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Ramadan, Reading, and the Pen

Opening of Surah al-‘Alaq – translates as ‘Read! In the name of…’ (photo credit: islaam.net)

Ramadan, the holy month of Islam, has arrived. As well as being the month when Muslims around the world fast from the break of dawn to the setting of the sun each day, it is the month in which the Qur’an, Islam’s sacred text, was first revealed to the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him.

The revelation began when the angel Gabriel, known in Islam as Jibreel, appeared before the Prophet Muhammed, peace be upon them both, while he was meditating on Mount Hira and spoke the following words:           

Read! In the name of your Lord who created.

He created man from a clinging form.

Read! Your Lord is the Most Bountiful One

Who taught by the pen;

Who taught man what he did not know.

Surah al-‘Alaq, verses 1-5 (from Qur’an translation by M.A.S. Abdel Haleem, Oxford World Classics)

Like the first revelation, Ramadan for me begins with reading and the pen. For the past fourteen years, on a seasonal basis, I have been writing content for a guide to Ramadan produced by a small local outfit called Ramadhan Publications. (The ‘h’ in there is not a typo – when it comes to English renderings of Arabic words, variations in spellings are commonplace.)

A couple of months before the holy one arrives, the director of Ramadan Publications will get in touch with a request for the new year’s content. The email will contain an attachment of the previous year’s pages, and so my Ramadan will begin several weeks in advance with reading and the pen.

My brief is to write an introduction for the book and website, and to give readers an overview of what Ramadan entails. I will read what was written the year before, and then pick up my pen to get writing. With Ramadan regulations and rituals having been in operation for over 1,400 years, however, there isn’t exactly anything new to say about the month. So the challenge is all about finding fresh ways to present the material so that it is engaging and inspiring as well as informative.

Usually, I do this by finding an angle that ties in with what is happening around us, what might be playing on our collective minds. This year, with the ongoing concerns about Covid-19, the emergence of a new conflict on top of all the struggles already going on internationally, and the worries about the sharp rise in the cost of living here at home, the power of faith and prayer to help overcome feelings of hopelessness and powerlessness suggested itself as a theme.

Although the scope of the assignment is somewhat limited by availability of space in the book and the specifics of the subject matter, there is some room for creativity. One year, on the publication’s tenth anniversary, I jettisoned the usual information pages altogether and went all-out literary with a set of poems instead. I often pick up the pen to jot down spiritual musings outside the requirements of this project, a lot of which is expressed in poetic form, so bringing some of that into the mix was a particular joy.

For me, reading, writing, and Ramadan definitely go hand-in-hand. So in that spirit, God Willing, I will be sharing some of my Ramadan musings with you in the coming weeks. This will include both the poems that I wrote for the Ramadan guide and some original material from my notebooks.

I hope you enjoy my humble offerings and I hope, whatever your faith background, that you have a nurturing, enriching, and uplifting month.

Peace and blessings,

Nazira

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Creating through Curating

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

I have had fun recently over on the Koyal Writers’ website putting together a ‘found poem’ using the answers from our ‘7 Questions with the Koyals’ blog series. The blog series yielded such a rich body of references, imagery, and insight into our writers that I wanted to somehow capture some of that in one place to reflect the essence of us as a group.

The ‘found poem’ format, which creates new material by curating from existing material, leant itself well to the task. The poem, entitled ‘We Are…’, can be found here. Enjoy!

(With special thanks to fellow Koyal Sidra Ansari for her editorial enhancements!)

Peace and blessings,

Nazira

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In The Spotlight

It’s my turn in the spotlight over at the Koyal Writers’ website this week where we have been doing a series of blogs to introduce each of our members.

As there are seven members in the group, we came up with the idea of posing the same seven questions to each of us. The questions cover topics from how we see ourselves as writers to which books have stayed with us over time to where we would go if we could fly off to anywhere in the world right now.  And true to form, some of the questions have seven as a theme. 

‘Name seven books that are a permanent fixture on your shelf’ – one of the Seven Questions with the Koyals

You can read my interview here, but while you’re on the Koyal blog I recommend that you also check out the interviews with Sarah M Jasat and Sidra Ansari. Faced with the same seven questions it is quite interesting to see the variety in our answers – they make the blogs illuminating as well as enjoyable to read. I can’t wait for the rest of the Koyals to have their turn!

Peace and blessings,

Nazira

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Jump-Back-In January

Yes, I've been away.
Now what on earth can I say
To account for all the missing time?

I don't really know
But I will give it a go,
And try to do the whole thing in rhyme.

I'm a mother, that's true,
But my son's nearly twenty-two,
So it's not like he needs me day and night.

