How Richmond-based author Kia Abdullah hopes to open up conversations around consent, male rape and toxic masculinity
Seeking to move away from the noise and pace of London living in search of a quality of life much closer to nature, the rolling countryside of the Yorkshire Dales and Peak District national parks caught their eye.
They’d almost settled on Reeth, when their estate agent mentioned in passing that she lived in Richmond. “We thought ooh let’s go and have a look there and we completely fell in love with it,” Kia recalls “It’s such a nice balance between easy access to the Dales as well as everyday conveniences.”
Kia wrote not so long ago about the idyll they discovered - “we found what we were looking for: a cottage with wooden beams, a cobbled street that leads to a river and neighbours who leave fresh rocket on our doorstep and, occasionally, warm cheese scones” - but, opening up about her “kinder but lonelier” existence, she revealed in The Times in July how she hadn’t made a single friend in the area.
When we speak on the phone two months later as her latest book Truth Be Told is published, Kia says the column has had an impact. She has since met up with someone who’s recently moved to the market town and has made connections with others too.
“I do miss my friends and family intensely sometimes but in terms of the quality of life, access to nature, and being able to walk down the street and not worry about crime, and pollution, and street harassment, it has been hugely wonderful,” Kia ponders. “I’m not sure I’m ever going to reconcile the two - how much I miss my friends and family versus the quality of life here, the fresher food, the nicer people.”
Before the big move, the now 38-year-old had lived in the capital since birth. Born and raised in Tower Hamlets in East London, she grew up on free school meals in a family of eight children with parents from Bangladesh. She would visit the library with her sisters every Saturday and max out her book-borrowing limit week in, week out.
“I had a really happy childhood,” she reflects. “I was very much a tomboy and allowed to roam. Once puberty hit around 12 or 13, I think the machinery of conservatism that exists in my community kicked in and suddenly I found myself expected to change my behaviour - to dress more modestly, act in a demure way, not mix with boys...I chafed against it, as somebody who was naturally very lively and wanted to be out in the world.”
Kia’s experiences have fed into her character of Zara Kaleel, an ex-barrister turned assault counsellor, who is a protagonist in both this novel and Take It Back, her first with a major publisher. “She’s very much caught between two cultures,” explains Kia, who wrote for i in July about identifying as a cultural Muslim. “On one hand she loves her culture and the richness of it.
“And there are so many brilliant things I’ve taken from my culture - we have very strong bonds for example so you don’t just rely on your nuclear family, there’s an extended community you can reach out to...
"But the flip side of it is I was expected to have an arranged marriage and follow a tradition that existed in my community. Zara also has to deal with two worlds in fiction. For me, it was almost therapeutic writing her because it was a way for me to process some of the things I’ve experienced.”
Kia looks to examine contemporary issues using fiction, with a focus on courtroom dramas. Take It Back, she says, aimed to interrogate the ways in which Muslims are captured in the media and to highlight that people do things – good and bad – “because we choose to do them as individuals, not because of our race or faith”.
In Truth Be Told, it is the issues of consent, male rape and toxic masculinity that are at the fore. The novel, published last week, focuses on Kamran Hadid, a privileged 17-year-old, who, after a night of drunken revelry leads to a sexual encounter, has to ask himself the question of whether he consented to what took place.
“I like to think it can be read in two ways,” Kia says. “Firstly, as a pure courtroom thriller for those after a page turner but the second is examining the extraordinary stigma around male rape. I think it’s very rarely discussed in fiction and it asks the reader to question how we participate in the culture of toxic masculinity. How does it affect young men and how can we change things to allow them to be vulnerable?”
“I think when men experience something like sexual assault, it’s really difficult for them to talk about it,” she elaborates. “With the book, I hope to start some important conversations.
“I also wanted to show that even when you have all the pieces in place and you come from a very privileged background, something like that can still unpick your life and tear it apart. Something like assault doesn’t just affect the vulnerable in society, it can affect anybody.”
Whilst she now has deals for four books with Harper Collins and is busy working on her third ready for publishing in 2021, Kia’s main source of income is travel writing. With Peter, a photographer, she runs travel blog Atlas & Boots. The site was launched in 2014 as the pair set off on a near year-long trip across the South Pacific and South America.
Their latest adventure saw them explore the likes of Aruba and the British Virgin Islands in the Caribbean in December, before plans to visit Senegal and Gambia this year were put on hold by the coronavirus.
For Kia though, as the old cliché goes, there’s no place like home. “When we did our big year of travel, it was with a loose idea of wanting to find somewhere we could live but I realised there really is no place like home, even with the weather,” she says. “I think I would miss my countrymen too much - there’s something about the British humour, the British grit, our psyche. I don’t think I would find anywhere else.”
As well as the writing, Kia founded and runs Asian Booklist, a non-profit organisation that advocates for diversity in publishing. “Often people will say publishing is a meritocracy but if you believe that creative talent is distributed equally among ethnicities, classes, genders and so on, you can’t also believe the arts are a meritocracy - the numbers just don’t add up. If it was, we’d have more books by authors of colour, we’d have more books by, working class writers.”
There are two strands to Asian Booklist; Kia hopes to illustrate the data around how few books are published by British Asian authors whilst also highlighting those books that are out there, encouraging people to add them to their reading lists.
“It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation - if British Asian authors don’t sell then people won’t publish them. But if they’re not publishing Asian authors and putting the marketing dollars behind them, then they’re not going to sell.
“For me, Asian Booklist is a way of harnessing our collective purchasing power...If I can recruit 2,000 people into my newsletter and say to them how about reading more of these books by British Asian authors, then maybe we can propel more of them onto the bestselling list and that in turn will encourage publishers to publish more of them. It’s a numbers game - unless we’re supporting these people and buying their books, they aren’t going to sell.”
Truth Be Told is out now and available in local bookshops, as well as in Waterstones and through Amazon.
Support The Yorkshire Post and become a subscriber today.
Your subscription will help us to continue to bring quality news to the people of Yorkshire. In return, you'll see fewer ads on site, get free access to our app and receive exclusive members-only offers.
So, please - if you can - pay for our work. Just £5 per month is the starting point. If you think that which we are trying to achieve is worth more, you can pay us what you think we are worth. By doing so, you will be investing in something that is becoming increasingly rare. Independent journalism that cares less about right and left and more about right and wrong. Journalism you can trust.