Boreal Book Club: Hana Khan Carries On by Uzma Jalaluddin

Welcome to STYLE Canada’s Boreal Book Club: a monthly meeting narrated by Erin Catto, (reviewer at Girl Well Read),  for bookworms who are looking to scour new pages. Each instalment of our Boreal Book Club will feature a Canadian author and their latest title. Be sure to use the hashtag #BorealBookClub to share with us on social!

Hana is a waitress at her family’s restaurant, Three Sisters Biryani Poutine. Although it is the only halal restaurant in the close-knit Golden Crescent neighbourhood, sales are slow. Working in the family business is not her heart’s desire, what she really wants is to tell stories on the radio—if she can just outshine her fellow intern at the city radio station, she may have a chance at landing a job. In the meantime, Hana pours her thoughts and dreams into a podcast, where she forms a lively relationship with one of her listeners. But soon she’ll need all the support she can get: a new competing restaurant, a more upscale halal place, is about to open in the Golden Crescent, threatening Three Sisters and her family’s livelihood.

When her mysterious aunt and her teenage cousin arrive from India for a surprise visit, they draw Hana into a long-buried family secret. A hate-motivated attack on their neighbourhood complicates the situation further, as does Hana’s growing attraction for Aydin, the young owner of the rival restaurant—who might not be a complete stranger after all.

As life on the Golden Crescent unravels, Hana must learn to use her voice, draw on the strength of her community, and decide what her future should be.

Uzma Jalaluddin (Andrea Stenson)

Jalaluddin has a gift for penning engaging dialogue. Her writing is clever, charming, and sprinkled with humour—at the launch for Hana Khan Carries On, Uzma mentioned how it is important to show that Muslims can be funny too.

This charming rom-com has a fascinating cast of characters. Our heroine, Hana, is feisty and impulsive but she also tender yet witty with her sharp tongue. Some of Jalaluddin’s best writing is the banter between Hana and Ayden.

Toronto was (again) the perfect setting and I enjoyed learning more about our tight-knit Muslim communities. Jalaluddin deftly guides the readers though the complex duality that her characters face; they are trying to honour their beliefs and culture without being conformed by the society they are trying to assimilate. Hana, Rashid, Yusuf, Ayden, and Zulfa are paving their own way separate from their family—their stumbles and growth are what makes for some incredible moments.

Hana Khan Carries On is utterly enchanting.

Scroll to learn more about Jalaluddin in an inclusive interview with STYLE Canada!

@girlwellread via Instagram

GWR: Describe your ideal writing and reading experience (when, where, what, how). Do you ever imagine where your books should be read?

UJ: I usually write in my basement office, which has the advantage of a door I can shut against my kids! Unfortunately, the door lacks a lock, so I am often interrupted. In order to get writing work done, I mostly just need some music and uninterrupted time to gather my thoughts and force myself to log off Twitter.

As for reading, I personally enjoy reading in bed, and sometimes on my couch. I imagine my books would be the perfect accompaniment to a delicious tea or latte, or maybe even a fun book to read by the water. Pack them in your beach totes!

GWR: Can you take us through your writing process for Hana Khan Carries On? Does your process change book-to-book?

UJ: I wrote Hana Khan Carries On in the months prior and following the release of my debut novel, Ayesha At Last. In fact, I began the book as a distraction while I was on submission, waiting to see if a publisher would be interested in buying Ayesha At Last—a nerve wracking process! I wrote about 2/3 of Hana Khan Carries On before I had to stop working on it for about six months, to help launch Ayesha At Last. I finished my second book in the winter of 2019, revised over the spring, and finally sold it in August 2019.

Second books are notoriously difficult, and Hana Khan Carries On was no exception. I had entire storylines that ended up being cut, and it took me a while to figure out who Hana Khan was, and to boil down the main thematic elements. I’m so proud of the book that resulted, however—I love Hana and Aydin, I love her family and the community of the Golden Crescent neighbourhood, love that this book is Canadian and Muslim, and full of messy complications and also light hearted tenderness. I hope readers enjoy it!

GWR: Which subjects do you wish more authors would write about?

UJ: I think authors should write about whatever interests them—I love reading about and learning from many different perspectives. Personally, I am increasingly interested in reading about diverse experiences and lives. I want all the stories about identity, and filtered through commercial genres. I want BIPOC mystery, fantasy, romance, memoir, written from all sorts of backgrounds and points of view. I’m interested in the diversity within diverse communities.