And my parents call on me, yes,
But that isn't exactly a stress,
So blaming them also wouldn't be right.

I went back to work
But my boss is far from a jerk,
So I certainly can't pin my absence on him.

And I'm lazy as ****,
My activity levels suck,
So I can't pretend that I've been at the gym.

The football can get busy –
The fixture list sometimes makes me dizzy – 
But it's not like I go every week.

And yes I cook and I clean,
But I'm no domestic queen,
So that can't be the explanation I seek.

What is going on, then?
What is it that has kept me away when
Every excuse so far has been shot down?

What happened to 'I AM a writer'?
'Putting pen to paper makes my life brighter'?
Did those beliefs just pack up and leave town?

No, that isn't quite it,
But I'm a little embarrassed to admit
Just what has been keeping me away.

You see my novel wasn't picked,
The agents' boxes were left unticked,
So I ended up going astray.

I've been feeling rather lost
And questioning writing's cost
To the body, the mind, and the soul,

When you give so much of self,
And sacrifice time and wealth,
Yet in the end fail to meet your goal

Oh, yes I know you must keep going,
And keep the sentences flowing,
While all the time wearing a smile,

But the truth is I'm dejected
Because my manuscript was rejected
(And, in most cases, not even picked off the pile).

And yes, I know it is a sin
To play the self-pity violin – 
To mope is in such bad taste.

But I doubt that I'm the first
To cry when the bubble burst
So please don't judge me in haste.

Still, this much I know:
It means too much to let it go.
I will inevitably get back in the game.

I will get the laptop humming
And keep the paragraphs coming
And hope soon there's a book to my name.

And loser-talk it may be,
But I will remember what is key
As I prepare myself to jump back in:

Replenishing the well
Matters more than words that sell,
So published or not, I still win.

On that note I end my story
Of no hope and even less glory,
And as promised I told it all in verse.

Compared to all the rest
It cannot be called the best
But it could've been a whole lot worse.

The End. 
(Or, The New Beginning…?)

Peace and blessings,

Nazira

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#AmBloopering

Things are a little quiet on the writing front at the moment for me, now that my novel sitting in the virtual slush-piles of various agents patiently awaiting their attention. In the meantime, however, I have been engaging in a fair bit of writing-adjacent activity, so I thought I would share a little about that today.

In particular, I have been getting to grips with recording myself doing readings. Now, I have to admit that reading my work out loud to other people isn’t exactly my favourite part of the being-a-writer gig, because standing in front of a crowd and having all eyes on me is as far from my comfort zone as, say, Australia is from England. But, in the spirit of being courageous in the pursuit of my dreams (which I wrote about in a previous post here) I’m doing my best to embrace it.

So far, my experience of ‘embracing readings’ has gone a little like this: I say a quick just-go-for-it ‘yes’ when asked by someone to do a reading for their event, then immediately push it out of my mind because my anxiety starts rising and the words what-the-hell-was-I-thinking? start playing repeatedly in my head. Then, when the event organiser follows up with me a short while later to ask how I’m getting on with my preparations, I panic all over again, think about ways to get out of the reading, and then tell myself well-you-have-to-do-it-now-because-you-already-said-yes.

At that point, I accept that there is no going back, submit to the process and get my act together. I decide on which piece/extract I’m reading, start practicing, suppress further bouts of panic as they arise, and push push push myself towards the reading and through it and out of the other side. And when it’s all over, I think about how the readings aren’t ever as terrible as I think they’re going to be and admit to myself that I’m-on-a-bit-of-a-high-now-actually and start thinking gosh-it-would-be-fun-to-do-that-again….

With events taking place online for the last 16 months or so due to the pandemic, it has been a very long time since I last had to do an in-person public reading (phew!) but I have done a few for live online events and more recently I have begun working on readings for pre-recorded events. I thought that these would be easier because there wouldn’t be the usual the-audience’s-eyes-are-on-me anxiety, but they’re proving to be trickier. I guess because when you’re live, you’re committed from the moment you start reading and you have to keep going no matter how many mistakes you’re making along the way, whereas when you’re doing something pre-recorded there is an increased expectation that it has to be perfect.

Where that expectation came from, I don’t know, but I didn’t question it and I ended up spending a ridiculous amount of time recording and re-recording and re-re-recording my reading for my first event. Many, many bloopers later, I remembered that perfection is the enemy of creativity and growth, so I told the perfection-expectation to ‘<insert expletive> off’, did the best job I could with my reading, and sent the recording to the event organiser before I could get caught in the picking-faults-in-my-performance loop again. And then I repeated the process for the next reading.

