Interview with Bradford author Sairish Hussain about her new novel Hidden Fires

In February 2020, Bradford author Sairish Hussain’s debut novel The Family Tree was published. An affecting, engaging multi-generational story about a British Muslim family living in the North of England, it was full of insight, warmth and humour and rightly received much acclaim from critics and readers alike.

A graduate of Huddersfield University, where she studied English Language and Literature followed by an MA in Creative Writing, Hussain completed The Family Tree for her PhD. It quickly attracted a lot of attention and was shortlisted for several awards including the prestigious Portico Prize and the Costa First Novel Award. Hussain has now followed it up with her second novel Hidden Fires, which was published in January.

“The response to The Family Tree was almost as life-changing as getting the book deal in the first place,” she says. “The year that followed was incredible. Every time I got a phone call or an email from someone saying how much they had enjoyed the book, I was blown away. Even today I still get people telling me they felt it was so relatable. It was amazing. But then that meant I had to write something else.”

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There is no doubting Hussain’s talent – she is an extremely gifted, skilful storyteller and the positive reaction to this exciting new literary voice is entirely deserved, but when a first book is so successful, writing the next one can be daunting as there is a certain amount of expectation. “There was quite a lot of pressure – and just because you have done something once, it doesn’t mean you can do it again,” says Hussain, laughing. “It was definitely second novel syndrome. And I was also much busier – I had started working part-time at Huddersfield University teaching creative writing and I was promoting The Family Tree at the same time, so it was challenging.”

Bradford author Sairish Hussain whose new novel Hidden Fires is out now.Bradford author Sairish Hussain whose new novel Hidden Fires is out now.
Bradford author Sairish Hussain whose new novel Hidden Fires is out now.

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The seeds for Hidden Fires were actually sown back in the summer of 2017, not long after Hussain had secured her book deal and went down to London to meet her publisher for the first time. “It was a few weeks after the Grenfell Tower fire and there was a sombre atmosphere in the capital,” she says. “That was July time and then in August it was the 70th anniversary of Partition with a lot of coverage on the BBC. I started watching everything I could about it as it was a subject I was already interested in.”

In August 1947 when British India, as it was then known, was arbitrarily divided along religious lines to create the two independent states of India and Pakistan, it resulted in the displacement of around 12 million people and triggered widespread violence – the death toll is estimated at between 1 and 2 million. It is a defining moment of 20th century history, an event which brutally tore apart communities that had previously lived harmoniously side by side and its impact is still being felt today.

“A lot of elderly men were involved in the documentaries I was watching, many of them looked like my grandad, and they all cried. It was so moving,” says Hussain. “I can’t really put it into words how that made me feel, but it’s where I found the character of Yusuf in Hidden Fires. That generation had all been through this terrible event – they would have been children at the time. Many of them may never have talked about their experiences and I felt that was a story I had to tell.”

Bradford author Sairish Hussain's new novel Hidden Fires is out now.Bradford author Sairish Hussain's new novel Hidden Fires is out now.
Bradford author Sairish Hussain's new novel Hidden Fires is out now.
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Hidden Fires opens during Ramadan in the summer of 2017 when 80-year-old widower Yusuf wakes in the night in his home in Bradford and sees on television a tragedy unfolding in a London tower block. Watching in horror, it triggers devastating, long-buried memories of his past. Over in Manchester Yusuf’s 16-year-old granddaughter Rubi, who is dealing with her own difficulties, is watching too. The two are brought together when Rubi’s parents have to go to Spain after a family bereavement and send her to stay with her grandfather. She is not happy about the arrangement at first, but gradually a very special relationship develops between them. The story is told from alternating first person perspectives and Hussain captures their voices with great sensitivity and humour in a narrative that explores grief, loss, the power of family ties and the importance of human connection.

“Grenfell and Partition are very different but they happened because of terrible decisions made by people in power. And that is what we are seeing in the world at the moment,” says Hussain. “What I am trying to say in the book is that despite what those in power do, most ordinary people are good and there is still hope; it’s essential to hold on to that.”

Hidden Fires by Sairish Hussain, published by HarperCollins, is out now.

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