Painted Hands With Jennifer Zobair

Photo by Rabia Syed

Photo by Rabia Syed

Loveinshallah asked Jennifer Zobair, author of Painted Hands, to share insights on her novel, the writing process, and the dynamics of Muslim fiction in contemporary society. Click here to listen to audio of the author reading a passage from the book.

How would you describe Painted Hands to a reader in fifty words or less?

Painted Hands is about successful Muslim women in Boston. Zainab is a sharp-tongued campaign strategist with a penchant for generating controversy. Amra is an ambitious attorney. They face difficult choices when relationships with complicated men—including a right-wing radio host—shatter their friendship and the political climate threatens their careers.

What made you decide to write the novel? Can you describe your writing process?

I wanted to write a novel about the kinds of Muslim women I don’t see often enough in fiction—strong, educated, independent women who, should they need “saving,” are perfectly capable of saving themselves. I also wanted to write about the power (and limitations) of love to overcome differences. I explored the latter both through the lifelong friendship between the secular Zainab and the more traditional Amra, and, of course, through the attraction between Zainab and Chase, the right-wing pundit.

I wrote the book in a little over a year. It’s told from the points of view of four characters—Amra, Zainab, Chase, and Hayden, Amra’s colleague who converts to Islam. I wrote mostly linearly, but I was writing during President Obama’s first term, when there was so much vitriol on the part of the far-right—questions about whether Obama was an American, whether he was a Muslim, whether he “palled around with terrorists.” Sometimes I had to put Chase’s chapters aside in order to write him fairly.

(Hear Jennifer Zobair read an excerpt from Painted Hands.)

What was your experience in the road to publication?

It was pretty straightforward. I spent a few months querying agents, signed with Kent Wolf in September of 2011, did some edits with him, went on submission to publishers, and had a book deal with Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press by February of 2012. I am proof that you can get picked out of the “slush pile,” because my background is in law, and I had no publishing connections whatsoever.

You explore themes around love, faith and gender with characters that aren’t often seen in public media narratives. But Muslims know such women exist. How did you develop the array of women featured in Painted Hands?

To a non-Muslim reader, it may seem like I was trying hard to create “unique” characters—Muslim women who take charge of their lives—but anyone who spends any time in the Muslim community knows that, as you say, women like my characters exist. It felt like the most natural thing in the world for the women of Painted Hands to be as diverse as any other group of women.

Interestingly, many of the male characters are also complex (both Muslim and non-Muslim) and go through interesting transitions. Did you deliberately want to show multi-layered men?

I did. There are stereotypes about Muslim men, of course—if Muslim women are oppressed then the men must be monsters, right? But I don’t actually know any Muslim men who are monsters.  So, for example, when Mateen puts pressure on Amra not to hang out with the brash, swearing Zainab and couches his concerns in religious terms, is that really a function of being Muslim, or is he just another insecure man.

That being said, I did want to touch on this phenomenon of Muslim men sometimes being held to a different romantic or sexual standard, dating non-Muslim women before marrying traditionally, while families look the other way. And that informs a bit of Hayden’s storyline.

Also, along with being fair to Muslim men, I wanted to be fair to conservative (in the U.S. political sense) men as well. With Chase, I tried to create a complex character who maybe isn’t as easy to condemn as it first seems.

Chase is intriguing. He is a conservative political figure who falls in love with one of the main characters, Zainab Mir. What compelled you to write a romance between two very different political personalities?

It’s in my nature to ask “why” about things. I’m sure I was that annoying child repeating it over and over to my mother when I was little. But I am endlessly fascinated by the anthropology, if you will, of meanness and bigotry. How someone can start out as an innocent child and grow up to hate.  I’m also interested in how bigotry can be overcome. And I think it starts with love. Chase isn’t the most hateful kind of right-winger, but he does traffic in some anti-Muslim bigotry. And as I thought about how to “reach” him, I felt like he was going to have to love a Muslim, and I felt like it was going to have to be the overwhelming kind of love that comes from falling in love. And so the story really started with that, with the idea of this right-wing radio host becoming unnervingly attracted to this kickass Muslim campaign staffer. I had no idea at the beginning if they could even become friends, let alone fall in love, but I was certain I wanted to explore it.

The other is Hayden’s story: a professional woman to white-convert seems to tell one particular story of what happens to some women who embrace Islam. There are many stories about the “convert/revert” experience, but you feature one narrative that is getting a great deal of media attention. How did you decide to develop that character in that particular direction?

This is such a complicated question.  There’s a lot to unpack with Hayden. I think it goes back to trying to figure out motivations. I converted as a feminist and have remained a feminist. But what is the appeal of a very conservative form of Islam, or an arranged marriage, to a woman who has grown up in the west? I don’t mean for Hayden’s experience to speak for all such women, but I do think sometimes it is informed by frustration with the objectification of women (which I share) and the intense pressure put on women to be thin and beautiful, and the pervasive hookup culture. Hayden has been wounded by all of the above, and I think she’s desperate for there to be some alternative. Whether this is a good reason to embrace a new religion is for the reader to decide.

