INTERVIEW: Lamya H, Author of Hijab Butch Blues

Interview by Lara Lillibridge

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Book Cover: Hijab Butch BluesWhen fourteen-year-old Lamya H realizes she has a crush on her teacher—her female teacher—she covers up her attraction, an attraction she can’t yet name, by playing up her roles as overachiever and class clown. Born in South Asia, she moved to the Middle East at a young age and has spent years feeling out of place, like her own desires and dreams don’t matter, and it’s easier to hide in plain sight. To disappear. But one day in Quran class, she reads a passage about Maryam that changes everything: When Maryam learned that she was pregnant, she insisted no man had touched her. Could Maryam, uninterested in men, be . . . like Lamya?

From that moment on, Lamya makes sense of her struggles and triumphs by comparing her experiences with some of the most famous stories in the Quran. She juxtaposes her coming out with Musa liberating his people from the pharoah; asks if Allah, who is neither male nor female, might instead be nonbinary; and, drawing on the faith and hope Nuh needed to construct his ark, begins to build a life of her own—ultimately finding that the answer to her lifelong quest for community and belonging lies in owning her identity as a queer, devout Muslim immigrant.

This searingly intimate memoir in essays, spanning Lamya’s childhood to her arrival in the United States for college through early-adult life in New York City, tells a universal story of courage, trust, and love, celebrating what it means to be a seeker and an architect of one’s own life.

Lara Lillibridge:  I’m curious about the genesis of the book. Did you set out to write a book, or did you write essays and stories, and at some point decide it was book-length?  Do you have a writing group or critique partners you work with? 

Lamya H: This book started out as an essay: specifically, the Hajar essay, which is actually the second last essay in the book. I had written and published essays before so it was what I knew how to write —short pieces that moved forward an argument. And then I found myself writing —and really enjoying writing —the Hajar essay in which I was not just exploring an idea, but also moving a story through time and space. From there came more essays: the Maryam essay that’s the first in the memoir, in which I explore my attraction to women as a teenager and also grappling with the existential angst of not wanting to live; the Allah essay in which I talk about gender —mine and God’s; the Nuh (Noah) essay where I write about all the good non-dates and bad dates I went on.

In putting together the essays into a book, what I found really interesting was learning to write time, growth, and (my own) character development. My book isn’t linear —and that was on purpose because memory isn’t linear and is often fragmented —so another thing I had to teach myself was to situate my reader so that they’re not left floundering trying to figure out my age or geographically where I am or what has happened before. The flip side of this is that I also had to teach myself to trust my reader —that I don’t have to spell everything out and that my reader too is present and intentional.


“In putting together the essays into a book, what I found really interesting was learning to write time, growth, and (my own) character development.”—Lamya H.

I was never formally taught to write —I didn’t grow up in an education system that valued  creative writing, if I’m being completely honest, and I didn’t take classes in school or college. But I feel like I learned so much through workshopping my writing with friends and going to writing retreats. And my community really showed up for me! I will never forget the time a queer Muslim writer friend who was doing an MFA called me up and walked me through how to write a scene, how to show not tell.

Lara: How did you find your writing community? 

Lamya: By going to writing retreats! This is my biggest advice for newer writers: apply to everything and go to as many retreats and workshops as possible. Have people read your work —especially people who offer feedback that is constructive and not destructive, which I think is easy to tell based on how people interact with your work and how invested they are in your process. Finding a writing community changed the way I think about writing and made me take myself more seriously as a writer. And reading other people’s writing and paying attention to the ways in which I responded to it taught me so much about what works and what doesn’t work.


“This is my biggest advice for newer writers: apply to everything and go to as many retreats and workshops as possible.”—Lamya H.

Lara:  You are the only contemporary person I know who has written a memoir anonymously—something many of my writing advisors told me was impossible in this day and age. How did you manage that? What was your publishing journey like?

Lamya: Whoa! That is really cool! Another contemporary anonymous memoir that comes to mind is Becoming Duchess Goldblatt which is a really incredible book about a person who creates a persona —what’s really interesting about the memoir is that it’s about both the person and the persona. I read that book when I first started writing my book —and it was inspiring to know that it was possible to write anonymously.

Back view of author Lamya H.

