Rashida Tayabali on her debut novel & tackling stereotypes

By Indira Laisram
Rashida Tayabali

Rashida Tayabali is a fourth generation Indian who has lived in different continents. Born in Kenya and settled in Australia now, Tayabali admits to being surprised at how customs and superstitions are still rife and blurred between religion and culture among families who have left India generations ago. Even in Australia, where she moved in 2004, she’s observed how older migrants, in particular, hold on to what they know and are often “less accepting of the country they are in”. Interestingly, living in such close-knit communities has exuded that sense of wanting to tell immigrant stories. This October, she published her first full length novel Life After Ali, which has been inspired by a real-life incident. With that, she has also realised her dreams of becoming an author from a young age. In conversation with Sydney-based writer Rashida Tayabali.

First, tell us a bit about your personal and professional backgrounds.

I was born and brought up in Kenya. In 2004, I moved to Perth to complete my Bachelors Degree in Marketing and Management. I loved Australia so much I decided to settle here. After graduation, I worked in various marketing roles before getting married and moving to Sydney. I continued working in the corporate sector until 2011 when I had my first baby. While on maternity leave, I took a few freelance writing courses from the Australian Writers Centre. I had articles published online and in print in Sydney Morning Herald, SBS, Sunday Life and parenting magazines. After a couple of years of writing feature articles for magazines, I became a copywriter for business.

What inspired you to write your debut novel Life After Ali?

My debut novel Life After Ali was launched on October 6, 2021, the same day my first born turned 10 and it also marked 10 years of my writing journey. Life After Ali was inspired by a true event in my family years ago of a female family member remarrying after her husband had passed away and the way she was gossiped about by the other women and mocked for having remarried despite the fact that Islam encourages and gives full rights to widows to remarry if they wish.

Rashida Tayabali with her book ‘Life After Ali’
You said you wanted to portray migrant stories and challenges through fiction. Do you think the book will dispel some of the stereotypes that people generally hold about Muslims or society in general?

The themes I’ve tackled in the book are not that well-known—like iddah (the compulsory mourning period for widows) and remarriage. I would hope that after reading the book both Muslims and non-Muslims will learn something new. I’ve stayed away from tackling stereotypes and just tried to show a different reality and world through the eyes of the main character, Tasneem. And what it means to be a migrant and Muslim and losing your spouse suddenly. I believe telling stories is the best way to tackle stereotypes.

Is there a happy ending for your main protagonist?

You’ll have to read it to find out!

You are of Indian origin, you were born and brought in Kenya and now you are settled in Australia. What does multicultural mean to you personally, and in your work?

Being multicultural to me means proudly embracing every aspect of my identity in whatever society I happen to live in. Being proud of the fact that I speak multiple languages, of my accent and the way I look at things. These things have made my perspectives much richer and I’m more accepting of differences in people than if I wasn’t multicultural. It also means celebrating the fact that migrants are a brave people. To leave the only country I’d ever known at the age of 21 and be the first girl in my family to travel across the world to study, not knowing anyone, shows the extent of my courage! In my work, it means showing people that there’s another human side to what is often portrayed in the media.

Rashida Tayabali
As a Muslim woman exploring lives and telling stories, do you think there is a challenge for both Muslim women and the publishing industry to create space that Muslim women can tell stories?

There are certainly stereotypes at play. Australia is miles behind the US, UK and Canada which is open to and promoting diverse authors and voices. The Australian publishing industry is catching up slowly. There are more Australian Muslim authors now definitely in the YA (young adult) area than there were even a few years ago. I couldn’t find any authors in my genre. It’s also going to take time for them to understand the cultural nuances of stories and the people writing them. Thank God for self-publishing!

Tell us about your road to publication and self-publishing.

Like any aspiring author, I wanted to be published by a traditional publisher. Unfortunately, when I started looking for similar titles to mine in the multicultural fiction genre I couldn’t find any. Quickly I saw that if I wanted to get my story into the hands of readers, I’d have to do it myself and the self- publishing process appealed to me because it gave me full creative control of my book. So I researched the process, broke it down into steps and then followed these until launch. I wanted to make sure the end result was of the highest quality so I had a manuscript assessment done and hired a professional editor, book cover designer and had it professionally formatted. Since I was putting my name to the book and being a perfectionist, I wanted the story to be the best it could be! I loved every minute of it and plan to self-publish all future books.

Rashida Tayabali
Who are your favourite authors and what habits help you most as a writer?

My favourite authors include; Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Nigeria), Alexander McCall Smith (Britain), Kate Morton (Australia), Tarquin Hall (Britain) of Vish Puri Detective series and Kiran Desai. Their way of writing captivates me, especially their insights into human beings and behaviours.
My habits that help me most are:
* reading widely
* writing quickly and high word counts so I don’t get bored!
* keeping an eye on my end goal so my motivation never dies

What are you working on next?

I’m working on my second book called Finding Aisha, which is about a stay at home mum who leaves everything to go and find herself. Kind of like the desi version of Eat, Pray, Love except it all happens in Australia!

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