@uzmajalauddin via Instagram

GWR: What comes first for you—the storyline or the characters?

UJ: For me, character is everything. My books always start with character, and a central problem. With Hana Khan Carries On, I wanted to write about a young woman—Hana is 24 in the book—who has finished post secondary school, and is about to embark on the next stage of her life in the midst of many different complications. The story always emerges from character.

GWR: Did any minor characters become major characters over the course of the novel?

UJ: Yes! Hana’s cousin Rashid, who visits from India, started off as a minor character, except he kept stealing every scene. He is a comic relief character, and his different perspective and experience informs and enriches the choices that Hana has to make over the course of the book. He was a lot of fun to write. I have a lot of cousins, both in Canada and living elsewhere around the world, so it was fun to write about that dynamic. In contrast, another character, actually shrank over the course of revisions—Yusuf, Hana’s friend.

GWR: What inspired the fusion of biryani and poutine?

UJ: Haha! I have a feeling this dish will haunt me forever! Hana’s favourite meal is biryani poutine, a dish she made up when she was nine years old. Her mother even had it on the menu at their family restaurant, until she got so many complaints from customers, she had to remove it.

The truth is, I made up this dish (it doesn’t exist in real life, I promise) because it made me laugh. Writing a book is a long, often lonely process, and I often make up characters, situations, or in this case a dish, to keep myself amused on this journey. I also think it is an apt metaphor for Hana herself. She’s a little bit biryani—South Asian—and a little bit poutine—Canadian—all mixed up together.

GWR: You have such a wonderful ear for dialogue and are so witty. Why is it important to you to infuse humour into your work?

UJ: Thank you! I was and still am a voracious reader. The books I gravitated towards were funny books. As a younger person, I read a lot of Gordon Korman’s early works, his Macdonald Hall series, and later, other Canadian humourists such as Donald Jack, Joseph Bourne, Sinclair Ross, even Margaret Atwood. I also love the funny fantasy novels by Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett. I think I have a similarly quirky, very Canadian sense of humour, and my voice in writing has evolved to include this humour. Mostly, I just like to laugh, and I love making other people laugh as well.

GWR: I loved how the neighbourhood became a character in Hana Khan Carries On—why did you choose Toronto as your setting?

UJ: I’m a GTA girl, born and bred. I was born in North York, grew up in Scarborough, and now live in Markham. I grew up in a very similar tight knit community as the one in Hana Khan Carries On and Ayesha At Last (which, for the record, is a fictional place). I wanted to present an idealized version of community to my readers, with a cozy, “Star’s Hollow” (Gilmore Girls) feel, except populated by immigrants from all around the world. I also think Toronto is not repped enough in books, or on the screen, and I’m on a one-woman mission to change that! There’s a scene in Hana Khan Carries On that takes place in the CN Tower, and another on the downtown streets, and it was so much fun to write both. The 6ix forever!

GWR: Hana Khan Carries On invokes feelings of happiness, community, and love. But you also touch on current issues that affect Muslim and South Asian communities. Can you speak to why you included these timely topics in a romantic comedy?

UJ: As a visible Muslim woman (I wear hijab) and as the daughter of South Asian immigrants, I’m always aware of issues of identity, but rarely see this authentically represented in books. Especially in commercial books. Instead, my community has been besieged with harmful, toxic stereotypes that overwhelmingly focus on negative storylines involving subjugation, dysfunction, violence and extremism, with few stories that focus on lighter experiences. I personally enjoy stories that include the bitter with the sweet. I want to write about the Muslim experience from an insider’s point of view, in a way that feels authentic, while being respectful of people’s lived experience and demonstrating empathy for their struggles. So when Hana experiences a hate-motivated attack and microaggressions at work, the reader is put in her shoes as she makes sense of it all. I chose to keep the tone in this novel optimistic and hopeful, however, as I am writing a happy story about Muslims. We all need to see ourselves as having agency, and also as having the capacity for joy.

GWR: Can you share what you are working on now?

UJ: Right now, I am working on my third novel, which will be another romantic comedy set in the fictional Golden Crescent neighbourhood. It is shaping up to be an homage to Jane Austen’s Persuasion, set in a sprawling Muslim conference—think comic-con, except with more Brown people in hijabs! I am also working on a comedic play for the Silk Road, a Muslim arts focused organization, which we hope to launch in the winter of 2022.

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