Layla Abdullah-Polous is a superhero. She has to be to have six children, conduct homeschooling, be married for twenty-seven years (to the same guy!) and maintain a career as an independent author of romance novels. I think that’s her #BlackMuslimGirlFly, being a superhero. Layla is amazing, and when I spoke to her for our exclusive interview, she made it seem like a breeze. Her positive energy is infectious, and her determination to affect change in the world of storytelling is enough to give her awards and accolades from me. She knows representation matters, and Layla kicks ass at making it happen in the world of romance. Read what she has to say about interracial romance novels and how her #BlackMuslimGirlFly empowers her while living in that space.
TeamBMGFly: #BlackMuslimGirlFly is defined as that “it” factor Black Muslim Girls & Women have that makes them amazing, dope, & fresh-to-death awesome. How would you describe your #BlackMuslimGirlFly?
Layla Abdullah-Polous: The hashtag is not what I expected at first. To me just by looking at the name, I didn’t really expect it to involve all the things that you do. I thought that maybe it was really something where it was more fashion-oriented, and stuff like that. I didn’t realize how dynamic the work is that goes behind it. When I explored further, I was pleasantly surprised.
I think, of the primary ways I express my #BlackMuslimGirlFly, (and I definitely have my Black Muslim Girl Fly!) is that I optimize my very vibrant heritage as a Black person in the United States. I have an African-American heritage, and we just have a tendency to make everything dope. That’s what we do. And so, I bring that with me; with everything that I do. I put a Bismillah on it, and I capitalize on the perspective that I have as an African-American. There are a lot of opportunities to explore things and value things that people don’t normally value. I think that’s my #BlackMuslimGirlFly.
TeamBMGFly: How did you grow into your Muslim identity? And, how does being a Black girl impact that? (Or, if you’re bi-racial, or of multi-ethnic heritage, how does that impact your Muslim identity?)
Layla: I’m a New Yorker, born and raised. Long Island, NY. I grew up here on Long Island, and I still live here with my husband and six kids. We just celebrated our 27th wedding anniversary. Alhamdulillah, that’s who I am. I live in a diverse community, and I deal with a lot of issues surrounding that. When I first converted, I was a part of a majority African-American community. Then, when I got married, I ended up in a very diverse community that was now majority Desi. And, there was a lot of racism and anti-Blackness. I miss that little bubble of security that I had around Black Muslims, and that encompasses some of the driving points in my work. It’s based on that whole ratio of African-American culture in Muslim communities. I really want to highlight the native-born American Muslims because there’s a dominant misconception that Muslims are mostly foreign, and are mainly from specific backgrounds.
My father was Muslim, but then my parents separated. So, I was brought up Baptist. I don’t want to tell my origin story. Let’s just say that I’ve been blessed from the time I was seeking to find out about Islam, up to today and beyond. Allah has blessed me with some phenomenal Muslim Women in my life, and that’s a very important thing to have. If I don’t have that support from my Muslim sisters, I would definitely not be doing the things that I do. When I first became Muslim, a sister took me under her wing and made me a part of her family to the point where I was everywhere they were. And I met phenomenal Muslim Women, phenomenal Black Muslim women who are educated, who are intelligent, doing things, starting businesses, organizing the Masjid; because it wouldn’t be anything without Muslim Women. I saw them doing it all, and that was very inspiring. Black Muslim Women, time and again, all my Muslim life, have been my touchstone. It was how I developed my own personal identity of being Muslim. It definitely helped me to hone my personal identity when I was going through the issue of people treating me in a “certain way” because I was a Black Muslim Woman. I had them as examples of how to have the courage to go up to those people and tell them to ‘screw themselves;’ which I have a tendency to do. I was 18 when I became Muslim and I definitely needed Black Muslim Women. They were very, very strong and powerful for me, and continue to be so.
TeamBMGFly: How do you maneuver your industry as a Black Muslim Woman?
Layla: Well I’m finding that to be very interesting. I tell myself, “Think for yourself and forget what everyone else says,” and I give a lot of slack to a lot of people. I have to wear a few different hijabs because the authorship is there among Muslims, and I find the biggest challenges among Muslim authors who tend to see my work a certain way. It’s that people are not quick to share what it is I do. They aren’t comfortable with it. And, I am fine with that. There are few that do share my work, and I appreciate them for that. But, I definitely find that there’s this tendency to shy away from the whole idea of writing about love, romance, and sex; and with American Muslim authorship in general. So, I also have to, (and all authors do, almost all of them) have broader authorship in my genre.