So, that’s a little bit about the learning curve that I have been travelling lately. Would you like to see how the readings actually turned out?  Great! I thought you would never ask… 😉

The first reading is of my story The lady would have preferred Milk Tray, but black magic it is, which I recorded for ‘An Evening of Women’s Flash Fiction Readings’, part of South Asian Heritage Month. The video is available on YouTube and features twelve writers with wonderful tales to tell, so do put your feet up and take your time to check out all of the readings.

The second reading is for ‘The Travelling Notebook: a conversation about connection with Koyal Writers’, also a South Asian Heritage Month event. Koyal Writers is my lovely virtual writing group and this is the first event we are putting together as a group, so we are very excited about it. The recording will go live on YouTube at 12:30pm on Friday 6th August 2021, and I will post a link as soon as it is made available by the organisers.

I would happily share one of my many bloopers with you in the meantime, of course, but I haven’t quite learned how to embed video into these posts just yet. Oh well. One new skill at a time, hey? #AmBloopering #AmLearning #AmShrinkingThatDiscomfortZone

Peace and blessings,

Nazira

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Love Local Learning

I’ve been playing around with the website today. (Apologies to any close observers made dizzy from seeing all the content and pages jumping about!) Although I had dabbled in blogging many years ago, it was all done in a very basic format back then and this is my first time setting up a full website, so I have had to learn the process anew and I’m still figuring out a lot of things as I go along.

I had been thinking about setting up the website for a long time but that thought wasn’t put into action until I came across a course from my local adult education service earlier this year. I know that plenty of guidance on setting up websites is freely available online but sometimes I just like learning the old-fashioned way, with tutors and fellow students and classroom camaraderie, so as soon as I saw the advert for the ‘Build Your Own Website’ course, I signed up.

Classes took place once a week for five weeks and the teaching was delivered online due to the coronavirus pandemic lockdown. However, although we couldn’t be together, it was still nice to learn alongside other local people in the virtual classroom environment because there is at least a chance that we might cross paths again someday in the real world when the removal of restrictions allows life to go back to ‘normal’.

Anyone that knows me knows that I’m a bit of a nerd (I sometimes wonder if I should change my name to Nerdira) and I could probably spend my life as a perennial student, so I’m already itching to get back onto another course. What that will be, I’m not completely sure, but I quite fancy doing something arty in order to expand my creative range as I would like to start adding illustrations to some of my writing.  

Whatever course I end up choosing, I hope that this time it can happen in a real rather than virtual classroom. But even if it ends up being another online course, it won’t really matter. I suspect that Nerdira will be very happy either way.

Peace and blessings,

Nazira

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On Courage and Dreams

Hello again. It’s been a while. A whole lot longer than I’d originally planned, in fact! I hadn’t intended to do a disappearing act right after setting up the website but soon after hitting the launch button, the beta-reading window for my novel (When You’re Smiling) closed and the next stage of manuscript development opened and—poof!—I was lost in the world of editing.

It has been an interesting and exciting but also quite intense couple of months since my last blog. My lovely beta readers gave me a rich body of supportive and constructively-critical feedback that helped me to look at the novel afresh and make some important changes. That phase of revision gave me manuscript draft four and a story that was finally just where I wanted it to be.

I then completed further readthroughs for line-editing and proofreading to polish up the final manuscript and get it submission-ready, after which it was time to start querying agents. But before launching into that stage of the process, I took a moment to simply celebrate and appreciate the fact that I had finished writing my novel.

Writing a novel might not sound like a big deal. Plenty of people write them, after all, so getting a novel published is what really counts… Or so, that is how the narrative goes. But I don’t believe that for one moment. Given the time and effort that it takes to grow a tiny idea into a full-sized book, it is without doubt an achievement in itself to write one, whether or not it ever reaches publication.

I mention elsewhere how being a writer has been a long-held ambition for me. It was when I was sitting in my GCSE English class reading The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton that my dream of writing a novel first hatched, and I am now <cough cough> in my mid-forties, which means that it has taken thirty years for just this bit of the big writing dream to come true.

I made a few attempts in the intervening years to write a book but didn’t get far very far with my efforts – partly because I didn’t have many viable ideas, partly because I didn’t have the know-how to build my maybe-decent-enough ideas into book-length stories, and partly (well, mostly) because I didn’t have confidence in my words, have the belief that they were worth writing.

It was this last problem that I needed to address first, because I knew that I would be forever tripping up in the pursuit of my dream if I didn’t develop the confidence to back myself and do whatever needed to be done to make it come true. So I resolved to work on the dream bit by bit, digging deep to summon up just enough courage—the tiniest of grains—to take the first step in the right direction, and then the next grain for the next step, and so on.

