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Author Hafsah Faizal remembers the moment a trip to the library changed the course of her life. She was a home-schooled teenager who often felt lonely and did not particularly like to read. That was when her dad took her to the teen section of their local library.
There, Faizal learned about the library’s blog for teen readers and a program that gave them advance copies of books in exchange for reviews. She was instantly intrigued and surprised that she connected to her new books in a way that she hadn’t when she was younger. A librarian suggested Faizal go into blogging, and she began IceyBooks in 2010 as a 17-year-old.
“It was always YA and sometimes middle grade books,” Faizal said of her blog, using the acronym for young adult fiction. Her blog quickly caught on in the then-burgeoning online young adult book community. And as Faizal became immersed in the ins and outs of what made a good young adult novel, she eventually wrote her own.
“We Hunt The Flame,” Faizal's new fantasy novel set in a fictional ancient Arabia, is slated for release May 14 from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, an imprint of Macmillian Publishers. She began writing the manuscript about six years ago.
“I sometimes had this really crazy dream of, ‘I am reading all of these books. Why don’t I just try writing?’” Faizal, 25, said.
“We Hunt The Flame” follows the bold Zafira, a teen girl from the fictional land of Arawiya who disguises herself as a man in order to provide for her people.
While writing any debut novel can take years, Faizal also started over early on in the writing process because she realized that something about her books' setting didn’t feel right.
“At the time, most of the fantasy that I read and that I knew about was all Eurocentric, so I was setting my story in a Eurocentric world too,” she said of her first draft. “Zafira was named Ember or something like that.”
Things began to change when Faizal began sketching a map of what she imagined her setting looked like.
“The map closely resembled the Mediterranean region, and that is so close to Arabia. I thought, ‘Why am I not setting it in a place that is more familiar to me?’” Faizal, who is of Sri Lankan and Arab descent, said. “So I redid the whole thing.”
While Faizal is very open about her life as a Muslim author now, very few readers knew that she is Muslim who wears a niqab — the veil some Muslim women wear to cover their faces — for the first few years of her blogging career.
She had used her website's logo across the internet, and most of her readers had no idea what she look like. It wasn't until she started writing the final version of "We Hunt The Flame" that she posted a photo of herself online, Faizal recalled.
Now, Faizal often answers questions about Muslim culture and her decision to wear a veil, which she has done since she was 11 years old.
“The more my platform grew, the more worried I became — ‘Once they see that I wear this, will they just disappear?’ ‘Will they treat me differently?’" she said. “I was just worried about a whole bunch of things. But once I put my photo online, it was perfectly fine.”
In fact, Faizal said she has heard from other Muslim girls and women about what it meant to them to see a visibly Muslim woman in pop culture. Faizal applied that lesson to her book as well.
“It was important to me because people keep seeing this region as either demonized or as romanticized in fiction,” she said, referring to the Middle East. “so when I started ‘We Hunt The Flame,’ I wanted it to be a place that was home.”
Faizal is currently busy at work writing the follow-up to “We Hunt The Flame.” But she's not ruling out writing a book with explicitly Muslim characters in the future.
“Maybe one day I’ll write a book with hijabis in it,” she said. “I feel like as much as I want our own people to see ourselves in books, writing these stories also means introducing others to these cultures.”