So, I’m interacting with romance authors and specific types of romances authors. Because I write interracial romance, I tend to reach out to interracial romance authors. Some authors might write about Black women and white men, some might write about Asian men and Black women, so it’s all of this in an enclave of authorship that I explore. I find that I get very well supported from each one of them, and unfortunately, the Muslim authorship is the least supportive. The authors period, in interracial romance, tend to be more supportive. And I think that the concept that I have is something that is not new to them. They might have more sensual, more sexy content than I do, and there seems to be a little bit more organization when it comes to supporting and the mutual application of things like that. But, I’ve often tried, unsuccessfully, to get other Muslim authors to do that, and I’m not the only author. A lot of times content of an author’s work will make Muslims shy away from their works. And well, I just tend not to do so. In the ways that I tend not to shy away from anybody’s work.
TeamBMGFly: What made you decide to take that leap of faith to write the kind of Muslim Fiction you write?
Layla: Right now I’m really focusing on writing romance; which I think is extremely important for us to create. Authorship is important period across the board, the reason I chose romance because romance is a very special genre to me. I think that it is a part of society in how you build and develop a relationship, and how people interact with it. if there is, if society isn’t right in dysfunction, that’s going to come out. You see it in those types of relationships. And so I know the American Muslim Society, Muslim culture is global, American Muslim culture definitely has problems and issues when it comes to that. The idea of sexuality, of love and faith, which are intrinsically linked, and romance for me is a way of expressing how those links are. So, I love the genre, I think it’s very, very important that Muslims explore it, and a lot of Muslims have a lot of misconceptions of it; they have misconceptions about romance period. They have a tendency to think of it as one specific thing. A lot of times they’ll share about Harlequin romances, they’ll think of the white typical heroine who is with the typical white hero, which dominates the market honestly, it always has, but, that’s not what all romance is. Romance is the opportunity for cultural expression of love and relationships and intimacy and to make it culturally specific and that’s what I try to do. And, so I definitely use romantic social commentary about those things in addition to other things.
My first short story, I should say that you’re going to get is the precursor, an introduction to six male characters that are going to be leading characters for their each of their own book. And the first one is going to be released in October, so it’s those six men; the diverse group of men. All of my female leads are African American, I don’t think that African American women receive enough of themselves especially in a lead romantic role. in all of my books, that’s just my mainstay, that they are all African-American. The race and ethnicity of the men will vary, there will be Asian men, there will be white men, there will be black men, and just silly enough, one of my men is Pakistani, but he’s Pashto, so he has very Asian features. He faces racism and discrimination, and that’s one of the ways he and his love interest fall in love. So I just think it’s very very important that we have opportunities to look at the ways people fall in love, it’s very important, and especially in this society and especially among Muslims because it’s so compartmentalized, and it wasn’t always that way. Muslims weren’t always so prudish when it comes to romance and I want to give people the opportunity to explore it again.
TeamBMGFly: What were the steps you took to complete your first book?
Layla: Well, I’m a romance novelist. One of the things that made me take the leap is exploring it, exploring this area of literature. I did it in my Graduate study, and I received a lot of support from other romance novelists. I decided that one of the things that’s very important is the ability for everyone to highlight their individual perspective. That doesn’t mean you have to agree with them, and it doesn’t mean their perspective is right or anything. You still should have the opportunity to do that. A lot of people, who have more privilege, have more opportunity to do that. One of the things that are happening in American Muslim culture is this whole idea of a dominant culture that is perpetuated, and it’s not native born. So, a lot of native-born creatives are stunted by this false thinking and are not given opportunity. When you have the opportunity to explore and expand, but that’s shackled down, your perspective isn’t highlighted. I want my perspective as an author, as a native-born African-American Muslim woman, I want to share my perspective because I think love and romance are very, very important.
