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Flying the Flag for Underrepresented Writers

It’s fair to say that books and writing have always played a huge part in the life of Leicester’s Farhana Shaikh – a multi-talented author, publisher and literary activist, who has devoted herself to championing regional and diverse voices across the UK…

Since 2007, Farhana has been raising the profile of South Asian writers through ‘The Asian Writer’ – a popular online magazine, which provides a platform for new and emerging writers. She also runs competitions like the ‘Leicester Book Prize’ and the ‘Leicester Writes’ short story contest – competitions designed to encourage new writers and to reward the efforts of those who excel.

Picture: Farhana Shaikh

In 2010, Farhana went one step further in her mission to champion underrepresented writers, by setting up ‘Dahlia Publishing’ – a small independent publishing press which gives writers- especially marginalised voices, an opportunity to get published.

When it comes to encouraging new writers and promoting diversity, Farhana is an admirable, and seemingly unstoppable force.

“I suppose it comes from a deep desire to connect, and also from feeling quite invisible,” said the writer, when asked where her immense literary drive comes from.

“Originally my motivation for setting up ‘The Asian Writer’ was a really selfish need to see myself represented, and
to connect with writers who share the same background as myself,” she went on to reveal.

“Following conversations, I began to hear the same things from many of them – ‘it’s really hard to get published,’ ‘we don’t feel understood by the industry’ and ‘we don’t feel like the stories we’re telling are valued.’

“Many were struggling with how to write, or were distracted by the pressure to pursue a more traditional career like accountancy or medicine.

“I did a publishing degree, so I felt that I was in a position to offer a platform for talent which may not otherwise have had a chance to grow. That’s how Dahlia Publishing was born.

Lifting people up and allowing them the opportunity to tell their stories as widely as possible inspires me to continue to write as well.

Picture: Kev Ryan

Since it was set up, Dahlia Books has published short stories by writers like Susmita Bhattacharya and Catherine Menon, who’ve gone on to have their collections broadcast on Radio 4 Extra.

Farhana admits that in recent years she has put her own writing on the back- burner in order to champion other writers and help them develop their craft.

However, she has had her fair share of literary success, including winning the inaugural Travelex/Penguin Next Great Travel Writer Competition back In 2017. She was also long-listed for the 2018 Spread the Word Life Writing Prize for her memoir about growing up in 1980s Leicester.

This summer, she secured her greatest achievement to date; being long-listed for the coveted 2023 Women’s Prize for Fiction.

Farhana was one of 16 new authors to be selected out of nearly 3,000 entries, with judges praising her debut novel ‘No Place for a Young Woman.’

The book, a reimagining of the classic novel ‘Pride and Prejudice’, features a mother who is desperate to get her daughters married off.

“It’s a celebration of sisterhood and follows the lives of four very different siblings living in India in the 1960s and the tensions and experiences they encounter,” she explained.

“It is a contemporary novel, exploring issues such as how young women have agency over their lives and what it means to love and be loved.

“Very little has been written about this exciting period in history when Bollywood was capturing the imagination of young women, and Indira Gandhi – India’s first female prime minister – was rising through the political ranks.”

Farhana says that writing is her way of trying to make sense of the world. Her motivation is to entertain others and she loves the idea of moving people with her words.

“Ultimately, having that power to entertain others -make them laugh or cry, is where the real joy lies,” she told Pukaar.

“My novel’s really about what it means to love broken people and that’s something that I think I’m always exploring in all my work.

“You have to be able to tap into enough vulnerability to be able to write meaningfully – even with fiction,” she added. “You are writing from a place of truth and you’re writing about what you know.

“Whether it’s the world you know or the cultures that you know, or even an amalgamation of the people that you know, ultimately you are writing about yourself and how you’ve navigated the world. With that comes the need to dig deeper into yourself to be able to write from a place of truth.”

Asked about her advice for other aspiring writers, Farhana said it’s important to “write what you love and to write with abandon for yourself first.”

“When you’re writing a novel you’re trying to entertain yourself first of all, and to create something meaningful – something that you really care about,” she said.

“Allow yourself the freedom to be as creative, original and as authentic as you want, and there’s a really good chance it will resonate with others.”

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