Fourteen was an age of extraordinary change for Lamya H: It was the year she first read the Surah Maryam, the story of the only woman named in the Quran, the virgin mother of the prophet Isa. It was the year she started wearing hijab. And it was the year she realized she had a crush on the female economics teacher at her all-girls school.
In her stunning debut memoir, Hijab Butch Blues (Dial Press, Feb. 7), the author, now 36 and writing under a pseudonym, unspools a tender, triumphant coming-of-age by deftly interweaving stories from the Quran. “As the author examines her evolving relationship to her religion,” Kirkus writes in commendation, “she also vibrantly explores what it means to live with an open-minded, open-hearted activist seeking to change the world for the better.”
Lamya H recently spoke with Kirkus via Zoom audio. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
How did Hijab Butch Blues come to be?
In some ways I’ve been writing this book my whole life. Writing [my story] came through reading all these stories from the Quran. They lived with me, these characters that I write about. They accompanied me through my entire life, and I’ve thought a lot about them—the challenges they've been presented with, their decisions. As a kid, I always thought of them as perfect, but the older I got, the more complicated everyone started to feel. I started finding solace in their imperfections. The retellings just sort of flowed as I recognized the ways I had been relating them to myself this whole time. Then it was just a matter of putting it on the page.
The narrative of your life gracefully flows back and forth through time. In Chapter 1, we see you at age 14, the year you read the Surah Maryam for the first time. It changes you in profound ways.
It is the same year I started wearing hijab. Those things were both connected and not. [Wearing hijab] was something that I had been wanting to do for a really long time but just hadn’t quite figured out my relationship to it. And thinking about Maryam as this complicated figure—someone who is supposed to be this perfect figure is actually sad and alone in ways that I was, too, when I was 14. I remember feeling like she was a real person I could have been friends with, a person I could have talked to about what I was going through. Something about that made it possible to wear hijab, because hijab didn't have to be this perfect thing. It could be messy, it could be something that I figured out for myself. It could be something that didn’t look like what wearing hijab looked like for everyone else.
Last year I interviewed Harvey Fierstein about his memoir, I Was Better Last Night, and he shared the guidelines he tried to follow while writing his memoir: He tried not to lie. He tried to be kind. And he tried to tell the story as he remembered it happening. Did you have any such guidelines?
OK, first of all, I wish I had those guidelines. They’re such good guidelines. For me, writing was an exercise in feeling the feelings I hadn’t let myself feel. To move through them and to process them. When I thought back on the memories and the various incidents that I talk about, I tried to return to—and really sit in—what I was feeling at those times. I’m someone who came to feelings very late in my life. This whole [idea of] feeling feelings in your body blew my mind. I feel like I just realized this four or five years ago, and I’m just like, wait, what? This has been here my whole life? It’s just getting inconvenient now, because I feel things like I feel happy, I feel sad. It’s terrible, but it’s also great. As I was writing, I felt like I could remember and access those feelings in ways I really couldn’t when I was younger, when I was just trying to survive and make it and had to separate myself from the feelings in such tangible ways.
I will be remiss if I don’t mention the title of this book and ask whether it’s a shoutout to Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues.
So, I went back and forth on the title a lot, because titles are the hardest part of books. How are you supposed to choose one concept, one thing, and use it as a title? I don’t know how other people do it. But for me, it was absolutely 100% inspired by Stone Butch Blues, and I think the book is in conversation with that book and with Leslie Feinberg. I thought a lot about queer ancestors, people who paved the way for us not just to write books, but to exist. Stone Butch Blues is one of my favorite books, so beautiful and so timely still. It’s been decades since it was written, and it still feels so intersectional—even before that word was a thing. There are multiple identities at play, multiple solidarities in play, and so much hope and beauty and freedom in that book. I wanted to write a book that felt like it explored identities in similar ways.
You write about this in the book, but would you please speak a little bit about your decision to write under a pseudonym?
When I first started writing essays and articles [in 2010], I had written under a pseudonym because it can be really hard to write from multiple identities about things that people don’t understand. It’s interesting, because recently people do this thing where they’re like, oh, but things are better for queer people now, things are better for Muslims now, things are better. Where is that coming from? Do they not read [the news]? I value my privacy, I value my safety, and I value the safety of those I love—so it was important to me to write this under a pseudonym. What’s also great about writing under a pseudonym is it allows you the freedom to really express yourself. It felt very expansive to me, in terms of what I could talk about, what I could critique. I’m able to talk about certain things because I can protect myself in this particular way. And a lot of people in my life and my community know that I write under a pseudonym, so it still feels like I’m accountable.
Craftwise, what’s your proudest achievement?
I’m not trained as a writer, so one of the things that it took me a while to figure out is how to tell stories in a nonlinear fashion. I read a lot, too, and the jumping around can feel challenging, because you have to keep track of things. Learning how to do that in ways that guided the reader and then really clued in the reader to where I was geographically, chronologically—what had happened before, what had happened after—was probably my favorite part of writing this book.
Editor at large Megan Labrise hosts the Fully Booked podcast.