#290 – Satirical Fiction with Zarqa Nawaz

In this episode, we are joined by Canadian journalist, author, and filmmaker Zarqa Nawaz (creator of Little Mosque on the Prairie) who spoke to us about her recently released novel, Jameela Green Ruins Everything. Find more information about our podcast, including links to our guests’ books here.

In this episode, we are joined by Canadian journalist, author, and filmmaker Zarqa Nawaz (creator of Little Mosque on the Prairie) who spoke to us about her recently released novel, Jameela Green Ruins Everything.

Tune in for a fascinating discussion about Zarqa’s broadcasting career, her journey to publishing, and how she found her calling writing comedy and satire.

  • Zarqa explains why she loves writing flawed female characters and how she relates to her protagonist, Jameela Green.
  • She talks about why she uses comedy to tell stories about the Muslim experience and to explore serious topics
  • We discuss the editing process and Zarqa’s journey from first draft to finished story, and the unique skills she brings from her experience as a sitcom writer.
  • Zarqa also talks about the response from readers, the importance of faith as a writer, and why her work resonates with such a wide audience
  • And lots more!

Useful links

Zarqa Nawaz’s Website

Zarqa on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram

Jameela Green Ruins Everything

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

The Farm by Joanne Ramos

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

The Poppy War by R. F Kuang

The Maid by Nina Prose

The Guest House for Young Widows by Azadeh Moaveni

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Zarqa is a Canadian producer for film and television, a published author, public speaker, journalist, and former broadcaster. In 2007, Zarqa created the internationally renowned CBC comedy series, Little Mosque on the Prairie, the world’s first sitcom about a Muslim community living in the west. Little Mosque on the Prairie premiered to the highest ratings CBC had in over 20 years.

Zarqa also has a significant presence in the publishing world. In 2014, her comedic memoir, Laughing All the Way to the Mosque, published by HarperCollins, appeared on the bestseller list of The Globe and Mail, and was shortlisted for the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour, Kobo Emerging Writer’s Award and Saskatchewan Book Award of the Year.

Zarqa lives in Regina with her loving but long-suffering family and is the proud mother of four children.

Episode Transcript

Transcription provided be Speechpad

Joni: Hey, authors. You’re listening to the “Kobo Writing Life Podcast,” where we bring you insights and inspiration for growing your self-publishing business. We’re your hosts. I’m Joni, author relations manager at Kobo Writing Life.

Rachel: And I’m Rachel, promotions specialist at Kobo Writing Life.

Joni: On today’s episode, we talked to author and journalist, Zarqa Nawaz, about her debut fiction novel, “Jameela Green Ruins Everything.”

Rachel: We had such a fun conversation with Zarqa about her book, what the book’s about, where the inspiration for this satire on the Middle East came from. And we also had a really interesting conversation about her eight-year journey from first draft of this book to publication, how her career in television influenced her writing, and kind of the pressure and what it’s like trying to represent the Muslim community in her work. It was a really interesting conversation, and we hope you enjoy.

Joni: We’re very excited to be joined today by Zarqa Nawaz whose book, “Jameela Green Ruins Everything,” comes out next week, March 8th. Thank you so much for joining us.

Zarqa: Thanks for having me on.

Joni: Could you start by introducing yourself for our listeners, and telling us just a little bit about your book?

Zarqa: So, “Jameela Green Ruins Everything,” is about a middle-aged Muslim woman who has not been able to get her memoir onto The New York Times bestseller list, and she’s very, very bitter and upset. And she decides that because she’s Muslim and she’s been taught that if you pray to God, God will give you what you want, she wants to why God is not listening. So, she decides to go to the mosque and ask the Imam about God coercion. Like, “How does this religion work exactly? If the Quran says, if you’re good and you pray, you’ll get what you want, but why aren’t things working out?” And the Imam, of course, is this young man from Egypt who’s just arrived to the West, who’s just appalled at this Western notion of God coercion. And he’s like, “Oh, so, you know, this is terrible.” And she’s making him very, very nervous, and he’s realizing that something has happened to her.

She’s a deeply wounded person, and she can’t seem to connect with people, and is not very empathetic, you know. It’s a kind way of saying like, she’s just a terrible person. And he’s trying to help her heal, and he thinks to himself, “The only way I can get her to care about other people besides herself,” because she’s clearly, you know, very self-centered, “is to get her to help somebody else.” So, he convinces her to help the homeless and she’s like, “No, why would I wanna help the homeless? It’s their own fault that they’re homeless, and they sleep on the roads at night, which is a great use of tax payers’ money. So, they’re like, you know, a boon to society.” And he’s like, “No, that’s terrible. That’s a terrible way of thinking.” And she goes, “Fine, if I have to help the homeless, you have to come with me.”

And he can’t believe it because he’s never, you know, been part of sort of Western society in terms of going out into a park and talking to the homeless, this is something very new to him. And so, he’s really scared. And they go together and that’s where they meet Berkley, a homeless man who turns out has a deep understanding of Islam. And Ibrahim is really impressed and lets Berkley live with him, much to Jameela’s shock and horror. And she tells, you know, Ibrahim, you know, “You can’t do that, they can kill you.” And he’s like, “No, no, no. I think, you know, this is good for all of us to meet a homeless person and to help him.” And lo and behold, Berkley has been radicalized and suddenly leaves to join a terrorist organization overseas.