I just decided, “I’m going to do it and, I don’t really have the same shackles. I don’t have any shackles to keep me down. i didn’t really see other authors doing it the way I wanted it to be expressed. So, I did it myself. That usually is a primary motivation for authors. Stories abound in humanity; we are storytellers, our Creator is a storyteller. If you look at the Qur’an, there are so many stories in it. So, God is a storyteller. We’re all storytellers, and we like to tell OUR stories. And so, the thing that made me want to finally start writing is that I just really, really wanted to write a very specific story. And, then it kind of broadens out from there. There were certain things I wanted to explore that I didn’t see Muslims exploring and centering the Deen (Islam.) Muslim authors exploring and centering the deen. There may be Muslim authors writing about romance, but I’m not interested in just romance and social justice. I have a paranormal series, and one of the cast members I’m making a Muslim. I had in my head a Muslim wolf shifter.
TeamBMGFly: How do you keep aware of what you deliver, and what do you have that separates you from others in your industry?
Layla: interestingly, there’s always been a society with a tendency for a dominant masculine economy to commodify women and treat them as commodities. Even very young women, that’s why you have all these issues that go with that. And also there is in this society this tendency to kind of think of certain behaviors as liberating. And so, once you engage in those behaviors you’re liberated. i, in my work, want to definitely show that theres liberation in engaging in certain sensual behaviors in certain ways. So with my characters especially, i try to highlight that even more so. So with my Muslim characters, i try to show how the intimacy between a husband and wife can be something that is spiritually uplifting, okay so i definitely include spirituality and essential things in my book and also can be personally empowering for each other, a functional, usually gratifying sexual relationship. Thats some of the things i kind of want to show; and i don’t want to give an spoilers because people hate spoilers.
So one of the first books i have that is slated for publication next year is “Building on Broken Dreams”, and everyone is waiting for that book (laughs), thats the one people want. i read it at the Hijab chronicles, now everyone is waiting for that book. i think that muslims in particular, my muslim readers are becoming more and more aware of my work and my, i don’t shy aware from certain content, from sexual content and actually i have taken opportunities to explore it deeper than other things. i have short stories collection that is going to be released on the 1st of August and so i decided to explore a little bit of erotica just that, just to tell you that i’m not where other erotica authors are, because i think you can fall into it sounding juvenile and gross, and i don’t want to do that to readers but i explored it more, im not shy about exploring those things. And so, add those other societal issues, the female love interest in that books, Maryam, it starts off with her telling her lover who is an Arab male that she is pregnant and he had gotten married to someone else. SO that was the scene that i read to them and they asked “Well what happened to Maryam?” and i indicated that Adam and Maryam, who are the love couple: Adam Kane and Maryam Avery.
Adam and Maryam, i explore a lot of sensuality and faith, and the connection of sensuality and faith in that book. i don’t want to give away any spoilers because people hate that, but thats one of the things that i do and i think thats very, very important. A lot of the times when we read romances, we have a lot of sensuality and sexual content and the faith isn’t mentioned at all. There are spiritual moments, there are christian romances, theres an evangelical romances, theres puritan romances, those tend to not have an sensuality in it at all, and they are a nice read, and they’re spiritually uplifting as well. its about love and spirituality, but not necessarily sensuality and spirituality, its about something that i am looking to explore and i want to, hopefully inshallah, show liberating that is, how liberating it is for a person of faith to decide to explore something that is very, very important to them for their gratification and connection to another person; and do it in a way that is pleasing to their creator.
TeamBMGFly: You recently launched “Brother in Laws” Series of short stories? What inspired you to write it and publish it yourself?
Layla: Okay so those are the six men. They are diverse group. Well it started off with one character, the main character from the first novel “My Waiting” and he name is Simon Young, korean american, and he falls in love with an african american woman, who happens to be his best friend’s baby sister; so thats his problem. She is a pro-justice blogger, and the two of them have issues. How much they have to keep, what they are doing away from the world what they are doing because either big brother is going to get really mad, or she has to worry about the reality that as a black pro-justice blogger, she is going to get pushed back; she’s dating this asian guy, and theres going to be a whole lot of people who odnt like that.
