Finding representation in the world of UK publishing

Niyla Farook is a 24-year-old author of South Asian descent living in the north of England. Having recently published her first book Rida and Madiya, Niyla shares the adversities she had to overcome as a young woman of colour breaking into the world of publishing. In addition to being an author, Niyla works full-time at a pharmacy and also volunteers for the UN.

What makes you so excited about being an author?

I truly love writing, and creating worlds and characters, so that’s so exciting. I hope to entertain people with my work—whether it’s to pass the time, simply enjoy, or to make people forget their worries—but as a woman of colour, it’s bigger (I’ll expand on this for the next question).

What impact are you hoping to make with your stories and writing?

For me, it’s about younger children who look like me or have even felt like me—underrepresented in art forms like books and movies—finally seeing themselves. Or any reader, really. I wrote Rida and Madiya as a woman of color who wears the hijab and that representation is shown in the book (but again, hijab-wearing individuals are not a monolith so each representation is uniquely-drawn from each person’s life and/or experiences). There are two interracial couples. There’s also non-binary representation, characters with surnames like Abrams (Jewish), Singh (Sikh), Obasi (of the Igbo ethnic group), Rodriguez (from Spain), Hadj (Arabic), Waerea (from New Zealand).

I know I can’t make everyone feel seen, but I hope that the world of Rida and Madiya is as true a reflection of the diverse world we live in today. And all of my books down the line will aim to have this level of diversity in as authentic a light as possible.

As a young woman of South Asian descent living in England, what adversities did you have to overcome in pursuing your profession as an author?

First, it was the lack of belief I had in myself. From my skin colour and appearance down to my core and religion. I come from the city where the Brontë sisters and J. B. Priestley lived and from the country of Shakespeare, Tolkien, Austin, Enid Blyton —growing up, I actually thought that all authors had to be white. There were barely any authors of color that I saw and definitely none that wore the hijab.

Second, it was the hurdles of finding representation for a separate, unpublished novel—a YA Fantasy with elements drawn from my own culture and religion—to get Rida and Madiya out there. (It ended up working out backwards—that Rida and Madiya is my debut and the other book has been shelved.) Like the brilliant Tasha Suri said, ‘…UK publishing is… UK publishing. It has a very specific sense of what sells, and what to produce…’ (the link the interview where she said is here. )

Unfortunately, for the most part, UK publishing—and possibly even worldwide publishing—has its own agenda and expectations, and people who look like me don’t necessarily fit into that. (Please understand that there are other variables to this, like the genre of the piece you’re pitching, if you’re agented, if you’ve been successfully published before.)

That’s why I’m so grateful to Bloomsbury Education for publishing Rida and Madiya—a book with two brown girls (with one wearing the hijab!) on the cover. Shoutout to Umair Najeeb Khan for illustrating the cover and the pages of Rida and Madiya!

Outside of being an author, you work full-time at a hospital pharmacy whilst also volunteering for the United Nations, what prompted you to volunteer for the UN?

I know I help people by working at a pharmacy but it still can feel like a job at times; I wanted to do something more. Volunteering with the UN has been an amazing experience to help the researchers in Switzerland tackle other epidemics, in underdeveloped countries especially. It’s been life-changing and I hope to continue working with the team for a long time.

What are three tips that you’d like to share for aspiring female authors?

1) Believe in yourself. The people around you—yes, even loved ones—can only support you so far. You have to believe in yourself, that you can do it, and anchor yourself to genuinely wanting it. Sadly, there will be plenty of storms, so you need your anchor!

2) Make friends with other writers. Whether you’re just starting out with a one-page gathering of words, querying, agented but unpublished, agented and published, unagented and published (like me), you need friends. These friends will be a support system and can provide notes on your writing. One of the trickiest things to accept is criticism—and that’s what is the missing piece for a lot of aspiring writers who don’t meet the mark.

3) Love writing, from the bottom of your heart and when the waters get rough. Once you do achieve The Dream (with hard work, self-belief, and dedication), it might start to feel like a job (just like my day job). Even before you achieve The Dream, when you’re writing a book to pitch to agents and editors, it can feel like a job and you can lose the spark. Everyone has those days but you just have to let the love of just writing fuel you whether it’s by switching off for a bit or turning it up

Follow Niyla on socials and her website. Grab a copy of Rida and Madiya on Amazon or Bloomsbury.

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