And so, when Jameela and Ibrahim go to the police to report him, the police are very interested in Ibrahim because he’s not citizen, and he’s had friends who’ve joined this terrorist group. So, they ask Jameela to leave, and then when Jameela calls Ibrahim the next day, his voicemail says that he’s gone home to visit his mother in Egypt. But she knows that his mother has died and this is a code for help. And as she tries to tell people around her that something terrible has happened to Ibrahim, no one will believe her because she has been acting very strangely lately, you know, all this praying and interest in her faith. And she’s not a very, you know, practicing Muslim, so they’re thinking maybe she should see someone, a doctor. And she’s like, “Wow, no. Like, just because I suddenly wanna be a good person people wanna send me to a psychiatrist.”

And she realizes that she’s the only person that can save Ibrahim because nobody will believe her. And she knows he’s been disappeared, you know, by the CIA, possibly sent away for torture for information about this organization. So, it’s this comedy and satire about, you know, the political machinations in the Middle East, American foreign policy, how, you know, it created the conditions of ISIS. And I wanted to explore that whole theme through the eyes of a protagonist, a very flawed protagonist who needed to learn how to take care of people because she doesn’t know how right now.

Rachel: So, the book is very fun to read despite touching on some very, not fun topics. But I’m curious when it came to coming up with the idea for the book, what came first, kind of the general concept or the character of Jameela Green? Because she is a character.

Joni: Who does ruin everything.

Rachel: She does ruin everything.

Zarqa: She does ruin everything. It was the character, I’m really attracted to flawed female protagonists, I can really relate to them. I started writing this book in 2014, and I had written a memoir, and it had not made it to The New York Times bestseller list, as I felt it should have. And like many an author, was very embittered by this tragic, you know, event. And so, I was in this kind of really bad place emotionally and mentally when I started writing my book. And so, you could kind of tell it’s autobiographical, not the joining the terrorist part, but just someone who’s very upset, and having a really hard time processing reality. And I started writing from that place. And it turned out in 2014 also, ISIS suddenly came, you know, like, we started reading about it. It was on our headlines, newspapers, and it was like, “What is going on?”

You know, it was like a PR nightmare for Muslims because we are forever feeling like if we could just win this image rehabilitation game where people will see us as human beings and not these Jihadi radicals. And then this group happens to emerge, I’m like, “No.” So, it was this combination of, you know, feeling really down and out, feeling like my career had sort of plateaued, I wasn’t sure what was happening. And so, I was sort of channeling this woman who was processing the world as I was trying to process the world with this group that had just started. And so, those were the two things that were happening to me at the same time.

Joni: So, you’ve published your memoir, and then you’ve also worked as a journalist and worked in television. How do you find that your writing process changes over these different styles of writing, or does it change for you? Is it all kind of similar?

Zarqa: No. I mean, journalism is very different from fiction writing. Journalism, you’re reporting on other people’s stories, and you’re getting their truths and you’re putting them down as clearly as you can. Whereas, fiction writing, you have to create your own truth, and you have to go to a completely different place. And for me personally, it scratches an itch that journalism just doesn’t do. I have a journalism degree and I worked as a journalist for CBC Radio, and now and then I go back in. I was the host of the CBC Radio Morning Edition here in Saskatchewan a few years back, and I was the host of the 6:00 News as well. And you know, I dabble in journalism, but I always end up leaving because I find it doesn’t satisfy this creative urge in me to tell story, and to tell it in my voice, and to explain how I’m seeing the world, you know, through the lens of comedy, which is really, really important to me.

And so, it’s a very different medium. I probably should have gone to film school or, you know, gotten a creative writing degree after I didn’t get into medical school after a four-year science degree, but I didn’t know enough about the world of arts because it was such a mysterious, sexy, forbidden place. And I had no idea, it was just sort of like this giant lump of, you know, that’s kind of what people in the arts do. And so, I went to journalism. And, you know, I don’t regret it, it gave me a lot of skills. But it ultimately wasn’t the place where I belong in, you know, from a creative point of view. I really, really belong in fiction writing, whether it’s for television or film or writing books.

Joni: Was this your first dive into comedy or have you done other?

Zarqa: No, I started when I finished my journalism degree and I was working for CBC Radio, I got an internship for a radio program here in Canada called, “The Morning Edition,” and it was the top-rated radio show in the country. And for people who are very young, I can tell you guys are young, probably have no idea what I’m talking about, it was like the Daily Show of Canada, but it was radio, and I was placed there. And it was so amazing. The work was so amazing, and I was interviewing these amazing people, and what I was essentially doing is distilling their story and coming up with like five to six succinct questions for the interviewer. And he was having all this fun, and I was like, “This is not so much fun for me,” you know, the person behind the scenes. And I could sense that there was something wrong.

So, I asked someone, “How do you break into film?” And they’re like, “Well, take this three-week summer workshop at the Ontario College of Art. It’s only three weeks, you can make the short film, and then you can find out whether or not you have the makings of a filmmaker.” So, I did, and what each person did in the class is they’d write like a short five-minute film, and the other class members would become their crew to help them shoot it. And I was trying to think of a topic. And just then it was … what was it, 1995? The Oklahoma bombing happened. And all across the “Toronto Star” were these like little pictures of Muslim suspects that were being pulled out of airplanes. And then like, I think a couple of days later, Timothy McVeigh, a white guy gets arrested. And I was like, “Wait, how is it we can go from Muslim suspects to a white guy.” And it was like the biggest domestic terrorism case in the U.S., you know, in its time.

And so, I thought to myself … you know, all these journalists were covering the story, but to me, I thought what I wanted to talk about was how sort of that gaze, that sort of Western journalistic gaze was so focused on Muslims they couldn’t see this other danger that existed in society, which is, you know, right-wing extremism. So, I decided to make a short film, and it was about two brothers who were sleeping in their bed one night, and the barbecue blows up and they’re accused of being Middle Eastern terrorists. And they’re trying to tell everyone, like, “We’re not even from the Middle East, like, we don’t know why the barbecue blew up. Like, why are we being arrested?”

