It was while Sairish Hussain was in her final year at Huddersfield University studying English Language and Literature in 2014 that the seeds of an idea for a book began to percolate. Six years on it has come spectacularly to fruition.
The Bradford author’s impressive debut novel The Family Tree was published by Harper Collins back in February, quickly garnering, deservedly, a raft of glowing reviews. Over the summer it was longlisted for the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize and last week it was announced that Hussain had been shortlisted for the prestigious Costa First Novel Award.
“I think I’m still in a little bit of a daze,” she says, laughing. “I didn’t know I had been put forward for it, so it came completely out of the blue. I just can’t stop smiling.”
The Family Tree is a moving, uplifting multi-generational story of one British Muslim family living in the North of England – although Bradford is not named until the final pages of the book, it is recognisable to those who know the city – focussing on love, family relationships, friendship and resilience in the face of loss, bereavement and hardship.
“I was totally fed up of the negative portrayals of British Muslims on television, films and in books,” says Hussain. “I never felt that there was a book written with people like me in mind. And it seemed as if it had been like that forever.
"I was eight years old when 9/11 happened and from then on there seemed to be almost this fascination with Islam and terrorism. I wanted to write a kind of counter-narrative to that.”
After getting a first in her degree, Hussain received a scholarship for further study and she chose to do an MA in Creative Writing. It was at that point that her initial thoughts began to take shape.
She wrote the first 20,000 words of the novel that was to become The Family Tree for her Masters. Having gained a distinction for her dissertation, she went on to be awarded the University’s Vice Chancellor’s scholarship which enabled her to continue to higher study and she completed the novel for her PhD.
“One of my main aims was to show that it was possible to write a story about British Muslims which was not all about them being Muslim,” says Hussain. “Any kind of artistic portrayal tends to be focussed on cultural trauma or terrorism, completely ignoring the fact that life happens to us too.
"It seemed like we were only interesting if there was an honour killing or a bomb was about to go off. I wanted to show that this is just your average family. If you were to replace the main characters’ names with Dave or Sarah, the storyline wouldn’t change.
"At the same time I didn’t want to ignore their culture and religion and how that affects their response to things. I also wanted to reflect that joy of when families are together – laughing, joking and bantering, just like everyone does.”
A visit to Bradford Literature Festival in 2017 to attend an event on how to get published led to an important meeting for Hussain.
“One of the people involved in the panel discussion was Lisa Milton, an executive editor at Harper Collins and I plucked up the courage to speak to her afterwards. She agreed to look at my manuscript and a few weeks later I got an email from her to say she was keen to be my publisher. It was like a fairytale.”
The positive response to The Family Tree has been overwhelming she says, and has come from far and wide. “I’ve had lovely messages from the UK but also Australia, India, Pakistan, Germany. It is a universal story and one that anyone can relate to but the fact that it’s a British Muslim family who are generally not represented in literature much has resonated with people from all over and that’s been really special.”
Throughout the time of studying and writing her novel, Hussain was working part-time as a healthcare worker, as she continues to, in the ulstrasound department at Bradford Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.
“I have worked there for five years but the amount I have learnt, and matured and developed over the past few months while we have been coping with the pandemic has been huge,” she says. “My NHS colleagues have been amazing – everyone has pulled together. This second wave has been brutal, I feel that people are quite worn out.”
Since September Hussain has also taken up a post as a creative writing tutor at Huddersfield University and is working on her second novel. “I’m juggling a lot of things, but I’m getting there,” she says. “And I’m thrilled to have been shortlisted for the Costa – it’s been the best possible end to this year.”
The Family Tree is out in paperback. The winners of the Costa Book Awards will be announced on January 4, 2021.
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