Four weeks before the release of her debut novel, author Sabina Khan tweeted she hadn't been sure anyone would read her story when she first began writing.
"I wasn't sure if anyone would want to read about the struggles of a Muslim lesbian from an immigrant family," Khan, 50, wrote.
Her fears, so far, have been proven incorrect: "The Love & Lies of Rukhsana Ali" has appeared on several lists of anticipated reads, including being called one of Seventeen Magazine's best young adult reads of the year.
In “The Love & Lies of Rukhsana Ali,” scheduled to be released Jan. 29, the title character Rukhsana is an ambitious teen who often chafes at her parents strict rules when it comes to clothing and behavior. But Rukhsana also has a secret, which is that she has been covertly been dating her classmate Ariana for months. When the young couple are abruptly discovered, Rukhsana’s parents decide to send her to their native Bangladesh in the hopes of getting her away from Western influences and to get her married to a man.
Khan said she was largely inspired by the experiences of one of her daughters, who came out as queer when she was 17, and the reaction from their community. While talking to her daughter and her friends in the LGBT community about their experiences, Khan noticed that many of them struggled with coming out to their parents for fear of how they would react.
“It was across cultures and this is why I felt that this story might resonate even with someone who was not Muslim or not South Asian,” said Khan. “I think that’s heartbreaking that a child doesn’t feel safe and comfortable with their own family. But the fact is that I’ve heard from other teens who read this book and say, ‘This is my life. I can’t talk to my parents. Nobody knows. I have to live in this secret way.'"
Like the fictional Rukhsana, coming out to their families is a major concern for many Muslim American teens. In November, the Muslim Youth Leadership Council released a resource guide for young LGBTQ+ Muslims in hopes of encouraging more people to share their stories.
“It can often further isolate young Muslims when they they think, ‘Oh, since I could never possibly come out to my parents right now that means that I can’t be queer,’ and that further invalidates their identity,” Khadija Khan, the Muslim and International Youth Leadership Councils coordinator at Advocates for Youth, told NBC News last year.
In addition to drawing from her daughter’s experiences — Khan said both of her now-adult children have given her feedback on her manuscript — Khan also recalled her own experience as a 20-something when she married outside of her faith to a Hindu man. “The reactions were so negative. I have heard negative comments and reactions all my married life. These feelings of when people shun you because of who you marry or who you love, it’s the same whether it is because of a different religion or a same gender," she said.
Khan added that she’s received some feedback from non-South Asian readers that Rukhsana’s parents’ decision to move her to Bangladesh because of her same-sex relationship was extreme. The United States State Department considers forced marriage to be human rights abuse and Khan stressed that it happens far more than people may realize.
“There are forced marriages even in to this day,” she said, noting she's been aware of some parents bringing their South Asian American children to the subcontinent to do so because the teen began dating or hanging out with the "wrong crowd."
Ultimately Khan hopes that her book will help Muslim and South Asian LGBTQ teens feel less alone and inspire more conversations about their own experiences.
“There are a hundred different versions of Rukhsana's story out there and it would still be about a South Asian LGBTQ Muslim,” said Khan. “There are so many complex issues to explore so you could write a hundred stories. Because somebody is living a version of those stories in real life.”