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Marching to the Beat of Her Own Drum

Hiba Masood Ramadan

We caught up with Hiba Masood, author of Drummer Girl for her views on writing, the drama of being a writer and crossing cultures with words. 

Can you share a little about where did you grow up and what inspired you to become a writer?

I was born and raised in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia and anyone who has lived in Saudi in the 80s will understand what I mean when I say: it is the starkness of that life that probably made me a writer! They say creativity breeds where there is emptiness and that probably captures what my early childhood was like.
In the 80s, there was no TV, barely any malls, no parks, the odd toyshop and not much of a social life. There was long afternoons of not having anything to do, and so my siblings and I filled it with a lot of reading, playing, and on my part, writing.
I've spent hours of my childhood holed up in my room writing startlingly dramatic short stories and mournful poetry about things like "The Long Winter", "An Early Death", "His Wild Rose" - you know, snow, suicide and boyfriends - all things I had absolutely no personal experience with. But what do you know? All that writing eventually made me a writer.
I grew up, (somewhat), started a Facebook memoir page called Drama Mama and then one day sat down and wrote this book called Drummer Girl, about a girl who wanted more from life than what was on offer.

What was the the inspiration behind the story Drummer Girl?

When I was living in Dubai, about two years ago, my friends and I started a writing club. We were all moms of young kids, bursting with creativity and the desire to change the selection of Islam-centric reading material available to our kids for story time.
Out of one club assignment, where I had just a few hours before I was meant to read any of my work aloud to my friends, Drummer Girl was born. I realize that doesn't sound very inspiring... no story of a hardworking artist suddenly being struck by brilliance, researching into the night and then working feverishly on a manuscript, honing it, editing, re-editing over the years and then clutching it to my heart in search of a publisher...nope.
I randomly read an article on BBC related to this drummer tradition, and just banged out the whole story. I think it only went through one edit round before being picked up by Daybreak Press and here we are. Truly just a wild, lucky break, alhumdulillah.

We love that Drummer Girl told a story in the context of Ramadan, whereas most books end up trying to explain Ramadan - Was this a conscious choice on your part? 

Nothing in this whole story was a conscious choice. It just came out the way it came out. That being said, one of the reasons I found myself, as a mother and a storyteller, not enjoying a lot of the Islamic picture book offerings was precisely this, that they were too explain-y, too preachy to really be enjoyable.

And while there is definitely a need, and place for books that teach/explain what Islam is (both for young Muslim and non-Muslim audiences) and all respect for the books that do so well.

I feel there is also a pressing need for interesting books that are simply couched in our traditions, books that normalize our Islamic culture and place Muslim kids as front and center, having the same hopes, fears, aspirations as all the kids they come across in other picture books. In that way, Najma, from Drummer Girl, is just another brave girl, who wants to do something that hasn't been done before. Like the brave girls we know in books as varied as Rosie Revere Engineer, Madeline and others. 

What was your creative process like?

I have three, demanding, homeschooled kids. My process for anything writerly I achieve usually involves hiding behind a closet door, consuming copious amounts of chocolate and typing on my phone with my thumb!
I'm generally a fly by the seat of my pants kind of writer. I write only when inspiration strikes. I rarely edit what I've written and worst of all, I don't save what I write. This means I have written many lovely anecdotes and essays straight onto Facebook and have had them eventually disappear into the yawning pits of the timeline. So, there's no process. Which reminds me, I should work on my process. 

The book has beautiful red and white illustrations and a wonderful feel of the bylanes of Istanbul - how much did you communicate to the illustrator about your vision for the book?

As soon I as wrote the story, I knew exactly what I wanted it to look like. I was so, so lucky to get to work with Hoda Hadadi because not only is she immensely talented at what she does, but she also very kindly, stepped into my brain and pulled out the precise look I had tucked away in there for Najma, her neighborhood and all the other little details. 

Of late, there has been a lot of talk about cultural appropriation and questioning of writers writing about other cultures. As a Pakistani writer writing about a Turkish girl - what kind of research did you have to do to make sure the story was authentic? 

I wish I could say I had done thorough and diligent research but that wouldn't be true. The story came the way it came, fully formed. It had to be in Istanbul and so it was. This is nothing to be proud of or anything I would recommend budding writers. It just happened this way with me.
Before I even fully digested the fact that "I've written a rather nice little story here", it was picked up by a publisher and off for print. Like I said, just a really wild kind of break and nothing about it was planned or systematic or even proper. But here she is, a lovely book. And I am so proud of her now - she's brave and determined, just like Najma. Maybe people will laugh at her initially, or find flaws, but she will persevere.

What are some of the other books you have written? What books can we expect to see in the future? 

I've written Aiza and Alina which is a book on friendship and Down Syndrome published in Pakistan. It was solicited by the local Down Syndrome organization, which is just doing fantastic work, and I'm glad I could contribute in a small way towards their very important campaign for acceptance and inclusion.
I've got four other stories written and ready lying in my files, but I guess Drummer Girl has spoilt me, because I'm just sitting on them, not sending them anywhere or doing anything with them, just waiting for destiny to strike and some publisher coming on their own, ready to publish them at the drop of a hat!
There is a fun little, Julia Donaldson-esque story about a Muslim farmer. There's another one about a boy and his grandmother. And a third about Karachi. Very different flavors and styles. Maybe you will see them very soon. Maybe never. Its all a great mystery to me.

What was your biggest learning in writing Drummer Girl? 

The same learning I learn and relearn every time I write a cracker of an essay: that the pleasure is in the journey not in the destination. I love my book and am so grateful that it is being lovingly received but when people like me who dream of becoming writers are growing up, we tend to dream of the day our book hits the world. The moment we see a real life book spine bearing our name. We imagine that nothing will ever be quite the same after that moment. That that will be an epoch. But its actually not like that.
Sure its lovely to hold your book...but the delight of writing is far greater. Of musing over a turn of phrase or choice of word. Of seeing a fresh and completely perfect sentence emerge onto the screen. That's where the thrill is. And the joy. And what keeps me writing. Every day.

What is the message you hope young people reading the book will take away from Drummer Girl?

Oh loads of things! I hope the very obvious message that girls can do anything will, of course, click. But also, just as importantly, I hope the value of courage, of good, strong fathers or father figures, and of just how beautiful our Islamic traditions are will also come through.

I love Ramadan and I hope my love for the month shines through the book. I love my dad and I hope that the story compels people to either be grateful for or aspire to becoming supportive dads themselves. Heck, while I'm at it, I hope this book brings about world peace and everyone just loves everyone else, always. Because, why not? Allah Kareem. 

Thank you Hiba! Wishing you much success and many more books bearing your name on their spines. 

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  • Najiyah Maxfield on

    Thanks for a this lovely interview! Hiba’s other writings, on her Drama Mama Facebook page and Muslim Matters are also great!

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