Author Huda Al-Marashi: “Love stories dismantle stereotypes”

What inspired you to write this book? You’ve shared on social media that it was a decade-long project: take us through that journey briefly.

Huda: I took my first stab at drafting a memoir at the height of the Iraq War. I knew I wanted to do something to put a face to the appalling death count that was rising every day, and I remember thinking, that maybe if I could introduce people to my family and friends, I could make that number matter to American audiences a little bit more. But after years of revision and some agent feedback in response to my early querying, I realized I needed to put that draft aside and start over. That particular storyline wasn’t working, and deep down, I knew I was avoiding the story that was harder for me to write and discuss—which was this relationship story. 

I wanted to tell this story because I truly believe love stories dismantle stereotypes. The journey to find and keep a partner to share your life with is not just universal and relatable, but it’s also consuming. It doesn’t matter who you are or how amazing everything might be going in other aspects of your life. If your relationships are not going well, you’re struggling. 

There was also the issue of representation. There just weren’t enough love stories that showed young Muslim-Americans, navigating love and relationships, especially for those of us who were trying to go along with the more traditional paradigm. 

When I was younger, I remember thinking that there were no love stories about Muslims because we didn’t have any stories worthy of telling, and I didn’t want another generation drawing that baseless conclusion. I wanted to offer Muslim-Americans, who had found their partner through family and friends, a story where they could see themselves. So many of my Muslim friends, myself included, had felt as if they’d missed out on something by not having had a Western-style romance, and I wanted to show the kind of reckoning that comes from these competing ideals and expectations, and from having your first relationship also coincide with marriage. I find this particular journey of “firsts” so compelling, and I felt that it was worthy of its own attention and conversation. 

But, knowing what I wanted to say and actually getting this book done were separate issues. My children were quite young when I was drafting this, and we moved several times. Twice we renovated homes, thinking we’d finally settled into a place, and so there were stretches of time where I wasn’t getting a lot of work done. I have years of journal entries where I’m fretting about how long this was taking me, convinced that I would never get this project done. 

I think this is how the writing process has to be for the majority of writers. Life never opens up and leaves us big chunks of time in which to write. It’s always a space you have to carve out of an already packed day, and sometimes those spaces are small, an hour here and there, sometimes less, but I do like to talk about how long this book took me because I want other writers, who are struggling to find the space to work, to see that all those disjointed and spread out writing sessions can add up to something.

Your dedication is admirable. Thanks for keeping at it! The book is a beautiful testament to your hard work.

Were you ever concerned throughout the process that the Muslim dating/courtship process itself was evolving too quickly? So many changes have happened in just the last 5-10 years where more and more Muslim Americans are finding their own spouses, with little to no parental input. We have a thriving scene of “halal dating”; Minder, and other matchmaking apps.

Huda: I was very cognizant of those changes as I was writing this, and one part of me wanted to offer my story as a way to capture this pre-internet time period of matchmaking that’s really not happening as much as a way to spark conversation about what we might be losing. It is so socially unacceptable in Western society to admit that you’d ever let your parents be involved in choosing your partner, and so we grasp for these more ‘normative’ love stories to tell our peers. Even the most observant Muslim-American might shy away from admitting they would be willing to entertain a set-up, so then they’ll reach another Muslim-American from a different community, if only to have the story that they met and picked the person on their own. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting complete agency of your choice of partner, I wanted to use my story to bring awareness to the kind of unnamed shame that might be influencing and thereby limiting the choices people are making, and also to ask: What are we running towards? Is it something that is truly better or is it also problematic?

I do think, however, that the apps are, for the most part, a good thing, especially for those who want to find a partner who is also Muslim. There is a population constraint here, and apps help connect people who wouldn’t have had the chance to meet otherwise. What I’d like to see preserved is not the parental or community involvement as much as it is the mindset that goes along with that more traditional path to marriage. There is a kind of pragmatic willingness to take a leap with someone, rather than waiting for the things Western society has told us we have to have, sparks, chemistry, attraction.

And, of course, all of that would be lovely to have, but I think what that particular kind of love story overlooks, is that those reactions may not be a given for everyone. Writing this book, I realized that no matter how much I may have wanted that Hollywood love story, falling in love in that way probably would have never happened for me. It wasn’t modeled for me in my household, and I’m much too in my head for to have ever been smitten in the way we see glamorized in the media. It’s a narrow narrative, and it just doesn’t account for the various personality types and how that might influence the way a person falls in love. I think it’s tragic that there are so many people out there being made to feel as if they had a less worthy or less valuable love story because it doesn’t follow that narrative of a romantic comedy.

