The everyday may not seem like the first place to turn to for inspiration. Yet for many writers it provides fertile ground for stories to take root and flourish. From Lucy Caldwell to Tessa Hadley, Wendy Erskine to Jhumpa Lahiri, unearthing the minutiae of family relationships and domestic settings can expose the unsettled ground of the day-to-day; revealing intergenerational tensions, quiet desperation and the otherwise unsaid that is often ignored. One such author who has an exceptional talent for capturing the extraordinary and profound within the ordinary is the award-winning writer and journalist, Huma Qureshi.
Following a degree in English and French, Huma started her career as a journalist at The Observer and The Guardian and, after going freelance in 2014, wrote her first non-fiction book, In Spite of Oceans (a recipient of the John C Laurence Award).
Based on the stories of diasporic south Asians and inspired by people she met – some of whom had left south Asia behind and made Britain their home, while others were ‘born and raised in one place but with heritage from afar’– in the book Qureshi weaves “shared fragments” of their “quiet histories”, filling in the gaps with her imagination. In doing so, she creates considered and moving narratives that encapsulate and illuminate the loneliness and dislocation felt by each person.
“Every story is, in its own way, a journey,” says Qureshi, in the book’s introduction. “Sometimes the journey is literal, moving across oceans. Other times it is intangible, a journey of understanding and, often, coming to terms with what some call circumstance and what others call fate.”
While her first book is embedded in stories of the diaspora, these tales speak of universal themes that go beyond cultural heritage. They are accounts of navigating familial relationships, of burgeoning friendships that end in breakdowns, heartbreaking reflections on the loss of loved ones and of overcoming life’s ruptures or living with its fissures. They are quiet meditations of what it means to find root again.
“These tales speak of universal themes that go beyond cultural heritage. They are accounts of navigating familial relationships, of overcoming life’s ruptures or living with its fissures. They are quiet meditations of what it means to find root again.”
It’s very much in the everyday moments and family dynamics where Qureshi finds the stories that would perhaps otherwise be overlooked. In her poetic and poignant writing, she brings to life the smallest of details, exposing the story behind the cracks that we so often try to conceal. “Sometimes, someone can just say something off-hand and you can be thinking about it for days but they won’t have any idea. It can trigger off this whole spiral of thought,” she explains. “I try to explore that through my own work.”
In 2020, she won the Harpers Bazaar Short Story Prize for The Jam Maker, a moving tale about family ties and loss. In her acclaimed memoir How We Met, published in 2021, she explored her own journey of finding love under the gaze of family expectations. It was followed late last year by Things We Do Not Tell The People We Love, a collection of ten short stories each featuring a female protagonist. Her refined prose is testament to her discerning and conscious approach to continually honing her craft. She’s inspired by the likes of Alice Munroe, who, she says, “has this way of making something insignificant go much deeper and actually beyond the event and seeing what the feeling is. And the feeling can be so much bigger than the actual moment. That is something I think is really true about the way we live.”
Across her own writing, Qureshi has excelled in illuminating the big and significant feelings that can arise from those seemingly insignificant moments. In her more recent work, love and loss, longing and belonging are a finely strung constellation of themes, expertly balanced. Her short story Premonition, (which features in her latest collection) sees a young woman bump into her first love interest many years after they initially met. What appears to be someone recounting their teenage crush slowly reveals a trapeze walk of cultural expectations as she looks back on the double standards that pervaded as she was growing up. ‘Sometimes things can happen and you tell yourself it’s not important, then it lingers and colours your experience as you grow up,’ Qureshi explains of the inspiration behind this story, and many of her others. ‘I wanted to capture and explore those moments, those tiny feelings that you never forget.’
Qureshi is well-versed in exploring how intergenerational and familial expectations can leave an imprint and impact on one’s life. In her memoir, How We Met she recounts her journey of finding love under the watchful eye of her family. While cultural expectations linger in the background, it’s so much more than simply a tale of navigating unwritten rules. At its heart it is a coming-of-age story. it explores the perils of online dating and the loosening of family ties that can otherwise tether and restrict. As she says, “I’ve always been interested in family lives and I’ve always wanted to write about them.”
When comparing the experience of writing her memoir with crafting her short stories she explains that with How We Met there was never a question around plot but she wanted to be careful with how much of herself she gave away, whereas in her fiction it’s different. “I took it for granted that hopefully I wouldn’t be asked the questions like other female fiction writers are, such as ‘Is this based on your life?” she says. “My stories aren’t cultural or based on my life, they are about feelings.”
Ever mindful that her characters are fully formed and vivid, in her collection she goes beyond the background of each character and explores the emotions that arise in the situations that they find themselves in. In a recent Instagram post she explains it further. “It troubles me that someone unfamiliar with my stories might think I wrote the repressed, stereotypical narrative,” she writes. “I didn’t. One of the things I am most proud of is that no one ever pressured me into ticking boxes with my characters; I wrote from my heart.”
"I’ve worked really hard to capture in words; where you can drop something into the ocean, into the middle of a paragraph, and it’s just enough"
This writing from the heart is evident in the exquisite and gentle details that are sprinkled across her work, where she casts light on the otherwise invisible feelings which are felt acutely by many. Reflecting on her own work and her meticulousness when it comes to writing, she says, “I’ve worked really hard to capture in words where you can drop something into the ocean, into the middle of a paragraph, and it’s just enough; and that’s the hinge upon which the rest of the story turns.”
These hinges find space and root not only in the tiny feelings of the day-to-day but also in the straining sinews of family bonds which would normally be shrouded in a cloak of the unsaid. The second story in her collection, Summer, is a dramatic and electrifying tale; the invisible splinters of a tricky mother-daughter dynamic that have embedded over the years are forced to the surface under the gaze of a hot sun and the story reaches a shocking yet cleverly ambiguous climax. “Reem’s relationship with her mother is one with resentment tinting every word,” Qureshi explains. “Yet to the outsider there is seemingly no source of contention. It’s just lots and lots of little things, but it’s the little things that add up. That’s what I’m trying to do in my writing, to infuse a layer of feeling and to go into the emotional journeys of the character. To me, it’s always about creating something that’s emotion driven.”
So what is next for Qureshi? Will the everyday become too everyday for her? Is there somewhere else she wants to look or a different space she hopes to explore with her writing in the future? She’s currently working on a novel due to be published in 2023 and the paperback version of her memoir has just been released. She’ll also be relaunching her popular writing courses, as well as partnering with other organisations to deliver writing classes and mentor.
She remains inspired by the everyday and exploring and revealing the “little paper cuts that happen throughout the course of your existence. You heal but do you really heal from them and how does that impact you? I’m constantly asking those questions of my characters.”
Those questions, those paper cuts, those invisible moments that leave an indelible mark. I, for one, remain drawn to her extraordinary ability to infuse the ordinary with depth and feeling and await her novel with great excitement. As to where the longer form will lead her; I’ll be with her, on every page, across every line.
In Spite of Oceans Huma Qureshi, The History Press Ltd
How We Met Huma Qureshi, Elliot & Thompson
Things We Do Not Tell the People We Love Huma Qureshi, Hodder and Stoughton
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