feature image photo of Lamya H by Lia Clay
I was lucky enough to get a chance to speak with Lamya H, author of one of my all-time favorite memoirs Hijab Butch Blues and fellow supporter of ice cream dates. Her memoir is constructed from a series of breathtaking essays and close readings of the Quran, which guide readers through their journey attending an international school in an unnamed Muslim country, moving to the United States to begin college, and making a life for themselves in New York. On that journey, they continuously face the assumptions and bigotry put upon them as a queer Muslim immigrant from navigating a near impossible visa system to confronting white projections of what counts as “authentically queer.” Alongside those experiences, they discover the ways in which fighting for the world they want to live in goes hand-in-hand with the beautiful things in their life: community, care, solidarity. You can read more about Hijab Butch Blues in Stef Rubino’s book review for Autostraddle.
Lamya’s writing can also be found in publications like Vox, Salon, Los Angeles Review of Books, Vice, Black Girl Dangerous, and right here at Autostraddle. She’s received fellowships from Lambda Literary, Aspen Words, and Queer|Arts. Their work as an organizer centers around creating spaces for LGBTQ+ Muslims, fighting Islamophobia, and prison abolition. Hijab Butch Blues comes out in paperback today.
Author’s Note: This interview has been edited, and some conversational threads have been re-organized for clarity.
Gen: I wanted to start by asking you about your title. Any book calling back to Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues immediately has my attention. What made you choose to title your book in the footsteps of Stone Butch Blues and how do you see your work in conversation with or perhaps built on the legacy of Feinberg’s?
Lamya: Fun fact, the book was originally not going to be titled Hijab Butch Blues. It was going to be titled Maryam is a Dyke. That’s a line from the first chapter where I write about being 14 and having this realization about Maryam, also known as the Virgin Mary. I had this moment of kinship with her and found myself wondering if she was like me. I still have a lot of love for that title in its unapologetic queerness. But I had a few reasons why I decided not to go with it. The big one was that I didn’t want people to come to the book feeling defensive or aggravated at the concept without having read what that meant to me at 14. I also thought about older lesbians and the way dyke was used in violent ways and was a slur for a lot of folks. And I didn’t want people with a more traditional Muslim upbringing to automatically feel wary of the book.
Then, when I was thinking through other titles, I found myself thinking back to our queer writing ancestors and what I wanted this book to do. That took me back to Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues. I read it in my twenties, and I remember being so blown away, especially by the way it blends a big political story with all of the personal stories of this person. Even though it’s fiction, it is a reflection of a person living in the 60s and 70s coming into their queerness and really thinking about things like race, class, gender, and labor movements. That’s where I learned you can tell a larger political story as you’re telling the story of a person on a more day-to-day level. And that’s what I wanted to do in my memoir. I wanted to tell these stories of me growing up and coming into my queerness while also talking about issues on a bigger level. That’s part of why Leslie Feinberg is a personal literary hero of mine and why I decided to pay homage to Stone Butch Blues in my title.
Gen: I can definitely see the correlations and conversations happening between your two works. Both of you as writers are very aware that individuals can’t tell their stories in a vacuum away from oppressive systems when it comes to class, gender, labor, and sexuality. I’ve been recommending Stone Butch Blues and Hijab Butch Blues as a duo and had some great conversations with people who read them back-to-back.
Lamya: That’s so cool you think of them together. Thank you.
Gen: Going back to Maryam; I loved the way you told her story parallel to yours and how you intersplice your memoir with close readings of various prophets and figures of the Quran. Did you know that would be the structure of your book when you started?
Lamya: I actually started writing this memoir as a series of essays, which is why the chapters are so self-contained. The first essay I wrote was one that actually comes towards the end of the book where I share the story of my partner pretending to be my friend while we were visiting family I wasn’t out to. It was during Eid, so the story of Hajar and Ibrahim and Ismael was all around us. Ibrahim was asked to sacrifice his son, and that’s why we sacrifice a goat on Eid and distribute the meat to friends and charity. During that time, I found myself having all these feelings about my partner coming to visit as my friend. On one hand, it was incredibly lovely and I found myself thinking a lot about her sacrifice in doing that for me. I was thinking about my sacrifices and my silence while also thinking about friends who hadn’t been able to have the kind of visit I was having because they had come out to their family or because their families weren’t great. That all tied back to Hajar within the story of Ibrahim and Ishmael and how she’s not being talked about in the same ways, even though she’s an incredibly important figure in the story. It had me thinking about parallels when it came to me and I found myself writing this essay. It felt really good to have written it because it felt like a way to clarify what was happening for me.
For me, writing is a way of disentangling threads and figuring out why I’m feeling some of the things that I’m feeling. It felt good to write that essay, and when I was done writing it I realized there were all of these parallels I had been thinking about my whole life, and they weren’t necessarily ones that I had written down or had thought about in more formal linear ways. Once I started writing more of those essays, I realized they were part of a bigger, more coherent story. So I found myself writing a memoir. It feels weird to say I found myself writing a memoir, but that is how it happened. I’m not trained as a writer. I didn’t grow up doing a lot of writing or taking creative writing classes. But I’ve always journaled and read a lot. Writing essays felt much more manageable than thinking about writing a whole book.
Gen: Throughout your memoir, you talk about these set projections, particularly white projections, of what makes an “authentically queer experience.” You then go on to talk about your journey finding communities where you feel and experience belonging. How did your understanding and defining of queer experiences change once you found those communities?
Lamya: Maybe this is less of the case now, but in my twenties as I was coming into my queerness, it felt like there were very heteronormative ways to be queer; what you’re calling projections. These “ways” tended to be super white and very rigid. You come out to yourself, then to your family, then you live in this particular way. You have a homebase gay bar. You party at Pride. And all of those things were just not things that worked for me. It took me a long time to have the confidence in myself to know they didn’t work for me and to understand I could live in ways that were different.