And it turned out that there were these climate activists who are against carbon pollution in the air, and they were blowing up barbecues to make a point. And they accidentally blew up a barbecue in a Muslims home, but they couldn’t get attention for their cause because, you know, people were focusing on the Muslims. And so, they were picketing in front of the police saying, “It was us, it was us.” And one of them was yelling at the other guy going, “Why would you pick a home that was lived in by a Muslim and blow up their barbecue?” And he’s like, “How do we know the religious … you know, the denomination of the owners who own these barbecues? They’re economically neutral in backyards at night.” And so, I made this short, and the actors were hamming it up.

And when it aired at the Toronto International Film Festival, the audience was laughing. And the film festival told me, you know, “We’ve never had a film that, you know, has taken the issue of terrorism and they turned it into a satire.” And that’s when I realized that I had this ability of taking, like, political issues and turning them on their head, and looking at them through a different lens through comedy, and then getting people to talk about it in a way that they wouldn’t have seen this issue before. And that’s when I realized I had discovered my love.

Joni: When it comes to writing satire and writing comedy, how do you find the line between satire and just over the top, not believable ridiculousness. Because it’s a very fine line, and I’m just curious, like, how do you find it?

Zarqa: It’s a good question. Everyone asks me that all the time. And some people feel I have not found it. So, it’s so interesting even with this book, like, when I read the reviews, like, either people hate it, like, just can’t stand it and go, “My God, what is she thinking?” Or they just love it, and they’re like, “This is the most incredible thing.” Because it’s so new and they’ve never encountered comedy that deals with these subjects before. Like, no one’s ever dealt with ISIS as a satire ever before, and they don’t know how to take it. Like, even when I did, “Little Mosque on The Prairie,” it was a comedy about Muslims living in the West, having their, you know, regular problems in a mosque. But people weren’t sure how to take that because they had never seen it. And that wasn’t even edgy, that was just like, people cheating on their taxes and raising kids.

And some people were upset by that, they’re like, “What’s happening? What is she doing?” You know, even Muslims were like, “We’re being portrayed in this way.” And I was like, “Wouldn’t you be happy?” And they’re like, “No, we have to be perfect people, otherwise people will continue to demonize us.” And I’m like, “No, we have to show, you know, the world the humanity of Muslims, the good, the bad. We do make mistakes, and it’s okay to show people us making mistakes as parents, as, you know, employees, as employers.” And it took a long time for the Muslim community to come around and say, “Yeah, people aren’t gonna hate us if they see us, you know, being like, nasty to the neighbor.” They literally thought people would turn on them.

And what I had to tell the communities that we have to show ourselves as normal people, otherwise people will think it’s a propaganda and they’ll tune out. But if they see us as normal people doing normal things, then they could relate to us. And it’s through these really specific things that things become universal. And, you know, if they see like, the matriarch in the mosque domineering, or the patriarch in the mosque driving the women nuts, or the teenager being rebellious, I mean, those are archetypes that exist in all communities. And so, I started to realize that for some people who have never seen this type of work, it’s shocking and it takes time for them to absorb it, and to see it, and realize that nobody is gonna turn around on them and, you know, accuse them of being inhumane.

And so, it takes my work a while, particularly if it’s gonna be the first out of the gate, which I don’t realize until it’s too late, until the reviews start coming in and people get, like, outraged. So, I remember reading this review on Goodreads and the woman was like, “You know what? I don’t even know how to review this. It’s like, I don’t even know how to… What? Like, what is this?” And I think that’s a common refrain of my work for the first little bit, until people can absorb it, understand what it is. And until other work also comes out that’s similar to it because it’s new and people haven’t seen this type of work before.

Joni: Do you have a specific audience in mind? When you were writing, were you thinking about speaking to other Muslim women, or were you kind of trying to explain a little bit more about Islam, and like you were saying, represent something to your Western audience, or was that not really part of it, you were just writing?

Zarqa: It’s an interesting question because I was born and raised in the West, like, being Western is part of my identity, being Muslim is part of my identity. So, when I go out to write, I don’t really write to a specific audience, I just write. But because I understand both audiences really well, sometimes I’ll make a point of explaining a few things more clearly so that it’s not completely lost on people, especially when, you know, issues of Islam, or certain words, or terminology. But I wouldn’t say that I pick a certain audience. What I feel is best for me to do is just write to what I feel is real and true to myself, and what I’m personally going through, and what I wanna process in the world and understand. And I mean, for me, it was processing ISIS, and sort of American foreign policy and what it had done to sort of really destabilize that place.

And then it was also for me personally, as a Muslim woman, you know, who is practicing, who prays five times a day. You know, we have this saying in Islam, when you want to listen to God, you read the Quran, but when you wanna talk to God, you pray. And so, I wanted to use that device in the book where I’m using the prayers, where people are actually talking to God and saying, “This is how I feel. This is what’s happening.” Because that’s what I do. And that whole issue in Islam and in other spiritual practices where you seek help through prayer and patience. And through that process, you learn to trust God, and then you have certainty. And those are issues that I was grappling with at the time, like, what does that really mean to trust, and to be patient, and to have the certainty in your heart when you feel like you’re very uncertain, and you’re not very trusting, and you feel like things are not going your way? And how do you explore those issues and come full circle?

