Radiya Hafiza on (re)writing a fairy tale to feature a hijabi-wearing heroine
When Radiya Hafiza was growing up she could never find herself in the pages of a book. So she decided to write a fairy tale where a young Muslim girl is centre stage.
Radiya Hafiza, author of Rumaysa: A Fairytale, tells us about responses to her inspired retelling of classic stories which place a girl in hijab in the centre of the fairy tale action. And Hafiza describes her hopes for how her story might influence young readers, showing them that – whatever their background – they can be at the heart of any story they choose.
Writing Rumaysa was a fun journey for me, as I’ve always loved fairy tales and retellings. It was even more fun to bring my own culture and background to the characters, twisting familiar tropes to create strong, independent girls who were saving themselves.
I wish I’d had more books like Rumaysa when I was growing up. I wonder if it would have shaped my sense of self and the confidence to be me if I’d had books where characters wore the same clothes as me and had the same kind of names. When I was younger, I didn’t see anyone like myself in books, and this was reflected in the stories I used to write about vaguely brown-ish people with no particular religion or cultural traits. It is great to see more diverse children’s books coming out over the past few years, though it feels like UK publishing has been slow in comparison to the US market.
‘When I was younger, I didn’t see anyone like myself in books, and this was reflected in the stories I used to write’
I was thrown by people’s responses when the press release for Rumaysa went out – I wasn’t expecting so many people to be excited about a hijabi Rapunzel. But the responses showed how absent these type of stories are, and how we still have quite a way to go. I was actually told by my agent that one of the editors she had sent Rumaysa to didn’t think it was original enough. I found this hilarious, but also telling about how hard writers of colour have to work to get their stories shared, in comparison to their white counterparts. I don’t imagine that white writers who do fairy tale retellings are original either, but there are plenty of those stories around.
‘I’ve always loved fairy tales for the wonder and magic they bring, and wondered what someone like me would do in such a tale. ’
The idea for Rumaysa came to me when I was at work one day. I began writing about a young girl, locked away in a tower. I’ve always loved fairy tales for the wonder and magic they bring, and wondered what someone like me would do in such a tale. When I first saw the illustrations for Rumaysa by Rhaida El-Touny, I welled up. There she was, a hijabi character, just casually hanging out in the pages of a book. Flicking through and seeing my brown characters on the pages felt incredible. It meant so much to me because I never had this growing up, I never imagined that experiences like mine could be in a book. But it makes me happy to think that the new generation of young readers will grow up having more stories like these to see themselves in, and that they will know that they can be the main character in any story they want.
I hope Rumaysa encourages whoever reads it to be whoever they want to be. I hope it makes young Muslim girls in particular feel seen and empowered to be the hero of any story they choose. Mostly though, I hope readers enjoy the book.