(July 14, 2022) Growing up in the UK, young Sufiya Ahmed loved immersing herself in the world of adventure – thanks to Enid Blyton. Her books were a perfect gateway, an escape into a magical world. Flipping through the pages of The Famous Five series, she often found herself following Julian, Dick, Anne, George, and Timmy on their epic journeys to find treasure or stumble upon a circus troupe with them. That was the magic of The Famous Five for Sufiya. But little did the author know that decades later, she would give a South Asian spin to the classic, the much-loved series with her own storytelling.
The four-book series is an ode to Enid Blyton from her “huge fan” Sufiya. “She’s up there on my presentation slide as an author who inspired me in my school talks. When I was asked if I’d like to pen new adventures with the Famous Five characters, I immediately said yes,” smiles the author. However, the new adventures are more reflective of the modern times. “Whether it’s The Famous Five, The Secret Seven, or the girls at Malory Towers, these are beloved characters and I’m just making the setting for their adventures more reflective of the world that young readers live in, without changing the essence of their appeal,” she tells Global Indian, adding, “The Five still love the countryside and the coast, go camping on their island and are good-hearted children who help their friends and neighbours and of course, are devoted to Timmy the dog!” The two released books have already captured the imagination of children in the UK, Portugal, and Spain.
A popular name in the children’s fiction space, the British-Indian author is one of the few authors giving voice to South Asian characters through her books – My Story: Princess Sophia Duleep Singh and Noor-in-Nissa Inayat Khan – something that’s been missing from mainstream literature for too long. “Noor and Sophia’s stories are about our shared history and I feel they can add to the sense of belonging for British South Asians to our home country,” adds the winner of the Redbridge Children’s Book Award.
A writer in the making
Born at her nani‘s house in Gujarat, Sufiya found herself surrounded by love and care as a baby. “I was the first grandchild who was adored by the extended family and who was constantly fed ladoos as an expression of love,” she laughs. But she soon returned to the north of England where “much of the migration after WWII had occurred.” At age four, she moved to London where she attended a girls’ school. But it was the public library that was her sanctum while growing up. Being a voracious reader, she loved borrowing books from the library per week for free. While she devoured books, she was also a huge Bollywood fan who loved Zeenat Aman and Sridevi.
At age eight, she wielded the pen and started writing her own stories. Being an ardent fan of Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl, she “would copy their first few chapters word-for-word in my exercise book and then halfway through, let my imagination come up with my ending.” Her stories developed with time, and when she turned 14, Sufiya convinced her mother to buy a typewriter to write her stories and send them to publishers. Amid the clickety-clack of her typewriter, she happily typed a story and sent it to Puffin Books. However, her dreams of being a published teen author crashed as she never heard back from them. “Years later, my debut Secrets of the Henna Girl was published by Puffin Books. I did take some pleasure in mentioning that little story at my book launch,” she smiles.
In the following years, while Sufiya kept writing stories in her spare time, she worked full-time in the advertising sector and in the House of Commons. “I worked in both sectors for 15 years while writing stories that were rejected by writing agents. They didn’t feel they could represent the stories I was writing to publishers.” Unfazed, Sufiya kept writing more stories, and in 2012, got her big break with Secrets of the Henna Girl – a book that won her an award and put her on UK’s literary scene.
Giving children’s fiction a new voice
In the last decade, Sufiya has established herself as a famous author in the children’s fiction category. Having grown up in the 80s, with not much entertainment, except “four TV channels and VHS Bollywood tapes”, Sufiya loved spending time in the library. The books were a perfect escape from reality and led her to the world of adventure. And she wants to replicate the experience for children with her books. “The books I read gave me so much pleasure, transporting me into worlds where mysteries were solved, adventures were experienced and fantastical settings were explored. I think it’s the escapism that grabbed me, and I want children today to have that,” adds Sufiya, who also calls her books a “reflection of the issues” that matter to her. “Secrets of the Henna Girl looks at forced marriage and girls’ rights. An issue I care about deeply,” says the author.
South Asian characters take centrestage
Being a South Asian raised in London, Sufiya never found people like her in the books that she read. This absence of South Asian characters in her favourite books while growing up made her resolve her to give voice to such characters in her books, and she did that with My Story: Princess Sophia Duleep Singh and Noor-in-Nissa Inayat Khan. While Noor was a WWII heroine – a spy who was sent to Nazi-occupied France as a radio operator to transmit messages to London, Princess Sophia was a suffragette who contributed to a pivotal moment in British history. “I want young people to know their stories so they can understand the contribution that British South Asians made to Britain. But I do believe that community cohesion has to work both ways. It is not enough for one minority community to strive for belonging. The majority community has to take steps for acceptance too,” explains Sufiya who believes that literary world is evolving with “readers getting more access to books through the internet”.
Come August, the British-Indian author’s Rose Raja: Churchill’s Spy will hit bookshelves across the globe. The idea, she says, took form as she did research for Noor Inayat Khan and Sophia Duleep Singh. Set in WWII, the book sees Rosina as a Muslim heroine, who is half-Indian and half-English, finds herself in occupied France, and how she gets embroiled in a struggle against the Nazis. “It’s a two-book deal, so I’m working on the second book which is set in Egypt during WWII. I’ve included Indian soldier characters because so many were stationed there to protect the Suez Canal, the British Empire’s gateway to India,” reveals Sufiya whose second book will be out next year.
The author is currently binge-watching Miss Marvel and is in love with it. “The representation is just fantastic and it’s amazing to see so many talented South Asian women writers and filmmakers behind it,” says Sufiya who would have “liked seeing Shah Rukh Khan in it though.”
Busy writing more stories that speak of diversity and inclusivity, Sufiya is busy creating an impact in the literary world. “I’d want children to enjoy my stories because that’s what they are. And stories are for everyone. I completely reject the idea that stories should be written for niche audiences,” she signs off.