Because at that time, when I started writing my book, my publisher, HarperCollins, in Canada had rejected the novel. I had submitted the novel, the first draft, and they had published my memoir, they said, “No.” First of all, they wouldn’t give me an advance, like, “Well, she’s never written a novel before,” so, they wouldn’t do that. So, when I, you know, wrote the first draft on spec, they rejected it. And so, there was a sense of like, “Oh, no, like, am I gonna ever be able to make a piece of art again?” Because when you are in the world of freelance writing, you live from project to project, and there’s always this sense that the next one isn’t gonna happen. And then poof, that’s the end of my career. And I literally thought, “That is it, like, I’ve hit the end. I’m never gonna be able to make another television show again. I’m never gonna be able to write another book again. And this is sort of the end of my career.”

And so, I was in this really low place. So, if you read the book, you can kind of sense those prayers that were written in the beginning are, you know, of me going sort of like, “What’s happening? Like, why is this happening? This isn’t fair. How come other white people get way more than me? They don’t even believe in you.” And so, you know, there was a lot of bitterness and anger at the beginning of the book. And gradually over the six years as wrote it, and I had to hire editors to help me polish it because, you know, without an editor from a publishing house, I was on my own. So, you know, every time I would finish a new draft, I would hire someone and they would help me shape it. And, you know, say, “You gotta pull this out, gotta add this, gotta pull that out.” Because it was very heavy in terms of Middle Eastern history.

By the time I got to my, like, fifth or sixth editor, she was like, “You know what? This is like, one of the best manuscripts I’ve gotten all year. Like, it’s ready now. I think you need to go back and give it to your agent.” So, I did. And within days she sold it in Canada and the U.S. And it sort of answered that question, you know, that I had been asking at the beginning of the novels, “How long do you have to be patient? Like, does prayer really matter? Does it count? Does it ever come through for you? And is there light at the end of this tunnel?” And so, now, you know, eight years later I can look back and say, I feel like the character came through a cycle.

I came through the same cycle, where the book is published. I have another TV series coming out, and, you know, I’m in another place in my career. So, it started down here, I ended up here. And myself and Jameela followed the same kind of journey, I feel, through the book where we come full circle, and, you know, Jameela heals by helping somebody else. And it no longer matters to her if the book makes it to The New York Times bestseller list because she’s reconnected with her family, and her faith, and herself spiritually. So, for me, it was a very personal book, if that makes sense.

Rachel: I wanted to touch a little bit on the prayers that you mentioned throughout the book, because they come from the point of view of four different characters, if I’m remembering correctly. How did you find the distinct voices, because when somebody is talking to God, like that is their innermost voice? So, how did you find the voices for those characters?

Zarqa: I think it helped that I’m a sitcom writer. When I wrote, “Little Mosque on The Prairie,” there were like, I don’t know, nine characters and each voice had to be different. So, I was trained that way because you’d hear them speaking in your head, and you have to write for that voice, so partly it was the training. So, then when I created these characters, I used the same training to give them different nuances, you know, in their speech patterns. I mean, even now when I listen to people speak, I always like, pay attention to how people choose words and how they, you know, enunciate, you know, their choice of words.

And I think, having written for television helps a lot because then you can bring…those are transferable skills into writing books. Not all of them, but, you know, for example, like in books, a lot of the stuff is internal, like, monologues, you can’t transfer that into television. Television is very plot-based, which is why some books that we love so much turn out to be terrible films or television series. We’re like, “What happened?” And what happened was that a lot of that book was inside of someone’s head, and you can’t do that for television. If books are really well plotted, then those are the ones that turn out really well in television.

Joni: Do you think that…I mean, obviously in that sense it did, but do you think that your television writing does inform your fiction writing? Because actually when I think about it, the book is very…like, it is fast paced, like, I think it would translate well onto screen now that I think about it that way?

Zarqa: Yeah. The thing with writing for television is you’re very much trained to write, and, like, you know, you start with something exciting, there’s a problem, you gotta solve the problem, the problem gets worse. Then you try to solve that problem, and then you end on a hook. And there’s a very, you know, set formula for how episodes have to happen, and so, I would follow that formula for the chapters. And so, they have to end something, you know, that catches you, that you wanna get to the next chapter. You have to have an engine in a television series that just draw…you know, like, you know how when you’re watching TV, like, you have to binge watch now because you can’t stop because there’s something drawing you?

And so, it’s the same with books, something has to be making you turn those pages so that you will need to know what’s going on. And so, you perfect that craft in television writing. And then those are skills that were easy to carry on through writing a novel to make sure that you would end every chapter on a hook so that you would wanna turn the page and figure out what was going on. That there would be the driving force and energy in the book so that you would continue all the way through.

Rachel: You mentioned earlier that this was an eight-year process from the first time you sat down to write to the finished product. How many iterations of this book have existed?

Zarqa: Oh my God, that’s a good question. I would say six, six to close to eight, maybe the last two were more fine-tuned, but six major revisions happened in this book over this… Every year, it would be sort of…I would hire someone. And it was interesting to me because every time I would hire an editor, each editor had a different take or a different specialty. Like, one would be more plot, one would be more character, one would be more, you know, internal monologue. They would take a different aspect of the book, which is great. Because I have not been trained to write fiction, I’ve been trained as a television writer, so there’s a lot of skill needed to write a novel that I didn’t have. So, in that way it was like getting a creative writing degree.

When working with every editor, they would teach me something new about writing. And that was really important for me, because it’s an incredible skill to have. And this was the first time I had done it, and I needed someone to hold my hand and walk me through, you know, different aspects of novel writing. So, it was an incredible experience to have gone through. I mean, it was scary because you were like, “Is this gonna be worth it in the end?” Because you’re paying money. And my husband’s like, “Is this worth it?” And I’m like, “Well I’ve started and if I don’t finish it, you know, then I won’t know if I’ll be able to sell it. So, I have to finish it and go through this whole process.” But it was so lovely.

