Hello friends and welcome to Color the Shelves!
You know how I’m always craving more Muslim representation, right? All kinds of Muslim representation really. But something that I find really lacking, is Muslim boys as main characters in YA. If you ask me about Muslim books, you can be sure that I’d start firing recommendations but most if not all of them would have girls as main characters. I know they exist, but they’re very rare and we need more. So when I heard of MORE THAN JUST A PRETTY FACE by Syed M. Masood, I got extremely hyped for it and couldn’t wait to feature the author and hopefully put this book on the radar of people who are looking for this type of story. So without further ado, here’s my interview with Syed M. Masood.
Hello Syed, welcome to Color the Shelves! Thank you for joining me for this interview today. To kick things off, can you tell us a bit more about MORE THAN JUST A PRETTY FACE? Particularly, who is Danyal, your main character?
Thank you so much for having me. Before I get started, I just wanted to say that the list of Muslim authored books you made, I think it was this Ramadan, was epic. It was a feat. Thank you for that.
(Fadwa: It was my pleasure, honestly! I loved making it and seeing it be very well received.)
MORE THAN JUST A PRETTY FACE is a YA rom-com which tells the story of a young man, Danyal Jilani, who is handsome, a little (and sometimes a little more than a little) vain and not very academically gifted. He wants to be a chef, but aside from that at the beginning of the book he is a little directionless and self-absorbed. This changes as he grows and is confronted with a variety of choices, including some in the romantic arena, which will determine who he becomes.
Danyal’s primary strength is his goodness, willingness to accept people and emotional intelligence. He is as much of a fitra character as one can be after having been alive for nineteen years. For anyone not familiar with the term, in the Muslim faith, fitra is the natural state of a person, their initial innocence if you will. So even when he does stupid things or struggles with religion, the underlying good heart that he has, which those around him admire, ultimately ends up being his guiding light.
Which came to you first? Did you think about Danyal and built the story around him or was it the other way around?
A song almost always comes first in my process. So far it has always been an Urdu ghazal. Something a poet wrote creates an echo or the music I’m listening to hints at what the rhythm of a story should be. In this case, it was a poet by the name of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, who wrote a poem called “Hum Dekhenge” (the Coke Studio version of which has English subtitles on YouTube, in case anyone wants to check it out in translation.)
Anyway, it is a deep revolutionary poem that got me thinking about Churchill’s legacy, which I happened to be reading about. It occurred to be that he has been forgiven entirely for his enthusiastic role in the colonial enterprise and his role in the Bengal Famine, where millions of people starved. This is how I became interested in the theme of forgiveness and it unfolded from there.
I will say that I was fortunate to find Danyal, so to speak. There aren’t too many better protagonists for a book exploring themes of forgiveness than a kind soul who instinctively understands acceptance.
MORE THAN JUST A PRETTY FACE has themes of historical erasure especially in the context of colonization, why was that an important theme for you to include in the book?
Honestly, at the start, the theme of colonialism was the book. I just needed to figure out what story and what characters would be the best means to explore that theme.
Like Bisma Akram says in the novel, colonialism is still in living memory for a great many people and cultures. It has had a lasting impact on many families, including mine. Its effects live on in politics and in art. When you discuss it with some Americans though, the answer is a version of “it was two hundred and fifty years ago, so maybe get over it.” (That is an exact quote actually.)
This made me realize how narrow the scope of the histories we are taught is (this is a global problem, in my experience.) For Americans, yes, colonialism was that long ago. That doesn’t mean that it was that long ago for everyone. This, in turn, got me interested in how the history we are taught informs our beliefs, and that led to a discussion (an internal discussion, anyway) of why certain parts of history are preserved and others are erased.
Aside from that, it worked well with the theme of acceptance. The colonial enterprise is the exact opposite of acceptance. Trevor Noah, I think, once said that colonialism is about telling people they aren’t good enough and then trying to make those people more like you.
I think that is very relevant to our lives today. People try to make others around them more like themselves all the time, whether in terms of religion or gender identity or sexual preference or even appearance. It isn’t just a historical theme. On a micro level, it is an everyday lived experience and in that sense, Danyal Jilani is truly an anti-colonial hero.
What was your favorite part of writing this story?
Conversations with my past selves. I’m not sure if that sounds pretentious or just weird, but it’s true. Danyal has two best friends, Sohrab and Intezar (Zar), who have very different relationships with religion. Part of his struggle is trying to balance them and, by extension, balance his own relationship with Islam.
I envy people who have an easy, comfortable relationship with faith. I myself have had a different experience. I know from the reaction that I’ve gotten from Muslim readers that there are those who relate to this completely and those to whom it feels alien. That’s all right. There is no one way to be Muslim. There is no one way to be anything. That, in part, is the point of the novel.
Anyway, I’ve been like Sohrab in my life and I’ve been like Intezar and I wanted to say to them things that I wish someone had said to me when I was in those phases. I’m glad I got to do that in case someone needs to hear now what I needed to hear when I was young. There weren’t a lot of YA books with Muslim leads back then.
Also, can I just say that is it incredible that I got to write briefly about the raid on Khataba? That story was so tragic, and I got to shine a little light on it for an audience that otherwise would have never heard of it. I hope the surviving members of that family have found some measure of peace.
Last but not least, what’s something you’d like to tell your readers or something you’d like them to take away from the book?
Mostly, I just hope readers have fun. It is a comedy, after all. That’s the point.
But also, hopefully, they walk away with an understanding that people and identities (even identities typically portrayed as monolithic like Islam) are complex and that’s okay. People are flawed and that’s okay too. Let them be. Don’t hurt them. Don’t judge them. That’s not your place. Make room for them instead. That is the prime directive of religion, in Danyal Jilani’s opinion, and it ought to be the prime directive of humanity.
About the author
Syed M. Masood grew up in Karachi, Pakistan, and currently lives in Sacramento, California. There have been plenty of stops in between though. He’s a first generation immigrant, twice over. He’s been a citizen of three different countries and lived in nine cities. He is, as Goethe, said, “nothing but a wanderer […] on this earth.”
As to his life outside of writing, he went to the William and Mary School of Law, and before that attended the University of Toronto, where he studied English Literature. He is currently practicing as an attorney and must “measure out his life in coffee spoons” on a daily basis. Some members of his family will tell you that he’s also a poet. This isn’t true. He wrote a few poems in Urdu when he was a teenager, and has never heard the end of it…which he wouldn’t mind, if they were any good. As it is, he is very happy living in prose.
Other interests include good food, video games, sitcoms, and books of all kinds. Most of his time that doesn’t go to writing or billable hours is consumed by his two children, four and two years of age.
About the book
Publication date : August 4th, 2020
Publisher : Little Brown Books for Young Readers| Hachette
Genre : Young Adult | Contemporary
Page Count: 352
Synopsis :Danyal Jilani doesn’t lack confidence. He may not be the smartest guy in the room, but he’s funny, gorgeous, and going to make a great chef one day. His father doesn’t approve of his career choice, but that hardly matters. What does matter is the opinion of Danyal’s longtime crush, the perfect-in-all-ways Kaval, and her family, who consider him a less than ideal arranged marriage prospect.
When Danyal gets selected for Renaissance Man–a school-wide academic championship–it’s the perfect opportunity to show everyone he’s smarter than they think. He recruits the brilliant, totally-uninterested-in-him Bisma to help with the competition, but the more time Danyal spends with her…the more he learns from her…the more he cooks for her…the more he realizes that happiness may be staring him right in his pretty face.
That’s it until next time.
Hope you enjoyed, write to you soon.