How being her authentic self helped Samra Habib write a memoir that became a Canada Reads winner
Samra Habib is a journalist and photographer based in Toronto whose work has been featured in publications like the New York Times, the Guardian, the Washington Post and Vanity Fair.
Her first book, We Have Always Been Here, is a memoir about her childhood in Pakistan, arriving in Canada as a refugee and coming out as a queer Muslim woman. The book won Canada Reads 2020, defended by actor Amanda Brugel.
What made you become an author?
"I was always drawn to writing. I've always been really quiet and reading and writing has always been how I express myself. When I was a kid, I would write stories and my mom would tell me that she would submit it to children's magazines in Pakistan. But I don't know if that actually happened. I don't have proof, but she always encouraged me to write.
I've always been really quiet and reading and writing has always been how I express myself.- Samra Habib
"One of the many things that I love about my mom is even though she grew up in different circumstances, she has always encouraged my artistic spirit. She encouraged me to keep writing."
You are also a photographer known for your queer Muslim photo project, Just Me and Allah. What's the difference between expressing yourself as a photographer versus a writer?
"Photography was a nice change for me. As a writer, I'm so used to telling people what to see — I write scenes and characters to get people to think a certain way. But with photography, I want people to have their own interpretation.
"I worked in fashion journalism for a few years and I saw the power of visual imagery. I was working with a lot of photographers at the time. I decided on using the camera as a tool to tell a story about something that I care about."
What does a good writing day for you look like?
"On a good day, I got up at five in the morning. I'm usually my best around that time of day — when everything is dark and quiet. I start by reading writers that inspired me. I would read writers like James Baldwin — writers who have a lot of vulnerability in their stories. With We Have Always Been Here, I wanted to tap in that place within me to see what that felt like — and to know that it was okay for me to be vulnerable on the page. Only then would I start writing.
I would read writers like James Baldwin — writers who have a lot of vulnerability in their stories.- Samra Habib
"There were times when I was stuck about something and needed to understand my motivation around making a certain life decision — therapy would help in that instance. So sometimes that would be part of my day. I would start writing something, I would see my therapist, and I would come back and be able to flesh it out and have more emotions on the page. That was my process."
How hard was it to write about your lived experiences for this book?
"James Baldwin has a great quote. He said, 'Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced. For me, in order for me to understand myself better, I felt like I needed to put my experiences on paper to understand what I was dealing with — and where the healing needed to begin.
"It's about understanding how much I need to convey to give people a sense of what happened. An example of that is the sexual assault that happened to me when I was a kid. I didn't want it to be trauma porn.
"I didn't need to give more details than were necessary to give people an indication that this incident hurt me. That part of myself I can protect. When I needed to reveal something in the book, I had to determine how much of myself I need to reveal so I could protect myself.
When I needed to reveal something in the book, I had to determine how much of myself I need to reveal so I could protect myself.- Samra Habib
"In writing this book, there were lots of instances where I felt like I was also meeting myself for the first time. It was like unwrapping certain parts about me. It was cathartic, for sure."
How much of your own identity is informed by gender or sexuality?
"Having the 'A Queer Muslim Memoir' tag on the book cover was my publisher's choice. It's not something I would have done, but I do see the benefit of having that so front and centre.
"If there's a queer Muslim kid somewhere in the suburbs of Alberta that sees this book on a shelf at a bookstore, I feel that they can connect to this book. Maybe it can be someone's entry point to have a deeper and more meaningful experience.
If there's a queer Muslim kid somewhere in the suburbs of Alberta that sees this book on a shelf at a bookstore, I feel that they can connect to this book.- Samra Habib
"While writing, I had a bunch of sticky notes in front of me with written names of specific people that I was talking to. Some of them were young queer Muslims in my life and that's who I thought I was speaking to.
"But perhaps I've done a decent job at talking about those stories and connecting them to universal experiences. Even though I had specific readers in mind, I am pleasantly surprised to learn that the people that have been reading this book are broader than that."
Do you see yourself as a role model?
"If anything, I hope that by me living in an authentic way and being my authentic self, it would inspire others to do the same. Hopefully as a result we'll have many role models and I'm not the only person right.
"That is all I can aspire to be. Just be my authentic self. If people see that as being a role model, then that is their interpretation."
Do you hope your book wins Canada Reads?
"I'm not very competitive. I think that all of the books on Canada Reads should be read by all Canadians. Our stories lend themselves to a fuller picture of what the Canadian experience actually is.
"Many of the voices that are on Canada Reads this year are not necessarily the voices that you always see represent Canada. That, for me, is really encouraging."
Samra Habib's comments have been edited for length and clarity.
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- Amanda Brugel defending We Have Always Been Here by Samra Habib
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