The final editor was like, “You gotta stop now, you’re becoming addicted. Enough with the editors, just submit this novel.” And my agent was like, “Wow, like, this has really changed from the first time you gave it to me.” And it’s like, the publishing world is getting more and more competitive, and the days where you could sort of hand in a novel that needs more work than normal, I think have ended. And editors are over-worked, and they need books to be almost perfect coming to them now. They just don’t have time to be working with writers.

And, you know, I tell this to writers all the time, like, even if you have to hire someone, do it. Submit the most polished version of that book as you possibly can, because there’s so much competition now that for editors, they need to read this and go, “Okay, this is clean.” Because when the editors bought my book, they were like, “This is a very clean manuscript,” because I had spent the six years working on it. Until I then spent the next, you know, two years just cleaning it up with them a bit more, and getting ready for the marketing and ultimately for the publication.

Rachel: If that final editor hadn’t said, “Stop, you’re good,” and had just given you another draft, do you know if you would have known when to stop?

Zarqa: That’s such a good question. I don’t know. I think I had become addicted to the editors because they were so nice to me, and they were giving me so much positive feedback. And I was so amazed by how much each of them was teaching me, like, I would learn so much from each editor. And I loved it, and I was really enjoying my experiences with them because it was like a one-on-one tutoring process. And that’s a good question, I think that I may have just kept going if she hadn’t been honest with me and said, “You’ve got to stop. Like, this is a really good book. Like, people submit manuscripts to me every year and I read them, and, you know, this is one of the best I got this year and it’s ready. So, just submit it.” And so, I did, and she was right.

Joni: So, once you got it picked up by a publisher, they were pretty much like, “Okay, this is good.” They didn’t make any major changes?

Zarqa: It got picked up both simultaneously by Simon & Schuster in Canada and HarperCollins in the U.S. And the editors both said to me, “This is a very clean book, we don’t have to do much to it.” You know how books are, there’s always something. But it wasn’t anything major, we just went through some cleanup and just a few logic things, and, you know, the grammar and punctuation which is always my challenge. But yeah, structurally, it was sound.

Joni: Right. Yeah. I think that’s pretty unusual. Yeah, Rachel and I have both done some editorial stuff, and you sound like a dream author to work with. Because I think one of the challenges, especially if you’re saying this is your first fiction book, is kind of knowing when to trust yourself. So, I don’t know whether this was something that came up with you, but did you ever have a point where the editor was like, “Here’s a suggestion,” and you kind of pushed back and said, “Actually, I did this for a reason,” or, “I feel like this is something that’s important.”

Zarqa: Yeah. There was one editor who thought that it was just too crazy a story, and I shouldn’t go to the Middle East, and just drop the whole Middle East section. And that I should just maybe have some sort of spy story taking place in North America. And I knew it was one of the reasons the book was being held back, was that people felt going to the Middle East was too much. And, you know, I just felt like, these were real stories, these sort things that I wasn’t making stuff up, this was happening. There were people who were leaving to the Middle East, there were so many stories in the newspaper about young people who had left and had gone there. And I’m like, “Why should I pull back this…like, I’m not making this up. This is the reality of the world. This is happening.”

And I felt like those editors weren’t either what was happening in the world, or, you know, hadn’t been paying attention to the headlines. And I decided just not to follow that editorial guidance, and just keep going and make this character go to the Middle East and deal with the issues there, and meet the people there. Because I know people thought it was over the top, but it wasn’t. It was actually stuff I was gleaning from the newspapers. And I was like, “Have you not been paying attention to what’s going on in the world?” And I’m glad that I stuck to my guns because it was the right decision to make. And I think that’s why people are having a hard time when they review this book. They’re just like, “I just don’t know what to say, like, this is so over the top.” Because the world was over the top.

And I see now with stories happening in Canada with the trucker convoy in Ottawa, and the reporters being overwhelmed, and they’re like, “How is this happening? Is this our country?” And they can’t get over it. And I remember that was how I was feeling when those stories were happening with ISIS, like, those things were actually happening and they seemed surreal at the time, but they were happening. And this book, to me, isn’t over the top because those were the things that were happening in the world at that time. And I think sometimes when they happen for the first time, people are overwhelmed. Like what we’re seeing in the Ukraine, people are like, “How is this happening to a Western country?” And I’m like, “These things happen to other countries too, and you just haven’t been paying attention.”

And you can kind of sense the double standards that are coming out. Like, I know a lot of reporters are being called out. And there was this one Eastern European politician going, “I can’t believe this is happening to blonde blue-eyed people.” And I’m like, “So, like, this should only be happening to people with dark skin, and then it’s okay because we don’t care about their humanity as much as we care about white people’s humanity?” And you can kinda see like, that sense of horror because it’s happening to white people. And you’re like, “Well, you know, this has been happening to brown or black people for a very long time, even worse.” And it’s hard for people to see that and to hear that. And I think because it’s a comedy, it’s crossing over to people who normally wouldn’t hear about these things. And I think it’s hard for people to read that, and to acknowledge that it’s real and I’m not making this stuff up.

Joni: I will say, I think it’s a good time for this kind of book, because for me like, everything is so heavy right now. And it was really, really great to read a book that was like, about things that are important and a really great social commentary, but also was really, really funny. And I thought that was…like, I needed it right now, I don’t know about you Rachel. But the world has seen a lot lately. Yeah. So, I feel like it’s a good time for it to come out. And it’s interesting hearing about mixed reviews because those are just pre like, arc reviews, right? Advanced copy reviews, because it comes out next week for real, so.

