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  • Writer's pictureThe Publishing Post

Historical Importance, Representation and Taboos in Sairish Hussain’s Hidden Fires

By Ayman Sabir, Iona Fleming, Katie Farr and Eleanor Bowskill

In a world where British Muslims are often reduced to violent stereotypes in the media (or not represented whatsoever), Hussain was motivated to write Hidden Fires to represent British Muslims positively and authentically. In this and her previous novel, The Family Tree, Hussain humanises the community by providing "counter-narratives to those prevailing stereotypes." Through three generations of the same family, Hussain depicts varying age groups’ responses to the same event in Hidden Fires,  and confronts the stereotype that "unless we're being forced into a marriage or blowing something up, [British Muslims] are not interesting enough to be written about."

Hussain's drive to write about topical taboos lies in her belief that, "to create a better world," everything must be discussed. By addressing challenging topics like the partition, Hussain hopes readers will pick up her book and educate themselves by asking family members or doing research as conversations about such topics should be “welcomed” rather than abandoned – which they might be if such topics aren’t addressed. Hussain’s preference for reading sad books was one of the main influences that helped her craft the sorrowful tone of Hidden Fires, focusing on incredibly sensitive historical events.

Researching the partition was challenging for Hussain. She states that "being brave enough to ask about it is being brave enough to talk about it.” Despite having familial sources such as her grandparents, most of her knowledge about the partition was based on lifelong research. At nine, she first heard about the partition when she watched a Bollywood movie, realising that such matters exist. Her undergraduate dissertation focused on specific forms of “literature of the partition,” which involved researching various novels. Hussain stressed the difficulty of never learning about “Britain's shared history” at school and felt strongly about the current campaign to get the partition on the curriculum. Writing Hidden Fires allowed Hussain's knowledge to be refreshed and ordered in a structured way, so her new novel became a "good introduction to the partition." 

While Hidden Fires primarily alternates between eighty-year-old Yusuf living in Bradford and sixteen-year-old Rubi in Manchester, Yusuf's son Hassan's chapters are scattered throughout. In contrast to The Family Tree, Hussain writes in first person for Yusuf and Rubi, allowing her to access each character's personality better. However, Hassan's chapters are written in third person, providing context to his father's and daughter's backgrounds while avoiding jarring. 

Speech differences make these characters' voices distinct; Hussain notes, "It's a lot of listening." While Yusuf's speech is more "controlled" and "dignified" – he speaks in full sentences with no slang – Rubi's voice is typical of a teenager. Listening to the eighteen-nineteen-year-olds Hussain teaches at university allowed her to capture Rubi's speech patterns and thought process, contrasting Yusuf's. 

Yusuf’s character was heavily inspired by Anita Rani's My Family, Partition and Me: India 1947 documentary. Watching the seventieth-anniversary documentary shocked Hussain because she’d never seen multiple elderly men interviewed about the partition, and seeing how "emotion poured from them" stunned her. She emphasises her sympathy towards this “closed off group” of men, many of whom (like Yusuf) had never been asked about the partition. Yusuf mirrors the “stoic” attitude of those elderly Asian men; Hussain explains that she could see him everywhere in her grandma's neighbourhood after his character was formed. Questions about the "hidden" stories older people keep from us continuously interest Hussain. 

Hussain has been told she's "better at writing characters that are different" from herself. When she began writing The Family Tree, Hussain was a twenty-one-year-old recent graduate, and the idea of "slipping into a different persona" was acutely appealing. Writing Sohail, a male character struggling with drug addiction, was challenging and unfamiliar. In contrast, Zara's perspective often felt too familiar, as she "didn't feel like a character at all" but like writing in a diary that she "didn't want people to read." 

Unafraid to tackle difficult topics, Hidden Fires explores the effects of chronic illness through Michelle, Rubi's mother, who is inspired by Hussain's mother who suffers from chronic pain. Unless people have experienced chronic illness first-hand, they often don't realise "how many things you miss out on," with the unpredictable nature of conditions like fibromyalgia meaning it's impossible to plan. While Hussain was concerned about Michelle becoming too passive of a character, seeing her through her husband's and daughter's perspectives makes her a multi-dimensional character striving to be an amazing mum and wife. Though there is no magical cure for Michelle's illness, reconnecting with her family helps them make the best of their situation.

As a writer of colour, Hussain doesn't feel she has the freedom "to write a good story" or "write to entertain" when there is a "burden of representation" in dealing with marginalised voices, as there is a  need to think carefully about how these characters are portrayed. For example, Hussain struggles to find loving depictions of the relationship between a Muslim father and daughter, as there is usually "an emotional distance between them because they can't find a common ground." Hussain's dislike for this stereotype motivated her to depict a supportive relationship between Zara and her father in The Family Tree.

Hussain still feels some pressure to represent British Muslims in a certain way, with British Muslim women having been both her biggest supporters and her biggest critics. Though it would be impossible to represent the full range of experiences of British Muslims single-handedly, people can understandably be disappointed when they feel they aren't represented properly. Some reviews of The Family Tree have been critical of having an Asian girl swearing, perhaps not wanting to see the "feisty and angry" characters that Hussain writes. Hussain tries to "shut out all the noise" and write stories reflecting her family experiences. She notes the publishing industry's responsibility for this lack of representation, as they’re guilty of "actively seeking out stories that are stereotypical." Hussain avoids this, highlighting that "the more stories there are, the more that there will be something for everyone." 



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