As a child growing up on Long Island, Hebah Uddin ’17 lost herself in books, devouring “really strong girl power fantasy stories.”
But she could never find herself in any of them.
“I didn’t think anyone thought we could be heroic,” she said of the lack of Muslim American female protagonists, “or that we had a story worth sharing.”
Now it’s Uddin to the rescue.
The Simon & Schuster imprint Salaam Reads has published the young alumna’s debut novel, The Gauntlet, which features an adolescent heroine named Farah, who – like Uddin – is Bangladeshi American, Muslim and wears a hijab.
Farah and her friends dive into a board game universe to save Farah’s little brother.
“It’s an inverse Jumanji,” Uddin said.
The mission of Salaam Reads is to introduce readers of all faiths and backgrounds to a variety of Muslim characters, and to allow young Muslim readers to see themselves reflected positively in published works.
“Having Farah on the page – she’s strong, and her family loves her and her friends love her,” Uddin said. “When I was a child, you would not have seen a book like The Gauntlet with a Muslim girl on the cover. It is very important to me to stop this cycle of not being included in the literary world.”
Uddin’s road to publication began while she was working as a social media intern for a grassroots organization #WeNeedDiverseBooks (#WNDB). She came under the wing of CEO and President Ellen Oh, Chief Operating Officer Dhonielle Clayton and Senior Vice President Sona Charaipotra.
“They said they liked my voice,” said Uddin. “They liked my spark.” Clayton and Charaipotra, who also are the founders of the boutique book development company Cake Literary, asked Uddin to submit a writing sample.
With their encouragement, The Gauntlet began to take shape.
Around this time Uddin met Zareen Jaffery, an editor at Simon & Schuster. When Jaffery was appointed executive editor of Salaam Reads and began recruiting writers for the imprint, she was intrigued to learn that Uddin was writing a book. Zaffery quickly secured The Gauntlet for a spring 2017 publication.
“I first started thinking seriously about writing, and how much I wanted to make a contribution when I was in high school,” Uddin said. “I started learning about the industry and putting effort into writing my own stories. It was around this time that I became a book blogger. It became a way to have more of a connection with the publishing world and a more intimate understanding of what it took to write young adult literature in particular.”
For Uddin, who was homeschooled, attending Hofstra to major in English was her first time connecting with professors and other students.
“Being in that environment of support and encouragement really made a difference in my confidence in accepting the task before me and feeling like I had the tools I needed to complete it,” she said. “I think Hofstra is a huge part of the Gauntlet story, and my story as an author.”
Dr. Craig Rustici, chair of the English Department, read The Gauntlet to his own children.
“I think it’s wonderful that I’m reading a book to my kids that’s full of references to foods they’ve never heard of, about a culture they’re not familiar with, and it’s extremely welcoming, fun and comfortable,” Rustici said. “So while I’m happy for Hebah, I’m also happy for my Catholic boys who get to learn about a culture within our culture, and now it won’t seem so strange to them.”
Rustici said Hebah’s journey, like her book, should inspire young writers.
“For a student to get a book deal before graduating college – after hearing Hebah’s story, you realize it’s not impossible,” he said. “Perhaps the ceilings and walls we thought were there were not, or they are ready to come down with some hard work and persistence.”
“There are publishers looking for new voices, willing to cultivate and work with their authors,” Rustici added. “Perhaps the young adult and middle grade market is the best area to look for these opportunities.”
Uddin, who graduated in May, still works at Cake Literary, as she researches graduate programs and tries to process the whirlwind of the past several months.
“At the point when I really started to become active in the book community, there were several Muslim American authors – I called them my big sisters,” she said. “I felt they spoke more eloquently than me and were more educated. Now I am published, and they refer back to me on some matters. It’s just been an amazing experience.”
“One of the most important pieces of advice I feel like I am qualified to give is don’t discount your voice,” she said. “Don’t feel like your voice is redundant. Don’t feel like someone else is already doing it better.”