Zarqa: Yeah, no, I read it. It’s just like so…people will either be like, raving or they’ll be like, “I couldn’t finish it.” And it’s just like amazing, I’m just like, “Wow, like, I have to stop checking Goodreads, I’ve become a bit obsessive.” But it’s just so weird, the same book, right? Like, one person just said, “No, no, no.” And that was the review.

Joni: It’s funny. At least it’s getting strong opinions, that’s what you want, people talk about it. We do have a lot of authors on here that are very anti-checking their Goodreads.

Zarqa: Oh, are they? Okay, I actually…

Joni: Oh, yeah.

Zarqa: …stopped, right? Because my husband’s like, “What are you doing?”

Joni: They’re for readers, right? You don’t need to know. Just look at the good ones.

Zarqa: Okay. I will take your advice.

Rachel: One more question that I wanted to ask is, like, you had mentioned earlier that you weren’t writing for a specific audience generally. You grew up Muslim, but you’re in Canada so you had both audiences in mind. Were there ever any instances where you struggled with including explanations of Muslim culture for the Western side of the audience without making it too heavy-handed and too exposition-y?

Zarqa: It’s a good question. Like I sometimes do worry because this book is very much a book about faith and spirituality. But for some people who, I guess, aren’t into that sort of vibe, they got other things out of the book completely, like, they thought it was an international spy adventure, right? And that’s fine too, and I’m glad because for me it seems like it’s working on a lot of different layers for people. And for some people, they just wanted comedy, some people, they wanted to understand Middle Eastern policy, some people did wanna understand the spirituality of Islam. And so, what I’m realizing through my work is that I shouldn’t hold back for anything, I should just put it all out there, and be true to myself, and not be afraid and say, “Oh, this is gonna be coming across as she’s like, too God-centered person.”

And I’m like, no, because that’s who I am. But you know, I can write stories about a character who was struggling with spirituality, but still write a really hilarious spy novel, and send it out to editors. I always made sure that the editors were not Muslim so that if there was something that needed more explanation, they would tell me, “This isn’t making sense to me,” and I would add an extra bit of layer to that so that they would get it. But I always try to make sure that I don’t say, “Oh, I gotta pull back because non-Muslims won’t get that.” Because what I learned from making “Little Mosque on the Prairie” is that people actually craved those very specific details to my culture and faith. Because strangely enough, the more detailed and specific I became, they could relate to it more in their own life, even if they weren’t religious.

And it was so interesting to me, that was the big revelation of making “Little Mosque on the Prairie,” was the more specific I got, the more relatable the situation was, even to an atheist. And I thought, “That’s the weirdest concept I’ve ever come across.” But I think it’s because human beings, ultimately, we all have the same experiences through our own lenses, and that when you see the same experience through someone else’s lens, you can say, “That happened to me in this manner.” And even though something crazy happened to me at the mosque, someone will say, “That thing happened to me at my soccer association last week, that horrible woman did this to me.” And it’s just like, wow, like, you can talk about the most inane details of your life, or your practice, or your religion, or your community, and someone completely from another side of the world who doesn’t even know you or heard of Islam can say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I totally get it.”

And so, when I learned that from making the show, I felt like never hold back, just be totally true to your vision and what you believe. And don’t be embarrassed by the things, you know, that you believe in and do because it’ll shock you that the people that will relate to those things. It just still shocks me to this day. And so, I’ve decided just, you know, sort of put my blinkers on and just write about things that I care about and believe in and wanna get across, and don’t worry about what people will think and say. And then if there’s an editor who will say, “Okay, this is maybe…we need a little bit of terminology.” You know, like I had the saying, “Stop whining, wine is haram.” Like, haram is considered forbidden, things that are forbidden. So, I put it in there like once or twice so people would get it, and then I would leave it and then just put it in. And it’s kind of like a saying that, you know, young Muslims have, “Stop whining, wine is haram.” And I noticed that other authors also do that and I love, you know, learning about other people’s cultures and faiths and, you know, world views. And I think we should give people credit for being able to read books and immerse themselves in other people’s worlds, and be able to completely relate to them within our own world.

Joni: I think one of the places where this really comes across this like universal relatability is through food. And I think you use that in the book, but I think every culture has it. So, like, it might be a different food, but every culture has that thing where, you know, that’s how your mother is expressing love, or that’s how your…I don’t know, I think, she used it to manipulate people in some parts. And like, it’s very relatable, no matter what the different foods are that you’re dealing with or how your culture treats it, I think everybody has that. I thought that worked really, really well.

Zarqa: No, I’m glad that you thought that. And I remember one editor was like, “Okay, enough with the food.”

Rachel: Oh, really?

Zarqa: She’s like, “Just a little bit less.” Because I was just like going on and on. But I love reading descriptions of how food is prepared in books, I just love it. And there’s something about it, you know? Like, even like the Elizabeth Saunder books, you know, the dragon tattoos, like even when she would just pull out like coffee and like, frozen things from her freezer compartment. I don’t know why, but I would just love it. Because there’s something, like you say, so human about food, right? Like, every human has to eat it so we can relate to it.

Rachel: Aside from the, “No, no, no,” reviews and the people who don’t get the satire, what do you hope that your readers get from this book?

Zarqa: You know what, like I started this book with such sadness, right? And such despair and such hopelessness, like, you know, like my friends who are close to me were really getting worried about me. And what I really hope to tell people is like, just no matter how bad things are for you in your life, like, when you think that your career is over, and no one believes in you, and there’s no more avenues, you think every road is closed for you, I just want people to feel and know that that’s not true. And that whatever it is in your life that you believe in, even if you don’t believe in God, just to keep believing in yourself, and to gravitate to other people that can help you and believe in you. And seek help, just seek help from wherever you need to seek help, and not to lose yourself to despair.

