Na’ima B Robert is ‘descended from Scottish Highlanders on her father’s side and the Zulu people on her mother’s, was born in Leeds, grew up in Zimbabwe, went to university in London and now ‘divides her time between London and Cairo’. Unsurprising, then, that her novels trade in contrasts and conflicts: between cultures, youth and experience, artistic and academic, religious and secular. But her new book, She Wore Red Trainers, is a love story. Geraldine Brennan talked to Na’ima about the book for Books for Keeps.
A long hot summer waiting for A-level results, a cute boy and an opinionated girl – does a romcom-inspired plot have to be any less page-turning because the characters are Muslim?
Na’ima B Robert believes not, but her portrayal of Amirah and Ali’s growing relationship in She Wore Red Trainers, her fifth young adult novel, reflects life for contemporary young Muslims whose contact with the opposite sex is structured by the traditions of their faith and community.
So the instant physical attraction between Amirah and Ali cannot be acted on overtly: they cannot be alone together (even making eye contact is frowned upon) and it is assumed that their relationships are the business of their families.
Amirah’s influences include her divorced mother, a convert to Islam whose unhappy experiences have turned her daughter away from the early marriage that many young Muslims choose. Meanwhile her traditionally minded brother Zayd, who is responsible for approving her future husband, has rejected Ali as a potential suitor on a first meeting.
Na’ima has rooted the love story firmly in urban British Muslim culture, to offer both a story that teens growing up in this culture can relate to and a challenge to preconceived ideas about attitudes to marriage and relationships in Muslim families, such as the tradition of arranged marriage. As founding editor of the UK Muslim women’s magazine, Sisters, Na’ima is aware of the wide spectrum of interpretations of tradition, ‘more cultural than religious’, as she says.
‘I’m not saying that all Muslims live like the families in the story, but I have tried to be true to the community I am writing about and where young people I know are coming from,’ she says. ‘In a family that is functioning well the family would be highly invested in the girl’s future but it would start from what the girl really wants and she would have a space to understand and articulate that and discuss it in depth.
‘There are many variations within this. Amirah’s family is not functioning so well, her brother doesn’t understand her and her mother makes some bad decisions because she doesn’t have a lot of supportive relatives around. Zayd feels the responsibility of a father but he doesn’t have a lot of life experience and his default position is that he wants Amirah to marry someone like himself.’
But Amirah is a rebel and rejects the man Zayd chooses for her. ‘Hassan is a catch but her gut feeling says no: the gut feeling is important however you meet future partners,’ Na’ima says. ‘In an ideal world your family would understand everything you needed in a husband – in Amirah’s case this is someone who really gets her artistic side, which Ali does.’
The ‘nobody-understands-me’ misery that afflicts both Amirah and Ali is common to all teens, and Na’ima’s own teenage years in a westernised high school in Zimbabwe (she converted to Islam at 21) taught her the benefits of a more segregated environment.
‘There was pressure to cultivate a personality that boys liked. I would see girls switch on the bimbo button when boys were around and laugh at boys’ jokes whether they wanted to or not. I was at a mixed school and at 14 asked my parents to send me to a girls’ school. I found the constant pressure too much.
‘Surviving dating, the uncertainties and the heartache, and somehow keeping your self-esteem intact, is very hard for teens. It’s one of the biggest things you have to deal with at a time when you need a space to grow up and be yourself, find out who you are.’
Amirah has also tried and rejected a more mainstream teenage lifestyle and chosen to navigate relationships within Muslim culture. As in all good romcoms, she finds the space she needs with her girlfriends, who support her plan to stay single until she has made the life she wants as an artist. Although the girls have compiled a league table of fanciable boys, the lack of male companions at their café meetings, summer charity projects and glitzy nights out is presented as a benefit rather than a deprivation, as Na’ima says.
‘For Amirah and her friends, the decision is made that guys aren’t going to be part of the picture at the moment. Dating and romance is not taking up their time, it’s for later.’
Yet the story, with all its disappointments and misunderstandings between the couple who survive on a word here and a glance there, is still deeply romantic: ‘just a different kind of romance’.
Na’ima’s first readers were Muslim teenagers in Cairo where she lives for part of the year with her husband and four children. ‘They found the British teenagers different to themselves in their references to Islam – in Egypt it’s not consciously discussed in the same way. But they saw where the characters and relationships were coming from. I consciously went for a very dramatic ending and I’ve heard that many people cry at the end.’
She Wore Red Trainers is published by Kube Publishing.
Geraldine Brennan is a journalist specialising in children’s books and education, regularly reviews for the Observer and has judged several literary awards.