Books

Canada Reads author Samra Habib answered your questions — here's what she had to say

The author of We Have Always Been Here answered fan questions in a special Facebook Q&A.

The author of We Have Always Been Here answered fan questions in a special Facebook Q&A.

Samra Habib is the author of We Have Always Been Here. (CBC)

Every Thursday in April, a different Canada Reads 2020 author answered your questions in CBC's Canada Reads Facebook group.

CBC's Canada Reads Facebook group is an exclusive online space for fans to discuss and enjoy the Canada Reads books and debates collectively. 

Due to the ongoing developments with COVID-19 and the related travel concerns, Canada Reads made the difficult decision to postpone the debates until we can convene our stellar panel of advocates in front of a live audience. 

You can read the transcript of the Q&A with Samra Habib, author of We Have Always Been Here below. The transcript has been edited for clarity.

We Have Always Been Here, is Habib's first book and is a memoir about her childhood in Pakistan, arriving in Canada as a refugee and coming out as a proud queer Muslim woman.

Amanda Brugel will defend We Have Always Been Here on Canada Reads 2020.


Hello everyone. Thanks for sharing your questions. I will be here for an hour to answer questions you've shared.

Thank you, so very much for sharing your experiences in such a beautifully written book. I was moved to tears at the end, when you wrote how as identifying as Muslim is one of the only absolutes about yourself you can be sure of. As a 44-year-old woman, straight with no identifying religion (though I have had a lifelong search for what is my fit) would you have any suggestions on how to discover any absolutes within myself to be sure of?

What a great question! Pay close attention to what puts a spring in your step, what has always felt true to you despite where life has taken you. See if there are some common denominators if possible. There's usually a reason why certain experiences speak to you, it's a worthwhile journey to figure out the reason behind that. Hope that's helpful!

What do you hope people who are questioning or unsure of their gender and sexual identity can get out of your book? Is there anything you would recommend to them?

My experience is one of many. I guess if anything, I would like anyone who is questioning who they are to know that they are not alone. It's good to listen to the little voice in your head that tells you that you don't fit the mould other people have created for you. I wouldn't be where I am today without being surrounded by people who allow me the space to question who I am and encourage me to challenge society's perception of who I am.

I would like anyone who is questioning who they are to know that they are not alone.

Thank you, Samra, for writing such a beautiful book. One of the things that stuck with me after reading it was your love of books and how in your first marriage, your husband saw your reading as a threat. I was wondering how books helped you through that period and how your relationship with reading has evolved since. Would also love to know what you're currently reading or a book you'd recommend. Thank you.

Books for me were a refuge and an escape when things around me were falling apart, especially at home. I always like to know the "whys" and to me, that is what books offer. I'm drawn to books by people who have an activist lens, people who I might consider my queer elders. I keep re-reading Sarah Schulman's Gentrification of the Mind. It's great and unpacks the impact of gentrification on queer culture in New York in the 1980s. I think it's also relevant to those of us who live in cities and are observing a change in their neighbourhoods.

You reference the notion of home in your book and the different places that you've called home throughout your life. I was interested in what home and community mean to you at the moment?

My idea of home and community have been challenged in the past couple of months! I'm sure everyone is experiencing that to an extent. I guess I have been reminded of my community ⁠— close friends, my partner and my siblings ⁠— in the past little while as we check in with each other. Even though I've been away and preoccupied with life for the past few years, I'm being reminded that even though I don't always believe it, I'm loved by my "community."

How have you been holding up during self-isolation? And has it impacted your art and creativity at all?

It's been challenging! It always takes me a bit of time to express things emotionally and I've just been letting out a universal cry for all of us, but especially those who are especially vulnerable. The smallest acts of kindness are making me cry. I am reminded of how connected we all are. It's also highlighted how much inequality there is in the world. I'm sure it'll shape my writing in some way and the lens through which I see the world.

I'd love to hear more about your photography project! How did you conceive it? Why? How are writing and photography creatively different? How are they the same? And who is the most interesting person you photographed for it?

Photography and writing are both about storytelling but in different formats. I felt like there were a limited number of narratives available when it came to talking about the queer Muslim experience and I wanted to create a platform where queer Muslims told their stories in their own words, without shaping their story through my personal biases. Lots of people come to mind: Laila, El Farouk, Shima…

Toronto photographer Samra Habib's Tumblr series Just Me and Allah: A Queer Muslim Photo Project explores the beauty, and the complications, of being being both LGBT and Muslim. 13:14

What advice would you give to others who are thinking about writing a memoir?

Read other memoirs, only do it when you feel like you are ready. Read How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee about how to write a memoir.

What were the toughest chapters/moments in the book to write? Why?

Writing about my sexual abuse was pretty tough. Especially because I felt re-triggered. I also spoke with my mom about it and there were details both of us learned for the first time as we shared our accounts. It was also tough to face the fact that there's a reason I've made certain romantic relationships in my life.

For example, I realized that I chose emotionally unavailable people because that is what I thought I deserved. Meeting myself for the first time was painful but also liberating.

What is your relationship with your family like now? How did they react to the book?

My relationship with my siblings has never been better. I've never felt more seen and supported as I do now. I think by being honest and vulnerable with them, I'm showing them how I'd like to be loved. My siblings shared that reading the book helped them feel closer to me.

By being honest and vulnerable with them, I'm showing them how I'd like to be loved.

I would like to know from each author if they had the idea for their books for a long time, was this something they worked on for years or thought about for years or more of a sit down and write it all in a shorter period. Thanks!

Thanks for your question. I guess in a way I've had the "idea" for years. It was just a matter of finding the courage to believe that my story is something people might connect to. I did however write the book in six months.

Will you write another book? What other creative projects do you have in the works?

I'm currently planning on writing fiction, which is a first for me. I'm prepared to challenge myself in new ways.

Thanks for sending in such thoughtful questions everyone. It's been a pleasure. Take care of yourselves!

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