I also wanted to illustrate some of the reactions white women get both from within and outside the Muslim community when they convert, and how much pressure can be brought to bear on a daughter-in-law in the Muslim community. I think Amra and Zainab were too grounded to be susceptible to such pressures, but Hayden, on unfamiliar ground and with her uncertainty and brokenness, allowed me to explore that dynamic.

You have written about being heckled during a Painted Hands reading. There are some who just can’t accept alternative narratives about Muslim women if it doesn’t uphold a victimized, oppressed stereotype. How do we get beyond this.

I think we get beyond it by continuing to tell our stories, in all of their brilliant and beautiful diversity. What the woman at that reading was really saying was, “how dare you tell this story.”  Because she conflates Islam with oppression for women, she felt that I, as a Muslim author, had no right to speak about any other female Muslim experience.

At best, this reflects some genuine concern that issues of oppression will get swept under the rug. But women from every background experience oppression, and I’m not sure authors from other communities are chastised for telling empowering narratives.  I worry that this incident had more to do with bigotry and the fear that if we tell stories about empowered Muslim women people might start to believe them.  My response to the heckling incident is gratitude to the interfaith crowd that came to my defense, and certainty that Muslim women must continue to tell their stories.

 I think many Muslim authors who publish secretly pray, “Please don’t let there be a terrorist attack right after my book comes out.” But the Boston bombing happened soon before your book release. How do you think that impacted the way Painted Hands was received?

I want to say that it had nothing to do with my novel, first and foremost because anything to do with my novel pales in comparison to the unbearable pain and loss that the bombers inflicted on Boston, in whose suburbs I reside, and its people that day.

But if I am truthful, I have to tell you that we had a very hard time getting publicity for Painted Hands in the months that matter for a debut novel, and privately people in the industry told me that the timing was too close—a novel about Muslim women in Boston less than two months after a terrorist attack by men who identified as Muslims in Boston. It’s hard to be upset about that, because it’s the least of the harm that came from the marathon attack. But a novel takes years to bring into being and often represents a dream come true for the author. And in the quiet part of my heart, it feels like something the bombers took from me, too.

What is next for Jennifer Zobair, the author?

I’m about two-thirds through the first draft of another novel. This narrative takes place more in the private sphere than Painted Hands, which is definitely a story about how our community has been politicized and how smart, engaged Muslim women navigate that reality. The novel I’m currently working on focuses on a Muslim family and deals with themes of conditional love, and the pressures parents put on children. It’s about secrets—on both the part of young adult children and their parents—and, ideally, the incredible, redemptive power of being welcomed home.

Jennifer Zobair grew up in Iowa and attended Smith College and Georgetown Law School. She has practiced corporate and immigration law and, as a convert to Islam, is a strong advocate for Muslim women’s rights. Her debut novel, Painted Hands, about strong, successful Muslim women in Boston, was published by St. Martin’s Press in June. Her essays have appeared in The Rumpus and The Huffington Post . Jennifer lives with her husband and three children outside of Boston. Click here to visit her website. 

Read an interview with Jennifer about Painted Hands at Writer’s Digest,   Click here to read her blog post.

8 Comments on “Painted Hands With Jennifer Zobair”

  1. Safiyyah says:

    Salaams: I just ordered your book; this is the first time I’m hearing of it!

  2. I absolutely adored “Painted Hands” – it was different, in many ways, from what I was expecting (and delightfully so!).

    Mateen and Hayden were two of my favourite characters – he, because Muslim men so often get a bad rap, both in real life and in fiction, and there is little effort to understand them, as it were; and Hayden, because while stories of and journeys of white convert Muslim might be ‘common knowledge’ amongst Muslims, it’s rare to see the story being told and depicted in such a compelling way in mainstream fiction.

    I can’t wait to read the next book, inshaAllah!

    • Thank you! I love that you loved those characters. And yes, I think as women we tend to be focused on the negative portrayals of Muslim women, but even the inferential portrayals of Muslim men are so damaging–the whole if we are the victims, they are the oppressors thing..

  3. reem says:

    I loved your book and was very disappointed to hear you were heckled at your reading. I wish i was there because as a muslim woman who was born and raised in North Africa,i know that most of the things attributed to Islam like forced marriages and honor killings are actually un -islamic. People(including muslims) confuse tradition with islam, which is very unfortunate and very unfair..
    I am looking forward to your next book.

    • Thank you so much, Reem! I wish you’d been there, too! I was taken off guard because it was a book reading, not a debate, and because she went ON and ON, and it just didn’t seem like the place for it. She definitely came with an agenda, and it put me, the author, in a very awkward position, because I did not want to appear argumentative. But the audience was great, and it ended with a positive outcome–for me. The woman left in anger. I wish she’d stayed and listened. Maybe some understanding could have been achieved.

      Thank you so much for reading my novel, and for your kind comment!

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