There’s also some accountability when you a meet a person through their families. What I’m seeing and hearing more and more, even with the halal matchmaking through apps, is that there is a terrible flakiness that has come along with it. There is so much messaging without calling, and then calling without showing up to meet in person. 

I think apps can give people an illusion of choice that keeps people from taking the person in front of them seriously when there’s a phone, literally buzzing in their pocket, leading them to believe that there are so many other options out there. It’s so much easier to disappear and not follow-up with a person when you are reaching out from behind a screen, and it’s also so easy to overlook perfectly acceptable potential partners in an app because there’s so much other information you get about a person when you meet them in person that you are just not getting from a profile. You see the way a person walks, talks, smiles, and interacts with other people. At least, when families are fostering the introductions, you get to that point of meeting in person faster. 

Let’s go back for a bit to your publishing journey. How was your experience finding a suitable publisher and securing a book deal? Did you find that publishers were open to Muslim, immigrant, traditional perspectives on love and marriage?

Huda:Part of what made this such a long road for me was not just the writing, but landing an agent and then later, getting a book deal. I queried agents for many years before I found the agent that signed me, but I wasn’t querying consistently. I’d always take whatever feedback I was getting from those rejections, and then hole myself back up in revisions, and so sometimes a year or more would pass between the rounds of queries I was sending out. 

When I finally found my agent, she took my book out on submission in the midst of conversations about the Muslim ban. The ban had inspired many campaigns on social media for diverse books and “own voices,” which are books about a marginalized character written by someone who shares that identity. Still, I was disappointed by some of the editorial feedback we got. There was an air of tokenization to a handful of the responses. My publisher had made an offer quite quickly. They got what I was trying to do right away, but it was during our follow-up with other houses, where I heard things, like, “I wish that had been a reported piece about marriage and dating among Muslims in America,” or “This story is too particular, and I’m not sure if an audience will relate to it.” Those few comments stuck with me because I felt like I was being confronted with proof of these problematic ideas that we talk about all the time, but that I didn’t expect to see coming out of the industry that we rely on to be our changemakers. 

Why can’t a story about an Iraqi-American Muslim girl be a universal story? Why can’t an Iraqi-American, Muslim woman be the protagonist we root for, rather than the subject of a journalistic study? 

I think one issue we also need to discuss is that our gatekeepers, agents and editors, are ultimately readers first, and they are choosing to represent what they like and what appeals to them. They’ll be the first to tell you, it’s subjective, and it is. Their reading tastes have been shaped and formed by a lifetime of reading that preceded their arrival in these positions, and I think this alone speaks to why it is so important for children to be exposed to a wide variety of characters in books that are from different backgrounds. It’s not just about Muslim kids seeing themselves represented in literature, but it’s also about all children reading across cultures so that we are training a generation of readers to be comfortable identifying with all kinds of people and experiences.

Of course, there is also a business-side to all of this. If we want publishers to put out books by Muslim authors, then we have to show them that there is an audience out there, purchasing those books, too.

What exactly was the publisher getting at when they said they’d wish this was a reported piece? Were they looking for stats? Or some sort of reporting on how these marriages typically fair?

Huda:Yes, so they were looking for more of a non-fiction book on contemporary Muslim-American communities where I used my own story, and other Muslims’ stories, to offer a commentary on the Muslim-American experience with regards to love and marriage—which would have been an entirely different book when I really wanted to create lasting characters that would tuck into your heart. I wanted to take my readers on an emotional journey, not offer them information. 

Some of this was also timing. Publishing has its own trends, and I’d heard from many agents that a memoir was hard to sell and some of them passed on my book for that reason alone. Others suggested that I fictionalize the story and try to sell it as a novel. I even took a stab at re-writing some of the scenes from a third person perspective, but I found that I couldn’t go through with the switch. 

I really wanted this to be read with the weight of a lived experience. I wanted to use my story as a way to say that these are things we can talk about as a community. We can talk about these expectations that are affecting our relationships; and how hard it is to go from being single to being in your first relationship and also married; and how there is a considerable transition from being a virgin your whole life to entering into a physical relationship; and you’re not alone if you are newly married and not wildly happy like you were promised you would be and the way you imagine your friends are.  I wanted to spur on conversations across generations, for parents to be able to see the kind of things their kids might be wrestling with. 