So its really about that, the relationship and having to navigate through those social land mines, and a lot of times, thats what lovers have to do; they have to navigate through social land mines all the time. Maryam and Adam have to navigate through social land mines. Faisal, which is book three, who is pakistani american, and the woman he falls in love with, they too have to go through social land mines. And a lot of them the love, not only love is jeopardized, but they have to kind of decide who they are and how they are going to re-invent themselves to be with the other person because, when it comes to interracial relationships, there is a lot of learning that we have to do. We have to learn a lot about them, not only the person that you love, but from the background from which they extend and the problems and issues that may occur because of that. You got to learn some stuff, especially when you are with a black woman. Black women are wonderful, dynamic, powerful women who scares the daylights out of everyone, so it takes a certain kind of man to, especially a black woman, with a certain level of confidence to be able to handle that and also the stuff she may encounter in her life. Just because i married someone who is not black, doesn’t mean i stopped being black, and it doesn’t mean i didn’t encounter the same racism or anything, he did. He had to see it, he had to learn about it. Thats like, its like it takes a certain time to do that and all of these men are men.
TeamBMGFly: How did you come up with the title, and what’s the story behind it?
Layla: So all of them are friends, they met in law school. Then they kind of branched out and started doing their own thing. And so, they actually, they maintain their relationship with each other, and you will see through the six novels that there are different cameos for a different character, or a character may be mentioned or something like that because they are going through these processes together. Simon and Markus, Regina’s brother, are two of the six. Markus is black, and he, they all decided to do their own thing, so they are all lawyers; Simon decided to go into corporate law, make the big bucks in Manhattan. Markus is in non-profit, so he started his own NGO because to him, people are catching hell, I need to help them. The third with Faisal, he is in criminal law. He is the Pakistani American. Another African American Muslim man is Brandon, and he is a general practice attorney; he kind of keeps the other brothers out of trouble. Adam, who is Irish American, he did not practice law. he finished law school but decided not to practice law. He opened up his own customizing shop where he customizes classic cars and bikes.
And Quin-yang, he is the mysterious one, I don’t tell too much about him. No one really knows where he’s from. I started writing them, the stories came to me, and that’s one of the things; sometimes characters really come and tell you who they are, and what they want to be. Some characters kind of want to be a small story. So, that’s what they are. You have a small story.
Some characters have more and more evolved stories. Some characters you may have thought of them as the good person when really its that they are not a good person,, and this is the reason why. So characters have a tendency to drive an author and determine exactly how plots and stories come out. I think hats the best authorship because a plot is supposed to be a motivation and the result of the motivation of character; as opposed to trying to force characters into a certain thing. I think that the work that I do is social justice and women and gender studies are the motivating factors. And, you will see that in my work. My faith is a motivating factor. I don’t just write about love just to be writing about love. I want to write about how it is empowering and how spiritually uplifting love can be. And, with the book I am writing, a lot of it has to do with social justice because, like others, with Simon and Regina, it’s an interracial romance, and she is his advocate, and she has to deal with the threat of bigotry and bias that the person loves.
TeamBMGFly: When did you realize you definitely wanted to self-publish, go the online route for your project? What was that step forward that made it happen?
Layla: When I was doing my Graduate studies, I researched a lot of different Muslim authors, and my research always continues in that regard. I’m always looking for Muslim authors. They don’t necessarily have to be writing about the faith. One of the things that I saw, was that a lot of Muslim authors were doing African-American Muslim stories. I got the motivation from a lot of Muslim authors who were out there doing it on their own. That was one of my motivations for looking at independent publishing. I think indie publishing allows for creativity and more diversity. It does not happen in the law publishing industry. I’m going to get real here for a second about Muslim authors. Muslim authors who are driven to get pushed by bigger publishers, make that decision. I don’t want to say that it’s the wrong decision. I will say, it feeds into a couple of things. First of all, it feeds into the notion that we need to have the larger society accept us in order for our creativity to be something of value.
As an African-American, I definitely push back on that. As African-Americans, we have been creating for centuries, and we have been doing it all on our own; and I think that it’s problematic that now we have this issue. Also, there is a tendency now to do so because, if we have this mindset as Muslim authors, that we’re not of value, or we haven’t made it, we’ve begun to think that our writing is not worth it unless we can get one of the big five. We’ve now relegated all of the creativity that we have, to what comes out of the big five. They don’t have what we want, and I’m not comfortable with the dominant white society as the driving force behind our creativity. I didn’t want traditional publishing. I looked at non-traditional publishers because I love nontraditional publishers. I love them. It’s because they are an important part of the literary cause.