A big way I came to those things was through finding community, specifically queer Muslim community. I was able to see people who were already living lives that felt more authentic to who they were. Everyone in that community was living their queerness and Muslimness in different ways. People identified with those words to different extents. Some people identified as Muslim-ish, or culturally Muslim. There were people using different words for their sexualities. Watching all these people live lives that were different from each other, but also different from this normative way of being queer, opened something in me. This was also around the time when there were a lot of debates and legislation happening around gay marriage. It felt a little bit like the heteronormative way of being queer was positioned in a way to make itself more understandable to straight people. This mentality of straight people get married, therefore queer people should also get married so we make sense. That narrative really didn’t resonate with me either. It was only through seeing these other queer people live their lives that I was able to figure out what I wanted my life to look like.
A big struggle with being queer is that we don’t grow up with models. We don’t see alternate ways to live. When there’s one model, it can feel so easy to latch onto that, but what I love most about finding my community is that I found myself surrounded by other models of how to live. One of the characters I write about is my queer life mentor who is older than me. They showed me how to be a person who is kind both to themselves and to others while fashioning a life for themselves.
Gen: On that thread of self-love and understanding, your book introduced a new term: queer indispensability. Do you mind defining that term and talking a bit about what it looks like in your life?
Lamya: The first time I heard that term was during a play. I just remember sitting in the theater and weeping because I felt so seen in that moment. The idea of queer indispensability is that queer people live with this sense of loss and/or potential loss in coming out to family and experiencing abandonment. Queer people go on to counter that loss by making themselves indispensable so that we can’t be abandoned. It was vulnerable to write about, and it’s also vulnerable to talk about. But it’s something I noticed in myself a lot and it’s something I still haven’t figured out how not to do. I’m working on it though. I want to be able to let people in and to be there for me. I don’t want to just be this person who’s constantly being there for others while suppressing my own needs, desire for connection, and ability to ask for help. I have to practice being vulnerable with people and trusting they won’t leave me. It’s definitely something that I’m working on, and I’m not quite there yet. But I think about it a lot. Having a name for it helps because then I can notice myself not letting people be there for me.
One of the things that’s really helped in that regard is having a baby. I have a one-and-a-half-year old, and that really brings out interdependence in my life. It’s impossible to parent in a two-person model where people are working full time without relying on community. Leaning into that sense of interdependence and doing things like letting people cook for me or even just come over to watch my baby so I can go for a run has been such an incredible shift in my life.
Gen: I really relate to the experience you’re describing of hearing queer indispensability described and just crying. That was what I went through reading that section of your book. I just had this moment of wow, I think that’s what I’ve been doing most of my life. Just feeling like I was on the brink of losing everything and everyone so trying to just take care of everything myself and do the most for other people so they need me. Then feeling immense guilt asking for what I need.
Lamya: Exactly! What are some things you do to counter that?
Gen: Mostly I think about how I would feel if a loved one was dealing with that and mirroring it back on myself. I don’t want the people in my life to feel like they can’t ask for anything. Love, friendship, and relationships operate on a two-way street. It’s an act of love to let people take care of you and know you are ready to take care of them. I’m getting better at it, but it’s something I’m still working on. It also helps to think through all of the people who love me fully in my queerness.
Lamya: Absolutely. It’s an immense amount of trust that you’re putting in another person to be vulnerable to let them take care of you, which is the foundation of relationships of all kinds.
Gen: On the topic of evolving mindsets, towards the end of your book you share this realization about the importance of balancing your physical and emotional safety alongside your fight towards the world you want to live in. Can you talk a bit about what that balance and fight looks like during this particular moment?
Lamya: With the ongoing genocide and the carpet bombing of Gaza, it’s hard to have any sense of balance. Having balance at other times lends itself to experiencing times of intensity, and now is a time for everyone to be organizing, protesting, calling your representatives, talking to the people around you. I understand those aren’t things everyone can do, and everyone’s fight looks different, but we all have to be doing something in this time of crisis.
I will say balance is something I’ve had to actively learn how to do. I don’t know if that’s because I’m a Capricorn, but all my queer friends tell me that’s why. I had to learn how to pick battles and recognize that sometimes people were fighting about something, not because they deeply believed it, but because they were trying to bait or troll me. Through my twenties and thirties, I learned to recognize those things and see when I was able to actually move someone so I could fight more effectively. I needed to spot the channels where I was going to make a difference, not exhaust myself. I also had to learn how to really rest.
I think that’s something that isn’t talked about enough. It’s so important to take care of yourself and to rest and to build up energy. I’ve learned to do that through organizing, community, and watching people over the years. I’ve seen people respect their burnout as a signal to rest and recharge. All of that has led me to this moment where I feel I have a better grip on things. Obviously I don’t handle things perfectly and I still have a ways to go, but I’ve learned how to channel my energy into fights where I can make a difference. Palestine is very much on my mind right now, and I know there are many, many ways to fight. I think it’s important to recognize that not everyone can do everything and that people are able to fight in the ways that they can.
Gen: Yes, absolutely. We all need to be making as much noise as possible and queer people have a big role to play in that fight. Do you have particular resource recommendations when it comes to education and resistance in support of Palestine?
Lamya: I’ve been thinking a lot about Israel’s use of pinkwashing — where it positions itself as a “gay haven” in the Middle East and paints everyone else with racist tropes such as being backwards, and uses that to justify its occupation of Palestine. My big ask of queer people right now is to resist that characterization and support queer and trans Palestinians who are resisting apartheid: by learning more about pinkwashing, calling on mainstream LGBTQ+ organizations to publicly support Palestine, and following/boosting Palestinians who are documenting the genocide.