Now that the book is out, I’m so heartened by the reaction and comments I’m already hearing. I always told myself that it would be worthwhile as long as I made a difference for one reader, and I have no idea how many people this book is going to reach, but I’m so grateful for the readers who have let me know what the book has meant to them. It makes me feel like this entire journey was worthwhile.

You mentioned that it’s important to have a market for these books. What has that been like—Any frustrations? Surprises? And based on your experience now, what would you tell aspiring Muslim writers?

Huda:Truthfully, the book has only been out for a little over a month, and I still don’t know how to gauge the market for my book at all. I’m so thankful any time I hear that someone is reading the book. I don’t know if readers know just how powerful and helpful their recommendations and reviews can be and how truly grateful authors are to have their support. We really are in a partnership with our readers. I can have all kinds of lofty goals about the conversation I wanted to start with this book, but without readers, that conversation is just a monologue.

What I would tell aspiring Muslim writers is first, to build your writing community. Exchange work, get feedback, and support other writers, who will then in turn support you. I know it’s hard not to buy into the scarcity story we can sometimes feel when we are from marginalized groups, that feeling that your book will never sell because this other Muslim author already told your story. But, when we support each other, we create a market, which will make it that much more likely for the next Muslim author to find a home for their book. 

Second, be persistent. It’s a tough business. There is a lot of rejection, and there is no place where you arrive where you’ll stop getting rejections. I’m still getting rejected all the time, for essays I’m trying to place, for coverage to promote the book, but you share your frustrations with your writing-friends in that community you created for yourself, and then you get back to work because your work is always better for the no’s. Feedback stings, but it’s your roadmap. Each time you submit, and you can get some advice of what to improve, you are getting a little bit closer to a ‘yes.’ 

And, that brings me to my third point, which is to always work on your craft. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking you’ve got to hurry and get your story out there because Muslims are in the news now, and we’ve got to combat Islamophobia now, but it will always a good time for a well-told story and excellent writing will eventually find its place. 

In a recent interview with the New Yorker, the famous couples’ therapist, Esther Perel said: 

“[N]ever in the history of family life was the emotional well-being of the couple relevant to the survival of the family. The couple could be miserable for thirty years, you were stuck for life, you married once—and, if you didn’t like it, you could hope for an early death of your partner. Marriage was a pragmatic institution. You need to have it, but, once you’re in it, it’s not a great thing, and certainly not for the women.

And then we added romantic needs to the pairing, the need for belonging and for companionship. We have gone up the Maslow ladder of needs, and now we are bringing our need for self-actualization to the marriage. We keep wanting more. We are asking from one person what once an entire village used to provide.”

Can you comment on this and reflect the ways it intersects with your own message in First Comes Marriage?

Huda:When I was looking back at those tumultuous newlywed years and trying to untangle where those ideas and expectations that had made me so unhappy had come from, I realized part of the problem was the unrealistic notion that your spouse should be your soulmate and your best friend and that they are going to understand you so completely that you’ll never be lonely again. 

I used to have these moments where I’d be experiencing a completely normal bout of human isolation, but because I was newly married, I’d panic. I’d think, if my spouse was really my soulmate, I wouldn’t be feeling this. There’s a line in my book where I’m lamenting this very issue and I say, “Movies and television made it clear that your one true love was supposed to be the salve to your every hurt.”

It’s such a dangerous idea, that there is a person out there who can be your everything, when there is never going to be one person who can save you from the angst of human existence. You will have dark hours no matter how amazing your partner is.

I remember being in a coffee shop and the woman at the table next to me was getting annoyed with this group of men who were playing chess together, and she said something very snarky to me about how they must have left their wives home with the kids. But how does she know that this isn’t the best thing for their wives, for the husband to go out and get some space, and ideally, the women would be doing something together, too, to support each other? We’ve lost this sense that we need a village and a tribe behind every relationship, and that it’s perfectly acceptable and normal for our spouses to just be our spouses and that they don’t have to be our best friends, because we have lots of friends that we are leaning on to fulfill that role.

Now that you’ve been married for some time, what are some concrete ways you implement this more practical outlook on marriage? 

Huda:There’s a trope in Western culture of the “boring married couple” that I find very harmful. It’s far too easy to just surrender to this myth, and say, “Oh well, we’ve been together for so long that we were bound to fall into this rut.” I prefer to think of my marriage as this fascinating story, that contains multiple arc and threads, and the ups and downs are what makes our story together interesting. Our long-term relationships are our opportunities to observe firsthand how long-term human relationships evolve.