Thankfully, I wasn’t on my own for very long. As I found those grains and took those steps, in a laws-of-attraction sort of way, the dream started drawing closer to me. The door opened to a writing course, which led me to the heart of a wonderful writing group. Further mentoring and development opportunities came next, my family too threw their support into the ring as well, and other things began to align, easing my way.

And all the while, a maybe-decent-enough idea that I had for a novel that I had started writing up in 2016 grew and grew and grew, fed by all the love and encouragement and knowledge and advice that I was receiving along the way, until it became a manuscript ready to be sent out to the publishing world.

I don’t know what the future holds for When You’re Smiling. That’s up to agents and publishers to decide (and whatever God wills, of course). But the bit of the process that was up to me, I did it. I wrote a novel. I wrote a novel. The dream had come true. To me, that was definitely a big deal and an achievement worth celebrating.

So that’s it from me for today. I will leave you with a quote from Khun Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, late chairman of Leicester City Football Club, my home team.

The quote was on display beside a portrait of Khun Vichai in the stands at Wembley at the FA Cup Final in May, when Leicester won the cup for the first time in their 130+ year history. His words resonated particularly strongly with me because When You’re Smiling is set against the backdrop of Leicester’s amazing Premier League victory in 2016, so in a way the achievement of my dream has been helped by Khun Vichai having made Leicester’s dream come true. The quote is now stuck to the wall beside my desk, and I can personally testify to their truth: our dreams really can come true if we have the courage to pursue them.

Peace and blessings,

Nazira

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A New Chapter

Hello dear reader, it is nice to meet you.

As you have probably gathered from the way it is plastered all over everything on this website, my name is Nazira and I am a writer.

I am, and have been, many other things beside that over the years (which I’m sure I will go into in future posts) but writing has been the one thing that has consistently coursed through my veins for most of my life. So this website and blog is all about my writing. My practice of it and my love of it.

As you might already have read on my ‘About’ page, I have only been calling myself a writer for around three years. Before that, people around me knew of my love for writing, they knew about my secret scribblings (but, of course, were not allowed to read them), and they knew about my aspirations to be a published author. How could they not, when for over twenty-plus years they had put up with me whispering with due regularity and reverence the words, ‘I am going to be a writer someday’?

In the meantime, they turned to me for help with their writing projects, engaged my services on a freelance basis for their businesses, and praised the high quality of my written output both in my professional roles and academia. They did this because they saw all along what I was too shy to admit: I was already a writer. And a rather good one at that. I just needed the courage to embrace it as fact.

What changed three years ago? I completed the Becoming a Writer course from The Asian Writer, which made it clear that engaging in the act of writing was enough to qualify me as a Writer (with a capital W), regardless of publication credits. And so I embraced it: the identity, the title, the capital W. And sure enough, as it so often does when we take affirmative action in the direction of our dreams (wise words from Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way), doors opened, pathways were illuminated, and the vision began transforming into reality.

Fast-forwarding to today, I find myself in an interesting position. I have grown so much as a person and developed so much as a writer, but there is still much to learn and do, and I am still working towards achieving the big publication dream (for my novel When You’re Smiling). So I have mulled a fair bit over the question of when it would be the right time to launch a website. I haven’t exactly ‘made it’ as a writer, after all, so what do I have to offer others and why would they be interested? Aren’t people simply going to look at the site, scratch their heads, and say ‘Nazira who?’

But, as these past few years have taught me, there is no such thing as the right time, there is no magic line between ‘nobody’ and ‘made it’, and there is also no hard rule saying how long you must remain an apprentice and when you get to become the master. Because, as my Qur’anic Arabic teacher once said, ‘Everybody knows something that could benefit someone else. Even if you only known one letter, you can teach it to a person that doesn’t know it.’

Well, I have been very fortunate to benefit from the teaching of experienced writers and industry experts through schemes like the Middle Way Mentoring Project, and I have also benefited greatly from the knowledge of peers in my writing groups and the generosity of the writing community at large. As a result, I have gained a lot that could in turn be of interest and benefit to others, which seems a good enough reason to share it.  

So, in the spirit of the writing community, and inspired by all those that have been so generous with their knowledge, skills, and support, I have decided that now is as good a time as any to launch my website. I am very excited to be starting this new chapter in my writing story. I hope that by sharing my work and what I have learned along the way through this site, I can make a greater contribution to the creative and literary ecology, give back and pay-it-forward, and help other shy secret-scribblers like I once was to courageously claim the capital-W and step into their lives as Writers.

If you’d like to stay up to date with the blog and other postings to the website, please enter your email address into the subscription box below.

See you again very soon.

Peace and blessings,

Nazira