Yasmin Azad’s memoir ‘Stay, Daughter’; a personal and public narrative on Galle Fort Muslim community

Tuesday, 20 June 2023 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Yasmin Azad

Yasmin Azad is an American-Sri Lankan author whose memoir ‘Stay, Daughter’ was recently published in the UK. Born in Sri Lanka, Yasmin was among the first group of girls in her Muslim community in the Galle Fort to go away from home to pursue university education. In her twenties she moved to the United States, and living mostly in the Boston area, raised her children and worked as a mental health counsellor. Her writing has been published in Navasilu, Solstice Literary Magazine, and The Massachusetts Review. In this interview with the Daily FT, Yasmin shares a wide range of thoughts ranging from her past childhood experiences to her routine as an author.

By Dishani Senaratne

Q: What inspired the idea for your memoir ‘Stay, Daughter’?

 There were several factors behind my motivation to write a book. Firstly, I grew up in the Galle Fort which was unique in the way that different ethnicities were living inside an actual fortress. There were Sinhalese, Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Burghers and a few.

Tamils. The houses were so close to each other and people interacted with each other all the time.  We lived in harmony and I felt the need to capture that life and culture for posterity. 

Secondly, I moved to the US 45 years ago and worked as a mental health counsellor. Moving away gave me a fresh opportunity to look back and gain new perspectives of the Galle Fort community, and Muslim culture in general.  My experiences as a mental health counsellor made me realise that in the West, at least in the last decades, family bonds were getting weaker and more and more people were getting isolated. That made me look back and appreciate the strong bonds we had and how families supported each other.

Thirdly, those outside the Muslim community view the Muslim community as being oppressive to women. I myself experienced restrictions which should never have been imposed on a young child. I describe these in my book. That being so, I also want people to see the great strength of Muslim communities which is the way they provide support and as strong sense of belonging. 

Q: What are your observations on the opportunities and challenges of the contemporary young Muslim women living in Sri Lanka?

 I would say that many changes have taken place since the time I grew up there. One of the most visible is that how women dress has changed. Many women wear the hijab. That wasn’t so during my time. I never wore the hijab. Neither my mother nor even grandmother did in their later years. I think there are many reasons for this return to more traditional, even orthodox practices. The influence of the Middle East is, in my opinion, one of these.  

On the other hand, the community is experiencing a revolution with the number of women receiving higher education and going out to work. Any social change has its trade-off and I think women spending a lot of time outside their homes has an impact on how much time they have to maintain community bonds.  

I have been away from the country for decades and don’t want to make any broad generalisations about social trends, but anecdotally, I hear that girls are not pressured as much to give up higher education and to get married early. However, given that Muslim culture is strongly oriented towards family and marriage, cultural forces preventing young women from pursuing educational and career goals is probably not completely absent.

Q: Your memoir Stay, Daughter brings out the challenges you faced in getting access to education as a young Muslim girl. In what way did your past experiences shape the person you are today?

 I had my education at a Catholic school and was exposed to a culture that was not mine. I developed a liberal outlook partly because of my education.

I moved to Peradeniya for my higher studies and moved away again from my original culture. And of course, moving to a Western country has also exposed me to customs and ideas that are very different than those I grew up with. On the other hand, paradoxically, moving so far away from my original culture has also made me appreciate some aspects of it more than I did before. 

Q: Could you talk a bit about your writing process? What is your schedule like when you’re writing?

 Fortunately, I’m retired now. As Woody Allen said, if you want to accomplish something, you have to show up. So I show up at least for a few hours in the morning every day to write. An important part of writing is editing. 

All writers should do their best to first self-edit. Then, it’s good to reach out to an editor for developmental editing where large structural issues are addressed; i.e. how the story flows, whether there are plot holes, etc. The next step is line-by-line editing. I have benefitted immensely from having my work edited. 

Q: Tell us about your experiences of mentoring emerging writers in Sri Lanka.

 I was glad to have met a group of emerging authors. I wish such mentoring was more easily available in Sri Lanka. I’m indeed privileged to have had amazing mentors taking me under their wings and giving constructive feedback. So, working with this group of emerging Sri Lankan authors gave me a lot of pleasure. More needs to be done to enhance the creative writing landscape in Sri Lanka.

Q: Finally, what are your future plans as an author?

 I’m writing a novel on a theme I have thought about for a long time. Who gets a place at the table? Who are the people society accepts, and whom do they reject? That’s the broad theme. David Foster Wallace once said that a writer’s task is to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. My work will also follow these lines.

 ‘Stay, Daughter’ is available for sale in Sri Lanka at Barefoot (Colombo and Galle), Cargills, Expographics (Colombo City Centre and Battaramulla), Jam Fruit Tree, Kalaya, Pendi, Rithihi, Sarasavi (multiple branches), Urban Island and Vijitha Yapa.

For online purchases, please visit Pererahussein.com, Daraz, Books.lk, booksy.lk, scribit and bigdeals.lk.