Honestly, this was all possible because I got really lucky. I had two people who really had my back: first, my agent Julia Kardon, who was an absolute badass about my writing under a pseudonym. She was entirely unapologetic about it with editors when my book was on submission, and then also followed up by being entirely unapologetic about it during the marketing/publicity phase. She also was great at shutting down weird questions. What a champ! My editor Katy Nishimoto was the other person who was incredible about anonymity —she always checked in with me about details in the book and edited with an eye towards my comfort. She was so supportive about my decisions to obscure some details —like not naming the countries where I grew up —which really allowed me to trust myself and my instincts.

Lara: How did you connect with your agent?

Lamya: I got really lucky —Julia reached out to me on Twitter because she had read an essay I published at the LA Review of Books. At that time, I was new to writing and did not for a second think I’d write a book. She took me out to lunch and said, let’s write a book proposal. I was adamant that it would never happen, that I didn’t have the stamina or skill to tackle a longer project. But then she just sat back and waited and emailed me every 6 months or so —until I had a manuscript! Best twitter DM of my life…

Lara:  I have long been curious about Islam—I picked up a copy of the Quran at AWP, but haven’t opened it yet. I loved how you wove verses in between your personal stories, and I loved how the ones you chose were familiar to me, but different. I was also able to see how important religion was to you in a more intimate way by their inclusion. I wondered if exposing non-Muslim readers to these verses was an added layer of vulnerability for you.

Lamya: Definitely. I wanted to write a book that was unapologetically Muslim so I made sure, for example, to include prayers in their original form, use Islamic versions of names (like Ibrahim for Abraham) and not explain anything that didn’t require an explanation for moving the story forward. But it definitely felt hard and vulnerable sharing these stories and verses from the Quran with a non-Muslim audience, especially in the context of Islamophobia in the US and the racialized nature of the global “war on terror.” But I found myself thinking a lot about what is considered canon —what stories are considered mainstream enough to be considered in this category? I want the Muslim counterparts of these stories to also be considered myth.

Lara:  What was the hardest part of the writing process for you, and how did you deal with it?

The hardest part for me —as someone with a 9-5 job —was finding time to write. The first few essays were written in snatches of time between work or on my phone on the subway or in coffee shops on Saturday mornings at 7 am before the world was awake. And then the pandemic happened and the shutdown happened and because I had the kind of job that I couldn’t do from home, I suddenly had lots of time on my hands to work on my book. For really the first time in my life, I had the ability to dedicate all my time and mental space to writing, and it was so enjoyable to be able to immerse myself in a project like that.

 Lara:  Were there any unexpected joys in the publication?

Lamya: So many! My favorite moment was definitely when a friend recommended me my book without knowing that I had written it. And recently, a friend told me that she had talked about my book in therapy —which definitely made me feel like I’ve made it. But overall, it’s been so incredible getting messages from folks spanning a range of identities —queer or Muslim or queer and Muslim or neither —with whom the book resonated.

Lara: I listened to your book on Audible while on a long drive. I loved the narrator’s voice. Did you have any input into the narrator? Also, have you listened to the audio version at all? Or does the idea make you cringe?

Lamya: I have a hard time listening to the audiobook —and any of my podcasts or interviews! Definitely feels cringey. But I got to choose the narrator, and I picked Ashraf because she sounded so genuine and soothing.

Lara: Lastly, what are you reading now, or what are you looking forward to reading this year?

Lamya: I just started Yellowface, which I’m super excited to get into—especially since it’s such an intimate portrayal of the rollercoaster that is publishing a book. I have a long list of books that my debut author cohort have written and I can’t wait to read all of them!

Lamya H. is a former Lambda Literary Fellow whose writing has appeared in Vice, Salon, Vox, Black Girl Dangerous, Autostraddle, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. She currently lives in New York with her partner.

Headshot of Author Lara Lillibridge

Lara Lillibridge

Interviews Editor

Lara Lillibridge (she/they) is the author of Mama, Mama, Only Mama: An Irreverent Guide for the Newly Single Parent; Girlish: Growing Up in a Lesbian Home, and co-editor of the anthology, Feminine Rising. Her essay collection: The Truth About Unringing Phones, releases March 2024 with Unsolicited Press.

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