They are very important to what drives literature in society; all those smaller, non-traditional publishers. It’s because they have a tendency to look and find and publish people that the big ones won’t. Big five are mainly looking for white men, white women, and if they are looking for Muslims, they’re looking for one that fits a certain archetype. Are we writing in a specific archetype? If you look, there are a lot of different Muslim authors, but that archetype is still there. So, once an author is outside of that, they have the challenge to get into those big five. The race or ethnicity doesn’t matter because they’re looking for Muslim authors, especially Muslim women authors, who are going to write about how crappy Muslim men are. That’s what they look for. And, if a Muslim writer doesn’t do it in that way, she’s going to have the challenge to get it published. There are a lot of good authors that could make a lot of money, but they never cater to that exploitative narrative. There are a lot of authors who decide not to do so.
TeamBMGFly: What’s the number one thing you hope people will gain from reading your work?
Layla: I want them to come away with the idea— I want them to feel like after they read what I’ve written, that they’ve had the opportunity to explore and not be restricted to certain confines and parameters. There’s a (patriarchal) set up in society. In opposition to how we have been made to feel in society, over generations and generations, I want Black women, and Black Muslim women, to see themselves as the beautiful and desirous beings they are. I want Muslims to have the opportunity to know that love, sexuality, and faith, are definitely connected, and how satisfying that can be.
TeamBMGFly: Who did you look up to while growing up? Who inspires you now?
Layla: I have to be honest with you, I didn’t have inspiration as a kid. I was in survival mode. I grew up very, very poor, impoverished, physically neglected, and sexually abused. So, I did not have inspirational figures in my life. I spent most of my young life in survival mode, and part of my adult life. It actually wasn’t until I got married to my husband that I’ve had the security and comfort to actually explore who I really am. As trite as it sounds, he is my biggest inspiration because he gave me the faith. He gave me the faith in ways that no one else did the entire time I grew up. He gave me the opportunity to make sure I am protected; to make sure I have all my needs fulfilled, and all the things that I want. He makes sure that I feel loved and he provides the opportunity for me to do the things that I want to do.
TeamBMGFly: Can you describe a moment where you felt defeated, and how did you overcome that?
Layla: I saw that question, and I racked my mind for a long time. I think I’m kind of looking for this ultimate…Well, I did recently feel very defeated because I spend a lot of time and energy trying to develop a support system for Muslim Creatives. I don’t only try to be their cheerleader, I try to encourage them to be each other’s cheerleaders as well. And, I think I felt very defeated when I had a few very popular people decide to dismiss me and dismiss the work that I do. And, I questioned why I am I doing this? Why am I struggling so hard to get this to happen, and time and again, it’s, maybe crestfallen? The way that I maintain is to think about something from Zara J. She’s a phenomenal, Black Muslim author, and matchmaker. One of the things that she says is, “Listen, you know you are smart. You know you are talented. Keep doing what you are doing. Sooner or later, they are going to have to deal with you.”
TeamBMGFly: Can you describe a moment where you felt like you defied odds or broke barriers?
Layla: The one thing that I did that I felt very very much like I broke through some stuff, and helped a lot of people, was when I was in Graduate School. I started a student group and it empowered a lot of students. I saw a lot of students, I saw my fellow grad students of color, kind of flounder a bit because (the system of) higher education is extremely racist. There is a lot of discrimination and bias, and incompetence, that Black Muslims face in that particular school. So, when I started the group, the school pushed back against that. The group gave people the faith to push back against that. A lot of the students went on to do great things. I’m proud of that.
TeamBMGFly: What would you cite as the foundation of your success?
Layla: I think the foundation of the successes that I’ve had, is my determination for everyone living throughout our world to have an opportunity to search, embrace and assert their humanity.
TeamBMGFly: #BlackMuslimGirlFly is an empowerment brand created to uplift and remind Black girls that they are FLY in many ways. What advice would you give all the Black Muslim girls out there, worldwide, to cultivate their own individual #BlackMuslimGirlFly?
Layla: I think the advice that I would give them, (and, I think they may not like this) is that our world is smaller and smaller, and it’s easier to learn about, embrace, and support each other; so DO that.
TeamBMGFly: What’s something you haven’t done yet, but would like to do next?
Layla: I still want to see the sunset in California.
Thanks again for sharing your story with us and the rest of the world. For far too long, we’ve been made to be invisible. I believe it’s very important for us, Black Muslim Girls and Women, to stand up and speak up and let the world know we are here and we’re making things happen.