I recently had the pleasure of being interviewed by Sarah Mohr, a writer at Muslimgirl.com. I caught up with Sarah one evening to share with her the reason for writing my latest works, my upcoming novel, The Land Beneath the Light & my latest children’s book, The Girl Who Stitched the Stars.
(Republished from Muslimgirl.com)
Shereen Malherbe is a world-renowned British-Palestinian author and journalist who has contributed to a variety of media platforms including Muslim Girl, Middle East Eye, and Sisterhood Magazine, to name a few. She lives in England, recently having moved back after ten years living in the Middle East. She keeps herself super busy with her writing. She graduated in English Literature with Creative Writing in July 2019. We are happy that she took the time to speak with us about her work.
Muslim Girl: Thanks so much for sharing a little about your work and process with us. How did you start writing, and what is your history? You were recently interviewed on the Today Show and shared some wonderful news about the accolades that you have from a variety of sources. Can you tell us about all this, including the history of your work?
Shereen Malherbe: I began writing ten years ago when I traveled back to my heritage homeland in Palestine. I was walking through the streets with my husband when a tourist bus pulled up and tourists piled out, surrounded by security to take photographs of a local landmark, and then hastily retreated back onto the bus.I realized, that even people blessed enough to visit didn’t always see the real Palestine. I was staying with my family in homes that have been in our family for generations, and I saw and heard things I had to share with the world. This led to my debut novel, Jasmine Falling published back in 2015. It was since voted one of the top 20 Best Books by Muslim Women in Goodreads.My second novel, The Tower was a continuation of the exploration of how the East is framed by the West and is a contemporary book, mentioned by a notable academic as, ‘How you write outside of Orientalism, even internalized.’ It has since been used as an academic set text in an American University on Muslim voices.My upcoming novel, The Land Beneath the Light is my most personal story yet.
Muslim Girl: Your upcoming novel, The Land beneath the Light is a Palestinian re-imagining of Jane Eyre. Your process of actually going to Palestine to visit your family there and what you found was riveting when I first heard it. It tells us so much about the situation of Palestinians living under the occupation and what their world is like. Can you share with us your process of writing the book, what you saw when you visited your relatives, and why you chose to write what you wrote?
Shereen Malherbe: I stayed in a rural village just outside Ramallah with my family in a house that has been in our family for generations. My family there use the land and its incredible produce, go picking for sage in the fields and sell their wares at the markets.But amongst the life, there are abandoned houses and overrun orchards and farms growing wild and unattended. The village is also on the hilltops in a secluded position, surrounded by the occupation. When I came to research the novel, I found the village itself is all but erased on satellite maps. But it exists and there is life there, and that made me more determined to shine a light on it.
Muslim Girl: You talked about how Jane Eyre is steeped in Christian theology but is never pigeonholed as Christian literature. Can you share more about how while this is based on Islamic theology, you don’t think it should be labeled narrowly as Muslim fiction?
Shereen Malherbe: I believe that spirituality is part of being human. To eradicate that from characters isn’t always realistic, since many of my Muslim characters use their faith to make decisions about their life. Also, to separate that from the reasons my family is tied to Palestine and its land, it is inextricably linked to faith. If I am to represent that authentically, then Islamic theology is an integral part of the experience.I believe these universal themes and theologies can be understood by others and therefore, these books are for everyone. Classic British books are world-renowned, despite their heavy use of religious themes. I would love to reach a stage where these themes do not limit the audience, just as it doesn’t for the classics.
Muslim Girl: Generally, your work has focused on changing the narrative away from what you have called “monotonous stereotypes” of Muslim women. How does your work do this?
Shereen Malherbe: I was blessed with being able to spend a long time living and traveling throughout the Middle East. The Islam and the culture I lived amongst are still framed using heavily overused stereotypes, and they just weren’t representative of my experiences or the people around me.I also spent years writing on the representation of Muslim women in the media. The perpetuated stereotypes and the age-old problem of Orientalism are still a huge problem today. And it has a real effect on communities. Islamophobia rises when we have these negative stereotypes consistently reinforced through media, and I want to contribute to that change.That is another reason why I am reinventing the classic for The Land Beneath the Light. I am concerned with who is capturing the Palestinian heritage and what they are saying. History is being erased at an unusually quick rate under occupation and I want to share what I experience before stories, history, and places are erased.
Muslim Girl: It is really exciting news that you also have a Children’s book coming out in January as part of a series that you are working on. What is the story of The Girl who Stitched the Stars?
Shereen Malherbe: The Girl Who Stitched the Stars is the second book in the series, following on from The Girl Who Slept Under the Moon. It follows Noor, a Palestinian girl who moves from the East to the West, and shows how her differences can be celebrated through sharing and telling stories. It is designed to encourage children to celebrate this difference, break down barriers and learn more about each other.
We have recently had some great news that this series and my work will be published by The Open University’s Reading for Pleasure literacy scheme that helps teachers and librarians select books for schools. You can now pre-order The Girl Who Stitched the Stars via our Kickstarter campaign. There is also a bundle option, so you can buy The Land Beneath the Light at the same time now, as they are both going to be published in January 2022.
Muslim Girl: It is interesting also that for your research, you have read some non-fiction work, including Stealing from the Saracens, How Islamic Architecture Shaped Europe by Diana Darke which is a great title. I am a Californian and read a lot of English literature as a young girl, and the word always evoked such mystery and intrigue. When I became a Muslim in my 20s, the whole idea shifted radically in my consciousness as I better understood the complexity of the relationship between England and the Middle East, as well as the problematic and oppressive nature of history. What is the story of this book?
Shereen Malherbe: Yes, as part of my research for a gothic reimagining set in Palestine was how the architecture would work if I moved the setting as traditionally a lot of the books are set in England. When I read this, I saw that a lot of British architecture was from the Middle East, and this further cemented this idea that a reimagining of Jane Eyre was a perfect vehicle to portray my next novel.
Muslim Girl: I was happy to hear your writing also includes a short story that recently was given some high honors. Can you share about this as well?
Shereen Malherbe: My short story, The Cypress Tree, was recently published in the prestigious US-based magazine, World Literature Today. It is a landmark edition because, in its almost 100-year history, this is the first issue exclusively on Palestine Voices. With all the incredible voices, I was thrilled to hear that my short story was included in the historic issue. I’ve since been informed that there is a copy of the magazine in the Presidential White House, and that is just incredible because it shows that art and writing can amplify voices.
Muslim Girl: What would you share with our readers who want to break into the world of book publishing? How did you do it?
Shereen Malherbe: I often get asked this question and the reality is, that you need to find your voice and your unique perspective. Write what you are most passionate about and what you would continue to write about whether you became published or not.You need to love writing and what you write about enough that it keeps you going through the long career path that it usually takes before your work gets noticed. The key is to keep writing, though you can only improve and find your voice if you write.
Muslim Girl: Any final thoughts you would like to share with our readers?
Shereen Malherbe: I’d love to share the link to pre-order my new novel, The Land Beneath the Light, and/or my children’s book, The Girl Who Stitched the Stars. In order to raise global awareness of its upcoming publication, my publisher Beacon Books.net has launched a campaign to pre-order the book. If you click on ‘Rewards’ you can select which title you want to buy and on its publication in January 2022, you will be one of the first to receive a copy.We would love you to get involved and join and share our campaign to get the word out that there is a Palestinian reimagining of Jane Eyre, The Land Beneath the Light coming soon!