in September 2010, we thought it might be an opportunity for us to go public with our hunch that our book’s simple but intriguing concept — American Muslim women’s lives and loves, told for the first time by the women themselves — would have a broad appeal. Pitchapalooza helped us refine our message and hook. The judges’ feedback was invaluable in developing our book proposal. And the audience was so excited about the premise that we knew we’d been right about its appeal!
TBD: What are some of the biggest misconceptions about American Muslim women, dating, and sexuality?
N&A: Muslim women’s lives and sexuality have been politicized by both non-Muslims and Muslims for centuries. On the one hand, we’re seen as oppressed, submissive, and voiceless, and on the other we’re asked to live within a limited definition of the “good Muslim girl”. Neither of these paradigms allows us to celebrate our personal lives, which are full of joy, creativity, beauty, challenges, doubts and mistakes. Both extremes seek to box us into a narrow “real Muslim woman” frame, but by telling our own stories, we are revealing a reality that is far more complex and compelling.
TBD: What were some of the challenges in putting together an anthology with all these women?
N&A: Editing was the most challenging and most rewarding experience of all. We spent a lot of time supporting our writers in taking their stories to the place of honesty and vulnerability that resonates with readers. And, through the process of editing, we developed wonderful relationships with each writer. We deeply love and respect them all!
TBD: Are you afraid that some fundamentalist Muslims will take offense at your book?
N&A: Fundamentalists certainly aren’t limited to Muslims, as we saw with the recent controversy generated by a fringe group in Florida over the TLC show All-American Muslim! There are some people on both sides who want to keep Muslim women tightly inside a box. That said, a filmmaker friend of ours visited over 200 US cities recently and brought back this message: People are tired of the politics of fear and are hungry to connect with each other in more meaningful and compassionate ways. We believe her, and we believe that the overwhelming majority of Americans are going to welcome and be excited by this book for that very reason. Any book is going to have its critics, but we’re confident that most people are going to celebrate these unique, thought-provoking and beautiful voices.
TBD: What’ve been some of the difficulties in dealing with the publishing world?
N&A: A Pitchapalooza judge said that large publishers are leery of taking risks on unknown writers or an untested market.
TBD: That’s why I thought Soft Skull would be perfect for you.
N&A: Absolutely. They’re a independent, cutting-edge publisher, and they respected our context and viewpoints on everything from the stories to the cover of the book, which can be a contentious and difficult issue for writers of color. In fact, the cover is a wonderful example of our partnership: The conventional image on most books about Muslim women is of a veil or veiled woman, even when it has nothing to do with the story or writer. After we explained why that was inappropriate, we found a gorgeous, novel and provocative image to use instead: lingerie! The lingerie strewn across the bed is a metaphor for the book: Muslim women revealing their most intimate thoughts and experiences to you.
TBD: What do you hope your book will communicate to the world?
N&A: We are proud to offer this book as our contribution to contemporary, multicultural American literature. We believe these stories will start conversations in families and between communities about the similarities that bind us together, and the differences that enrich us. We hope that this book inspires dialogues in the American Muslim community, particularly among women, who have been waiting a long time to have these discussions. We’re so ready to engage with each other! Regardless of our differences, we can choose to interact with each other in a compassionate and respectful way. By reading these provocative, funny and moving stories, you’ll discover that what we all have in common is the desire to love and be loved for who we are.
Ayesha Mattu & Nura Maznavi are the co-editors of the anthology, Love, InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women” (Soft Skull Press, 1/24/12). Facebook. Twitter. Amazon.