Because I’m in a safe, healthy, otherwise completely workable relationship, I’ve taken leaving off the table. I don’t think you can make progress as a couple if you’ve got one foot out the door, even if that foot is only inching its way towards the door in your mind. There has to be some kind of secure foundation to build on, and I know sometimes couples will throw around the threat of leaving in an argument as a way to show that they are serious, but I would suggest couples have ground rules to your arguments. There should be lines that you will not cross, words and things that you will not say. Insults and name-calling, even when said in the context of an argument, can do lasting damage long after you’ve made up.

I understand that my partner’s every trait is good in one setting and not so good in another. I benefit from my partner being very generous with his time, but that also means he’s often running late. Although I still get frustrated when that trait is not working for me, I know that’s not an argument I need to have anymore—with any hope for resolution anyway.

You also have to maintain some kind of regular intimacy. Interpret that how you will, every couple’s needs for physical and emotional intimacy are different, but there has to be some kind of regularly scheduled coming together that renews that bond. And, it’s a fine balance—because spending too much time together isn’t always a good thing, either.

Which brings me to the tribe component we discussed earlier. My girlfriends are a part of the health of my marriage, and I see marital support as an important part of my role as a friend, too. I try to be someone my friends can lean on to talk about their relationships with trust that I will keep what they’ve shared with me in confidence, and hopefully, that sharing allows them to go back to their spouses feeling supported and feeling less alone. 

We’ve had some pretty extensive discussions here on altM on marriage and finding suitable partners. Here’s a quote from Lori Gottlieb’s Marry Him that we’ve reflected on before– can you share your reactions/thoughts?

“Settle! That’s right. Don’t worry about passion or intense connection. Don’t nix a guy based on his annoying habit of yelling “Bravo!” in movie theaters. Overlook his halitosis or abysmal sense of aesthetics. Because if you want to have the infrastructure in place to have a family, settling is the way to go. Based on my observations, in fact, settling will probably make you happier in the long run, since many of those who marry with great expectations become more disillusioned with each passing year. (It’s hard to maintain that level of zing when the conversation morphs into discussions about who’s changing the diapers or balancing the checkbook.)”

Huda:I love this quote, and I read the article that inspired Marry Him when I was drafting my own book, and it really resonated with me. In every aspect of our lives, we know that we can’t have everything we want. And we think it’s ridiculous when people expect it, right? Everybody watches those couples on HGTV’s House Huntersand laughs at their ridiculous expectations—they want a house that is move-in ready, dirt cheap, and walking distance to work! But when it comes to marriage and relationships, we’ve been sold this very limiting ideal, that everything has to be perfect and you should have an almost other-worldly connection with your partner where they are your soulmate and your destiny. 

The language here is other-worldly because that kind of relationship is not of this world. It sets you up for disappointment because married life is so entrenched in this world—this is the person with whom you manage the mundane minutiae of everyday life. Just like Gottlieb says, even this person who you want to be your soulmate is not going to feel like your soulmate when you are negotiating who’s going to deal with a hiring a contractor to address the mold on the ceiling caused by the leaky toilet upstairs—an exciting true story that’s been unfolding in my household over the last weeks.

A writer for The Atlantic praised Muslim comedian, Hasan Minhaj, for his ability to celebrate the cultural specificity of his life in a way that melds with the mainstream; he makes his unique experiences relevant to a broader American audience. Do you think your book sets out to do the same thing?

Huda:I was striving for, at least, the celebration of cultural specificity. I don’t know that I set out to meld with the mainstream. I certainly hope it will appeal to a wide audience, and I love to hear when the book is resonating with more than just Muslim readers. But I did very purposefully try to lay out the layers of my identity. I feel as if post 9/11, Muslims entered the public conversation in a way that we’d never had been before, but we were also being seen and talked about as if we were this monolithic group, and the term “Muslim” became a catch-all that I didn’t feel like I could claim in my memoir. 

I felt like I had to acknowledge all these other parts of my identity. We were Iraqis, and Shias, from this very particular family, and all of us, my parents, my husband and his parents, had our own human qualities that were at play here, too. I didn’t want to set myself apart from the greater Muslim community, but I also didn’t want to suggest that I somehow represented the Muslim experience in America—which is much too vast and various for anyone one person to represent. My Muslim family may not be like another Muslim family because we are all unique individuals, and we deserve to be seen in all our complexity, too. 

Asma Uddin is the founding editor-in-chief of altM.

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