After publishing her first novel, Painted Hands, about Muslim-American women, Smith alumna Jennifer Zobair says she’s more convinced than ever of the need for diverse narratives in literature.
“After my novel was released, I heard from a lot of Muslim women who told me that it was the first time they related to characters in a novel,” said Zobair ’93, who is a convert to Islam. “A startling number of those women thanked me for portraying Muslim women as normal.”
Published in 2013, the book paints a picture of powerful, accomplished Muslim women negotiating the post-9/11 world. Reviewers called Zobair’s novel “thoughtful” and “an important addition to the canon of ethnic fiction.”
Zobair said she set out “to tell a smart and entertaining story that happened to feature Muslim women characters.”
“I wanted people from all backgrounds to relate to their struggles,” she added. “Ideally, I hope the book fosters deeper understanding and reflection.”
Painted Hands, published by St. Martin’s Press, explores the friendship of two Pakistani-American women: Zainab Mir, a top adviser for a Republican politician, and Amra Abbas, a hardworking associate at a law firm.
The characters—both graduates of Smith—have managed to thwart “proposal-slinging aunties and cultural expectations to succeed in their high-powered careers in Boston,” reads a book description on Zobair’s website. But when a controversial prayer service leads to violence, they must decide what they’re willing to risk for friendship.
Another character in Painted Hands, Hayden Palmer, is a young woman who converts to Islam and becomes caught up with ultra-conservative practitioners of the religion.
Including such a character was important, Zobair said, to offset what she calls an “urgent need on the part of Muslims to tell defensive narratives” or overly positive stories to counter negative stereotypes.
In hopes of making books like hers more commonplace, Zobair founded the website story and chai, which serves as a creative space for readers and writers of Muslim and culturally diverse narratives. The site features book reviews, interviews with authors, guest spots, and advice on writing and publishing.
Zobair notes that a growing number of Muslim women are networking through social media, websites and blogs to offer a more complex representation of their experiences.
“I think what we are saying is that others can and do tell stories about us, but we’re going to tell our stories too,” she said.
Before writing Painted Hands, Zobair practiced corporate and immigration law in both New York and Michigan. This summer, she is relocating from the Boston area, where she has lived for years, to Washington, D.C. Zobair lives with her husband—a fellow attorney who is a Pakistani-American—and three children, ages 16, 13 and 11.
Zobair credits her time at Smith for giving her the confidence to shape a career as a writer—a choice she began to pursue after taking time off work to be with her children.
While publishing a novel about Muslim women often seemed like a long shot, “I’m a product of Smith, where women learn that their dreams are important and attainable,” Zobair said. “That confidence allowed me to take a chance, delay my return to the practice of law and pursue my dream.”
Creating a book whose characters are also Smith graduates was a way of honoring her college experience, Zobair said, adding, “I guess I wanted them to carry Smith with them too.”
Zobair’s next book will focus on family issues, including “the ways parents from any traditional or religious background can become conditional in their love for their children,” she said.
Zobair is also co-editing an interfaith anthology on feminism and religion that will be part of the “I Speak for Myself” series by Muslim women scheduled to be released in 2015.