An Interview with Aisha Yusuf

Aisha Yusuf is a Somali-Canadian author, editor, and publisher who is passionate about the diversification of literature, and aims to create stories that bring under-represented voices to the forefront. She is a current student at MacEwan University in the Communications Program and started a publishing company, Abāyo House, with her sisters. You can check out her upcoming novel here.

Aisha Yusuf with her novel, Race to the Finish Line

1.  Could you tell us about how Abāyo House came to be?

Abāyo House is a Canadian publishing company founded by my sisters and I in the midst of producing the novel I wrote. Abāyo House was created not out of leisure or passion, but out of necessity. The need became obvious when we realized the manuscript did not belong in the current publishing industry. This revelation propelled us to be proactive and take matters into our own hands, and do everything in our ability to give this book the best care and respect it requires–knowing it would not have received it otherwise.

2.  What kinds of stories is Abāyo House looking to publish?

Abāyo House’s mission is to revive the stories that were buried, and demand space in an industry we’ve been harshly excluded from. We want to revive reading and writing in communities that have lost touch with that part of themselves, and we want to write and produce stories that are not mainstream.

3. Could you tell us about your first novel, A Race to the Finish Line?

Race to the Finish Line is a young adult mystery novel about a black Muslim girl who moves to a new town and experiences hate and bigotry. She discovers the town’s dangerous secret. Aaleyah and and her friends set out to solve that secret, and they face some challenges doing so.

I started writing this book when I was in high school, because I was sick and tired of not seeing characters who look like me in books. I could never relate to any of the characters in the books I was reading. As a result, I eventually stopped reading, and that is when my writing journey began. I was tired of seeing how Muslims were represented in the book industry. There were no accurate representations and I realized I would have to create that representation myself.

I came across this quote by Toni Morrison that said:

“If there is a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it”

This quote changed everything for me. I set out to write this book and it took me eight years to complete and publish it.

4. I see that you write poetry as well! Do you find that your personal writing seems to focus on similar themes in both poetry and prose?

I love any type of creative writing. In terms of similarities in my writing, I find that there are similar themes that do across over whether I’m writing poetry or prose. I use writing to express myself and I find that translates into whatever I’m writing at the moment, whether that is poetry or personal essays.

5.  How do you balance your writing projects, school, and running Abāyo House?

I’ll be honest, balancing all the things I need to do isn’t easy. I have experienced nasty burnouts, and at times it was difficult to balance everything. What helped me was my passion to finish my degree, my passion for writing, and my passion for Abāyo House. Because of those passions, it gave me the motivation to do all the things I needed to do.

I learned how to manage my time. I had to sacrifice some things to get to where I am now. I didn’t have the social life that my peers had, I had to sacrifice entertainment and everything that was fun in order to complete this book and create Abāyo House while finishing my school work.

I also make sure to give myself time off. To prevent burnout, I dedicate weekends to unproductivity to recharge myself and get ready for the week ahead.

6. Do social activism and social justice play a role in your writing and, if so, to what extent?

Well because of the identities I carry and all the injustices that come with it, social justice issues play a big role in my writing, however, it isn’t everything I write about.

7. What is the best piece of writing advice you have received?

My sister once told me something that really changed the way I approached and viewed my writing. She told me “Aisha, no one in this world can write the way you do, just like you can’t write like anyone else in this world. You can try, but it will never be authentic. So stop comparing yourself to other people.”

The way we form words is unique to each individual and their experiences. There is no right or wrong way to write. Writing is subjective.

8. Finally, what advice would you offer to aspiring writers and publishers?

Write the book. Just write it. After talking to many writers, I find that writing the book is the biggest hurdle they have. They ask themselves so many unnecessary questions like “is my writing good enough? Will I ever get published?”

Those questions are counterproductive and will not help with the publishing process. Get out of your head. Forget about the end, when you haven’t even begun and only focus on writing. Everything else will fall into place.

9. Anything that you would like to add?

The process of publishing my book was a long and hard one. There were times where I thought it would never happen. The thought of giving up was more appealing than continuing.

But I’m so glad that I didn’t give up because I wouldn’t be here. Sometimes our dreams take longer to achieve than the timeline we set. That’s okay, because ultimately, we have no control over what events transpire. All we can do is do the work, and not give up.

You can check out Abāyo House and Aisha’s novel here.

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