That’s like my biggest lesson is don’t lose yourself to despair, do whatever it takes to find help because it does get better and things can turn around. If they can turn around for me, they can turn around for anybody. And that really was the theme of the book was that things will get better. And sometimes in order for things to get better…like, I was losing myself into self-pity and just, you know, naval gazing, and to just seeing myself as a victim is that sometimes you have to just stop feeling sorry for yourself, and to go out and help other people. There’s somebody else who has it worse than you. Find that person and help that person. And through helping that person, you can kind of help yourself, and help yourself heal, and find your way back. And that was the theme of the book in the end. I know that she had to go to the Middle East through this incredible adventure.

But, you know, like, my favorite part of the book is when Ibrahim starts to lose his faith and she’s like, “Oh my God, I can’t be the one who broke him,” right? Because he had been the one that had kept her strong for so long, and then he was starting to lose it. And then she’s having to tell him all the things he was telling her about being strong, and believing, and not losing her faith. And she’s like parroting all this stuff because she’s like, you know, “I can’t be the one who destroys him.” And then I wanted the book to be about even the strongest person like Ibrahim could still go to the edge and possibly lose it, and needed help to come back, and how they help each other come back, and how she heals in the end and comes full circle. And that ultimately was the message of the book for me, was to be a beacon of hope for people and say, no matter how bad things get, you know, you’ll make it. You’ll make it, just hang in there.

Joni: That’s a great message for right now. I think we all need a bit of hope. It’s not on Kobo, but I wondered is there an audio book in the works?

Zarqa: Yeah, I just finished.

Joni: Exciting.

Zarqa: I was on Goodreads yesterday, and one of the reviewers said they got a copy of the audio book, which I don’t even have. And she goes, “It was great.” And I was like, “Oh my gosh, there’s an audio version.”

Joni: Okay, great.

Zarqa: Yeah. So, I think I asked the publisher, “Hey, you know, could I listen to it?” So, yeah, there’s an audio version, I think it just must have gotten finished. Because I was talking to Aiza Fatima, who is the narrator, and she had just told me that it was a great experience for her. It was the first time she had, I think, narrated an entire novel. And it was really important for me to get a Muslim woman to narrate it. And I had asked the publisher to find someone, and they had found her through an organization called Muslim Casting because they had sent me a whole bunch of names, and none of them were Muslim women. And I felt, “No, this book really needs a Muslim woman to narrate it,” and that was really important to me. And so, a friend of mine put me in touch with this organization called Muslim Casting, and they gave several names and I chose one. And she just finished. And I’ve heard on Goodreads that it’s a really fun audio book. So, there you go, you guys, this is why one should obsessively look at that, right? Because you can glean some interesting tidbits.

Joni: I know, it’s funny when you learn things like that on Goodreads. I still love Goodreads, I’m not gonna lie. Okay, so hopefully by the time this comes out, the audio book will be out and then we can link to both. Where can listeners find you online?

Zarqa: Well, I have a website called zarqanawaz.com and that’s where I have all my information. I’m on Twitter, I’m on Instagram, I’m on Facebook. I’m not really great at social media because I’m old, but I have people who help me. And so, I post regularly when podcasts like this come out, or reviews of the book, or whatever I’m doing. As you know, I have a web series coming out on May 13th on CBC Gem for Canadian viewers, so, that’s coming out. At the same time, the American book is coming out on May 10th, so, those are two big projects, the book and the web series coming out within months of each other.

Rachel: And the web series is semi-autobiographical, if I’m…

Zarqa: Well, I’m not divorced…

Rachel: …correct?

Zarqa: …so I wanna tell people that now, because it is about a divorced Muslim woman. I just had to make her divorce because I was reading these think pieces by all these brown Muslim women who are really mad. There was a movie that came out a couple of years ago called, “The Big Sick.” Never even had a chance to watch it, because the reviews by these women were so angry. And they were like, “Why is it when brown men do romantic comedies in Hollywood, they date these kind of damaged brown Muslim women who look like they’re just comic foiled, until they finally find the white woman who is the ultimate trophy.” And they’re like, “What’s wrong with us?” And so, I thought that was hilarious. So, I thought, wouldn’t it be funny if a divorced Muslim woman, her ex posts that he’s gonna, you know, marry a white yoga instructor half his age as his white trophy.

And she gets really mad, and she says, “Well that’s fine. I’ll be there at the wedding with my white trophy, Brian, the brain surgeon,” right? So, she’s gonna compete with her white trophy against his white trophy. And then I thought that was such a great premise for a television series. And so, the series is about a bitter divorced Muslim woman who’s really jealous and really vindictive. And so, she goes out to find a white brain surgeon named Brian so she can enact her revenge scenario at this wedding. So, it’s a comedy about how she goes out and destroys people’s lives because poor Brian…she does find Brian, but Brian wants a real relationship, he doesn’t want to be arm candy at this wedding until she’s forced to…but he’s very nerdy and, you know, he wants to go on dates, like really white boring dates like birding, and she’s having to do all this stuff that’s she’s never done before, and she can’t believe…but she has to go along.

And it’s a comedy about, you know, a brown vindictive Muslim woman who makes terrible decisions in her life and causes chaos. And I wanted to show, we’ve never had a television series where you’ve got a brown Muslim woman in hijab being desired by men, right? First of all, there’s no romantic comedy about a brown Muslim woman in hijab being desired by anyone. So, I thought I wanted to create this character that we’ve never seen on television before, which is probably gonna get me in trouble. So, it’s a comedy about her and her romance, and how she, you know, reignites her ex who suddenly is like, “Why is she getting all the attention from these men, and the Imam from the…” I always have to have an Imam because they’re just so cooky and funny in real life that… So, she reignites her relationship with the Imam at the mosque when Brian wants to convert. And so, she has all these men suddenly that she’s not really interested in, but who inadvertently she’s caused them to be interested in her. And it’s a comedy about her going out and causing chaos in the world through her, you know, need for revenge. So, anyway, if that strikes you as funny, that show will be airing. It’s a short form web series, it’ll be airing on CBC on May 13th.

