Writing Romance as a Muslim Woman - An Interview with Layla Poulos
Posted on Jan 14, 2019
A Muslim woman who wears the hijab and is a romance author? Why can’t all those descriptions belong to the same woman, says Layla Poulos, whose debut novel, My Way to You, is climbing its way up some of Amazon’s Best Sellers charts. Layla, who has been writing for years and loves the romance genre, advocates for more openness and discussions about romance and sexuality from a faith-based perspective. When it comes to her fiction writing, however, she places no restrictions on how much heat she brings to her stories. I recently spoke with Layla, who writes under the pseudonym Lyndell Williams, about her career, writing romance stories as a hijabi Muslim woman, and if she will ever write romance with Muslim characters.
A covered Muslim woman is probably the last person readers would expect to write a romance. What made you want to write in the genre?
I’ve been an avid romance reader all of my adult life. When presented with the opportunity to study the genre during my graduate studies, I took it. I now explore romance as a reader and romance scholar.
I decided to write romance novels because I think the genre is an essential part of literature. Love stories exist across all genres. Romance centers them and convey how members of societies and cultures navigate one the most important of human emotions – eros love.
Many people have a lot of misinformation about romance as a genre and often try to dismiss its importance, including Muslim authors and publishers. Broad generalizations about romance permeate American Muslim culture. Some [Muslims] are adamant that it’s haram (forbidden) because of sensual content. Ironically, these same people are okay with content such as murder, abuse, etc.
Others automatically equate romance with sexual content and head for the hills. Not all romance has sex scenes. Mine usually do because I think there is a puritanical hold on Muslim cultures when it comes to sex and it drives a lot of dysfunctions and alienates it from the spiritual.
I hope scenes containing positive sensual representations will help ebb away at it.
As a Muslim author, what are your thoughts on writing intimate scenes between fictional characters who may not be married? Or writing about any romantic topics that don't follow Islamic guidelines? Would your answer change if your fictional characters were Muslim?
I'm often asked this question. I find it interesting that Muslim authors include a variety of un-Islamic content such as murder, lying, cheating, stealing, domestic violence, racism, massive death and destruction and even magic without being asked the same thing. Basically, it's okay for a character to pull out a gun but not a condom. I think a lot of people in Muslim culture struggle with aversions to frank and productive discussions and instruction about sex in real life, which results in a hypersensitivity to anything sexual, even in fictional depictions. So, while they're okay with a shooting scene, open up a bedroom door and suddenly questions about of Islam come into play.
It's important to remember that though the plot may include characters engaged in a spectrum of sensual behavior, they are not real people. Therefore, one is no more having sex than another character is actually shooting someone or putting on a mask and flying.
I do what drives the plot and character development to deliver the main message of the story. That includes their sensual journeys. I am comfortable with writing about an expanse of sexual dialogue between cisgender heterosexual characters — both Muslim and non-Muslim. I mean, we are not pretending that Muslims don't engage in un-Islamic sexual activity, right?
I refuse to try to jam any square pegs into round holes to suit anyone's arbitrary interpretations, aversions, or proclivities.
My Way to You (MWTY) is a love story about an Asian American man and African American woman. How did you determine the racial makeup of the love interests?
I selected the characters as a reflection of growing lines of solidarity between Black and Asian Americans during the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement. Organizations like the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative and 18 Million Rising encouraged increased unity in combating layers of racism and White supremacy.
I was also inspired by the growing BWAM (Black Women-Asian Men) movement.
Your main characters in MWTY, Simon and Regina, both encounter levels of bigotry and intolerance inside and outside of their relationship. How does that affect the love they have for each other?
There is a widespread misconception that interracial relationships demonstrate the absence of racism. Couples are increasingly being splashed across screens in feel-good representations that somehow our society is purging itself of bigotry and bias. Nothing can be further from the truth.
Couples in interracial romances often have to navigate through an array of bias. Some of it is internal. Just because one is in a relationship with a member of another race/ethnicity, it doesn’t mean they’ve magically relieved themselves of learned bias or even that they like other members of that race or ethnicity.
Some of the bias is external. Simon and Regina are both members of a minority, so not only do they have to deal with racial microaggressions and hate for themselves, they also have to appreciate how their loved one struggles with theirs. If that’s not enough, they also have to deal with intolerance of them as a couple — all of which affects their relationship.
I wanted to show the layers of social intolerance that many interracial couples tackle.
For example, Simon has to see and respond to ways Regina is subjected to racism as an African American woman as well as a Black woman who decided to date outside of her race.
Many people erroneously think it wouldn’t be a big deal, but it is for some women. Regina is brought to a lot of emotional extremes, but Simon is very good at making the racist world around them melt away when he takes Regina in his arms.
Is your book a stand-alone or part of a series?
My Way to You is book one in the Brothers in Law series. It features six lawyers who become friends in law school and all have individual quests to keep the women they love in their lives.
The men complement each other and can rely on one another when life throws some pretty serious stuff at them. Simon Young is the first brother featured. He falls for his best friend, Marcus’s sister, which is not good considering his reputation as a playa.
Marcus’s book, Sweet Love-Bitter Fruit, is next. He and his wife, Toni have a rock-solid marriage, which is tested by infertility.
Simon and Regina are not Muslim. Will you be writing romance with Muslim characters?
I certainly am, Inshallah! Three of the brothers in the Brothers in Law series are Muslim. Adam Kane (book 3) is a European American convert. He rides a Harley and does not apologize for living his life, worshipping Allah and loving his woman.
Brandon Hulse (book 4) is born-African American Muslim. He’s the dependable one who keeps the other brothers from going too far out there. He centers and stabilizes the crew and women in his life.
Faisal Khan is South Asian American. He’s Pashtun with brown skin and East Asian features that make the women around him just swoon. His story will be told in two books. Readers will find out why when the first one is released.
I also have a couple of more Muslim romances already on my roster, including two paranormal romances with Muslim wolf shifters and vampires. And, I have Muslim romance short stories published in a few short story collections, including Shades of AMBW and Shades of BWWM.
There is also the Muslims short story collection Blackseed & Honey: American Muslim Fiction Anthology that’s scheduled for release this year.
I have a short story subscription on my authors blog as well. I want readers from all backgrounds to enjoy the ways love, faith and sensuality overlap in my work.
Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
Get good editors — content and copy. Once you find some who knows their stuff about your genre, writing and do their jobs in a timely manner so you have a polished product, hold onto them for dear life! Good editors are a must. Every writer -- newbie to award-winning bestselling authors -- needs to thicken their skins and get ready to realize where their work needs improvement and then fix it.
That same thick skin will be needed when encountering readers who don’t like your work, which inevitably happens. Don’t set up any delusions that everyone that comes across your words will be an immediate fan. They won’t be, and it’s important to not let it stunt your creativity.