"I learned early that the best way to get people on your side, the best way to get people to see your side, is to make them laugh."
Lone Star Literary Life: Ms. Fahmy, your latest book, That Can Be Arranged: A Muslim Love Story (Andrews McMeel, March 2020), is the story of an observant Muslim woman finding a husband in the twenty-first century—specifically, it’s the story of how you met your husband. Please tell us about your new book and your inspiration for writing it.
Huda Fahmy: I feel like this story has been writing itself for years. Since I was a kid, I’d been a huge fan of rom coms and love novels—the star-crossed lovers, the romancing, the dates, the grand gestures. I knew my own love story was going to be a bit different; it was going to be arranged. I found it frustrating that society saw my love story as backwards and archaic. I couldn’t understand why people had a problem with two adults consenting to being set up when things like blind dates and Tinder existed. So, I was inspired to try and change that perception by writing my book.
The marketing copy for That Can Be Arranged says, “Chaperones, suitors, and arranged marriages aren't only reserved for the heroines of a Jane Austen novel.” What are the commonalities and the differences between an Austen novel and the experiences of contemporary Muslim women?
I’d like to take a moment to note that Muslim women are complex and nuanced. I avoid making generalizations about the experiences of Muslim women as a whole because the way I went about finding a partner, while common in many Muslim communities, is not the only way Muslim women get married and find love. Having said that, I’ve always compared the way my community approached arranged marriages to an Austen novel. I found it hilarious that the mothers in Austen’s novels were obsessed with finding their daughters a husband. They would do their research and relay the information to the family. (Did you know that Mr. Darcy makes 10,000 pounds a year!) Similarly, the aunties in my community (my mother included) were fountains of information when it came to sharing data on a potential suitor. In Austen’s novels, the men and women had the chance to scope each other out at balls, whereas in my community the scoping out was done mainly by the matriarch of the family at weddings or social gatherings. But in both cases, the couple ultimately would meet to sit and talk about this and that (while being heavily chaperoned) until the time came when both would accept (or reject) the engagement.
Your first book is Yes, I’m Hot in This: The Hilarious Truth About Life in a Hijab (Adams Media, 2018). Please tell us how you came to write your first book and about your first big break in publishing.
I had been drawing my webcomic series Yes, I’m Hot in This and sharing it on social media for about a year before my friend and mutual webcomic artist Marzi Wilson of Introvert Doodles pitched me to her editor at Adams Media. They loved my work and found value in my story and voice, and we worked together to create the comic collection that became my first book!
You grew up a lover of comics in Dearborn, Michigan, graduating from the University of Michigan and becoming an English teacher. Please talk about what you liked to read growing up and the comics that spoke to you. How are graphic novels different now and which graphic novels would you recommend to Texas readers who’ve not read the form?
I started reading comics in the third grade as a way to learn English. Though I was born in Detroit, my parents only spoke to me and my sisters in Arabic. Once we started public school, however, they realized we needed to pick up English quickly. My English instructor of choice was Garfield. I would go through the Sunday paper and find the comics section and devour every strip. I found my true love in comic strips when I picked up my first Calvin and Hobbes collection at age ten. I also read The Far Side, Dilbert, Zits, and Cathy.
I greatly admired the skill it took to tell a joke in just a few panels—facial expressions, punchlines, text bubble format. I took it all in. When I finally got into graphic novels as a teenager, it became more about telling a story than it was about telling a joke. I love that graphic novels are becoming more and more popular. I would recommend any graphic novel by Raina Telgemeier and Svetlana Chmakova.
You also illustrate your books. Have you always drawn? Which comes first, the words or the images?
Definitely the words. I have always wanted to draw but wasn’t very good at it. I doodled mostly. I knew I had the words, I knew I had the story, and I knew I had the perfect medium in webcomics. I wasn’t gonna let a little something like not knowing how to draw stop me! With practice, my illustrations became better and better until I found a style that best suited my voice.
How important is humor in bringing disparate peoples and cultures together? Is humor a natural reaction for you or was it a decision?
Humor is so important to how I view the world and react to situations. It is my natural coping mechanism. My whole life I’ve wanted to make people laugh, but it was also important that I make them think, too. I learned early that the best way to get people on your side, the best way to get people to see your side, is to make them laugh. Laughter brings us together.
I think Americans tend to think of Muslims as a monolith, as if there aren’t a few billion individuals in the world. Would you please recommend other Muslim writers, historical and contemporary, who you think can provide a diversity of Muslim voices and stories for those of us who need a place to begin?
S. K. Ali, Uzma Jalaluddin, Asmaa Hussein, Ruby Moore (aka Umm Zakiyyah), Rukhsana Khan, Nadine Jolie Courtney, Leah Vernon, Blair Imani, Hend Amry, Rowaida Abdelaziz, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, and Angelica Lindsey-Ali
Since this is Lone Star Lit, I always ask what Texas means to a writer and their work. How did you come to Texas and how do you think the Lone Star State has shaped your writing and career? Which Texas writers do you admire and why?
I met my husband (a native Texan) in 2010 and moved to Texas in 2011. I often tell my family and friends that I was always meant to be a Texan. I love it here. The gorgeous blue skies we get nearly year-round definitely help shape my mood and motivate me to get up and get to work. I’m grateful to be part of a diverse community where I can continue to grow as a Muslim, woman, wife, mother, and author. One of my favorite series growing up was the Wayside School series by Louis Sachar of Austin! The stories were smart and silly, and it’s a balance I try to maintain in my own sense of humor to this day. And one of my more recent obsessions is with Hafsah Faizal of Dallas and her series, We Hunt the Flame.
Can you tell us what’s next for you and your work?
I’m really excited to say that I’m currently working on a YA coming-of-age graphic novel! I don’t know how much I can reveal right now, so all I’ll say is keep an eye out.
What books are on your nightstand?
We Hunt the Flame by Hafsah Faizal, Once Upon a Eid edited by S. K. Ali and Aisha Saeed, and American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
Huda Fahmy grew up in Dearborn, Michigan, and has loved comics since she was a kid. She attended the University of Michigan, majoring in English. She taught English to middle and high schoolers for eight years before she started writing about her experiences as a visibly Muslim woman in America and was encouraged by her older sister to turn these stories into comics. She is the author and illustrator of the internationally successful webcomic, Yes, I'm Hot in This, and the new release, That Can Be Arranged. Between drawing, and googling "breathable cotton dresses," Fahmy enjoys spending time at home in Houston with her husband, Gehad, and their son. She continues to identify as a hopeless romantic. Her writing and illustrations can be found on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook under the handle @yesimhotinthis.