Rachel: That sounds really funny.

Zarqa: There you go. So, not autobiographical. I’m married to a lovely man who would like everyone to know that he has not left me for a white yoga instructor.

Joni: That’s hilarious that you have to specify that. I love it. Perfect. Well, hopefully, we’ll try and get this to come out around the same time, so we’ll be able to link to that. And people can go check it out for themselves. And can we ask you about some books that you’ve been reading?

Zarqa: Yeah. I have terrible insomnia, so I listen to audio books for hours at night trying to go to sleep. The one that I was listening to last night, “The Brilliant Life of Eudora Honeysett.” Have you heard of that one?

Joni: I have not.

Zarqa: I’m listening to that right now. I listened to, “The Hate You Give.” And these audio…

Joni: That…it’s very good on audio.

Zarqa: Oh, my God. These narrators are just amazing. I listened to, “The Farm.” Have you listened to that one?

Joni: I read that one.

Zarqa: Did you read that one?

Joni: Yeah, I read that too.

Zarqa: Because the audio book was just… Isn’t it incredible? The audio book is just… “The Vanishing Half?”

Joni: Oh, yeah. That, yeah.

Rachel: Such a good book.

Joni: Really good.

Zarqa: So, I’ve just listened to the audio book. “The Poppy War?”

Joni: No, I do not know that one.

Zarqa: It’s a fantastical depiction of a war, I believe, in Japan, but it’s like a three-part series. I’ve just listened to the first one. It’s an amazing [inaudible 00:43:58].

Joni: What’s the name? The Poppy…

Zarqa: “The Poppy War”

Joni: “The Poppy War.” Okay, awesome. I love getting things to add to my list. What’s next on your to-read list?

Zarqa: I finished listening to, “The Maid.” That was…

Joni: Oh, I just read that one. Yeah, it just came out recently. It was good. It was a real, like, quick and easy, fun read.

Zarqa: I’m listening to non-fiction, “The Guest House for Widows.” That was an amazing book. This is not a very heavy book, I should tell you. But it was about women who had left to join ISIS. And I really enjoyed listening to that one because the narrator did such an incredible job of depicting the various, you know, women who had left.

Rachel: Do you read/listen a lot while you’re writing, or do you try to stay in your own fictional world while you’re writing your books and TV shows?

Zarqa: It depends on what’s going on in my life. Like right now, I’m in post-production, so I’m only listening to audio books, because I don’t have time. Because between the book coming out, and the web series coming out, like, during the day, like, I’m doing this sort of thing, interviews, and watching cuts of the show, and dealing with my editors, so I have no time to read. So, I listen to the audio books to catch up. And strangely enough, I’ve gotten through way more books, because your eyes are so tired, you guys, on the screen. And when you guys age, you’ll find out that there’s only so many hours your eyes can do it before they just dry up, and they’re like, “No more.” So then I can close my eyes and I can just listen to a book at night.

And it’s so lovely to immerse yourself in that story world. So, I try to listen to a wide range of stories, and I try to force myself also to listen to non-fiction, you know, to educate myself, or historical fiction, just to understand stories, you know, in different parts of the world, which is why “The Poppy War” was great. I finished, “Pachinko” Min Jin Lee’s book. It was about how Japan had colonized Korea, and I had no idea. It’s being turned into a series for Apple, and I had no idea. And her books are long, like, she wrote, “Free Food for Millionaires.” These are like 500-page books, like, we’re told you can’t go over a certain number, but she somehow is allowed to by her editors.

And, you know, she has a Korean background, and so I love reading historical novels so I could understand parts of the world that I haven’t been aware of. And so, I did not know that Japan colonized Korea, and what it was like for Koreans living in Japan at the time and how they were treated. So, that was a really amazing book to read. And then to find that it’s being turned into a television series, extra bonus, right? Because when you come to a book late in life, you know, it’s been out for a few years, but they’ve already finished making this series and you’re like, “Oh my God, now I get to watch this series.” That was a great bonus to have.

Joni: Yeah. That’s good timing. That’s been on my list for ages. So, maybe that’ll be what gets me to pick it up.

Zarqa: Listen to it. It’s amazing book to listen to [crosstalk 00:46:50].

Joni: It’s good on audio? Okay.

Zarqa: Yeah.

Joni: Okay. Good to know. Awesome. Well, this has been great, thank you so much for doing it. Thank you for your time, we’ve been chatting for ages.

Zarqa: It’s been fantastic. Thank you, guys.

Rachel: Thank you for listening to the “Kobo Writing Life Podcast.” If you’re interested in picking up “Jameela Green Ruins Everything,” or looking into Zarqa’s web series or, “Little Mosque on the Prairie,” we will include links in our show notes. If you are enjoying this podcast, please be sure to rate, review, and subscribe. And if you’re looking for more tips on growing your self-publishing business, you can find us at kobowritinglife.com. And be sure you are following us on socials. We are @KoboWritingLife on Facebook and Twitter, and at @kobo.writing.life on Instagram.

Joni: This episode was produced by Rachel Warden and Joni Di Placido. Our editor is Kelly Robotham. Our theme music is composed by Tear Jerker. And a big thank you to Zarqa Nawaz for being your guest today. If you’re ready to start your self-publishing journey, sign up for free at kobo.com/writinglife. Until next time, happy writing.