Why Samra Habib wrote a memoir about growing up as a queer Muslim woman — and it's now a Canada Reads winner

The journalist and photographer opens up about reconciling her identity in her memoir We Have Always Been Here.
We Have Always Been Here is a memoir by Samra Habib. (Viking Canada, Yuula Benivolski)

In Samra Habib's memoir We Have Always Been Here, the journalist and photographer chronicles a witty, often heavy, but ultimately triumphant coming-of-age. As a child, Habib hid her faith from Islamic extremists in Pakistan and endured racist bullying in Canada, but later came into her own as a proud queer Muslim woman.

The book won Canada Reads 2020, defended by actor Amanda Brugel.

Habib spoke to CBC Books about writing We Have Always Been Here.

To be inspired and inspire others

"For about five years, I was working on a photo project called Just Me and Allah. I travelled around the world, photographing and interviewing people about trying to find out how people who identify as queer were navigating their relation with Islam. Oftentimes we're a little rejected by mainstream mosques. No matter where I was in the world, I would hear from other young people that there was an absence of role models who openly identified as queer Muslims. I was finding that there was a lack of joy and happiness. When I would read about the queer Muslim experience, it was so connected to trauma. I'm not saying that isn't an important narrative, but I personally have also experienced a lot of joy, a lot of pleasure. I wanted to add that, hoping that it could inspire other people. 

"When I was working on the photo documentary, I was very behind the scenes. I did not turn the lens on myself. I was actually uncomfortable [writing the book] because I don't enjoy talking about myself. But I saw a lot of benefit in being honest about my experience. I think there's a lack of queer Muslim narratives and one of the reasons could be that many fear persecution. It's not safe to be an openly queer Muslim person in a lot of different parts of the world, but I don't have to fear. I think I am relatively safe and I thought, 'OK, I can do this without risking a lot.'"

A journey of self-discovery

"Hiding was a theme [I encountered in my life]. I think it's connected to the fact that my family was part of this religious minority in Pakistan. It was drilled into us that we cannot reveal our religious identity because our lives might be compromised.

It was while writing the book that I realized that, even when it came to embracing the fact that I'm queer, I was hiding for a long time.

"It was while writing the book that I realized that, even when it came to embracing the fact that I'm queer, I was hiding for a long time. I was staying in these relationships with straight men or not sharing who I was with people who I was close to. I was still hiding, even though I didn't need to hide anymore. What I'm left with now is the question: What are some of the other things in my life I'm still hiding?"

More than the facts

"I come from a journalism background so I'm used to writing about facts. What was a challenge for me was staying in the moment and describing every single detail — whether it was how things felt, how things smelled, how things looked. It's a nice way to write. It feels sensual to me. One of the comments I get from people is that there are so many smells in the book. I'm glad that came across because it was a lot of work for me to remember how things smelled and be able to describe it."

Dealing with the past

"I felt like I had to confront myself. I felt that I met myself for the first time while writing the book. I felt I was dragging [my heels] on having to deal with certain parts of my life because I felt like I wasn't ready.

I felt like I had to confront myself. I felt that I met myself for the first time while writing the book.

"When I started to write the book, I realized that I could not do it without starting therapy to have someone to guide me through as I was unearthing these things. I think that was one of the things that was quite healing for me. I don't think I would have been in a healthy place if I hadn't done that. I noticed how after every therapy session, I would come back and add more details to different chapters as a result."

An early morning writer

"I like to write super early in the morning. I feel that is when I'm at my best. My schedule was to write from 5 a.m. to 10 a.m. Sometimes I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience. I listened to the same song over and over again. When I burn incense, I feel that it connects me to my childhood because that is something that my mom did a lot when we were kids. I like to have similar smells around me. I like to have something burning. I also like to read when I'm writing. I find that inspires me."

Samra Habib's comments have been edited for length and clarity. You can see more interviews from the How I Wrote I series here.

The Canada Reads 2020 contenders

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