Book: You Must Be Layla
Author: Yassmin Abdel-Magied
“Yassmin Abdel-Magied is a Sudanese-Australian writer, broadcaster, and award-winning social advocate with a background in mechanical engineering.
Yassmin published her best-selling memoir, Yassmin's Story, with Penguin Random House at age 24, following up with her first novel for younger readers, You Must Be Layla, in 2019. The sequel, Listen Layla, is scheduled for release in 2021 and both books have been optioned for screen. Her TV show Same Same, co-created with Tania Safi, was optioned for production by Little Dot Studios in 2019.
In 2020, Yassmin co-writes the sold-out immersive theatre production at Kensington Palace, United Queendom, and was awarded the prestigious Keesing Studio International Development Residency by the Australia Council. Beyond her fiction work, Yassmin’s social commentary has appeared in TIME magazine, The Guardian, Teen Vogue, The Independent, Huffpost, London’s Evening Standard, and more, with her work on the Sudanese Revolutions of particular note. Her critically acclaimed essays have also been published widely, including in the best-selling It’s Not About The Burqa and The New Daughters of Africa.” - (www.yassminam.com)
1. Layla is a very witty and heartfelt character, how much of her high school story relates to your own personal upbringing?
"You Must Be Layla" has so many similarities with my own upbringing. Just like Layla, I was a kid who went to a small Islamic primary school and then got a scholarship to a fancy high school. I was also the first kid to wear a hijab at the new school – of 2200 students! Although I wasn’t as feisty as Layla, I definitely had to find ways of dealing with the ignorance and prejudice of the kids at my school, and it wasn’t always straight forward. Oh, and most importantly – tech class was my favorite subject, just like Layla.
2. This book is in a unique lane of YA books written by marginalized communities, how important was it for you to tell an authentic story from this perspective?
Hugely. In fact, the drive to create ‘own-voices’ work was a key part of why I decided to write "You Must Be Layla". I would have loved to read a book that reflected my reality when I was a kid and was spurred on by the Toni Morrison quote 'If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.'Work written by minoritized authors often addresses vital social issues but isn't only defined by them. Their work allows characters to be fully developed; flawed, lovable, human.
3. In your opinion, how can schools continue to create safer environments for people of color?
There is so much to be done. Schools can start by deciding that this is going to be a core value, and commit to that through every aspect of their operations. Transformative change is not easy, but it is vital.
There is so much work to be done in tackling the representation and myths around Muslims in Britain. We need to see stories that reflect the multiplicity of Muslim experiences, humanizing Muslims, and placing us as part and parcel of the British fabric. There is also a lot to be done on the policy and political side, but with the public perceptions and rhetoric around immigration as toxic as it has been (a rhetoric often also tied into Islam) not much will change. We need new stories.
5. Overall, what was your writing process like for this book?
I tend to be all over the place! My first draft was written quite quickly, in about a month, and then there was a lot of back and forth with my editors, shaping it into what it is today. The plot came fairly easily to me, as I used a lot of my personal experience to set it up, but the invention needed a little research – I looked at the various science fairs around the world for inspiration!
Younger readers are not interested in being preached to or patronized. It is easy to fall into the trap of being too earnest and worthy, or to shy away completely from the issues, pretending they don’t exist. The challenge is to present things how they are, but not in such a way that it is overwhelming or too dark, but in a way that shows the hope as well as the tragedy, in a way that respects the agency and optimism of youth. I like to think back to how I saw the world as a kid and attempt to channel that clear-eyed nature in the worlds that I create.
7. What do you hope readers of “You Must Be Layla” take away from it?
I want them to have had a laugh, learn about what it’s like to be different, and also know they don’t have to be defined by their difference. I want them to delve into the experience of being Sudanese and Australian, an adventurer, and a lover of invention – and I hope it gives them the spark of curiosity needed to go on an adventure of their own!
8. What’s your best advice for getting over writer’s block?
Oh gosh. Firstly – we all get it, so don’t let it make you feel like any less of a writer! Secondly – your creative ‘cup’ might be empty, so find ways to fill it. I usually fill it by reading something, watching something, or taking a complete break from everything and going for a long drive / cycle / chat with some friends. Even a walk around the block (with a mask!) can help. Also, give it time, and be kind to yourself!
9. Do you plan on writing more books in the future?
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