CHATKINSON #1: In Conversation with Shahed Ezaydi
On writing her forthcoming book, faith, feminism, and some other important stuff, like what she thinks of Emily in Paris
The sky is grey and and uninspiring when I make my way to Shoreditch to catch up with my first interviewee for this newsletter. I’m a little bit nervous but also excited because I’ve always loved interviews and profiles, as well as sometimes day-dreaming about having my own talk show. I’ve wanted to do this for so long, so I am feeling equal parts vulnerable and proud of being brave enough to begin. And please, tell me Chatkinson wouldn’t be the perfect replacement for Graham Norton once it’s had its day?!? I knew it! You can’t! because it WOULD. If you, dear reader, can make this happen…you know where I am!
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I am stressed out from a long, challenging week and am running late (old habits die hard!), which isn’t helping my anxiety levels. Shahed is the definition of grace, explaining there is no rush and that she has her kindle to read whilst she waits. I beam when I see her. Her energy is like the first day of spring: warm, inviting, full of hope. We laughed, gossiped, swapped recommendations, ranted and put the world to rights. I could have easily talked to her all day! She is extremely smart, kind, funny and brilliant. Despite only knowing her “in real life” for a couple of months, I feel confident we will become good friends in this big, silly, brilliant city. By the time we leave the coffee shop, the sun has broken through the clouds and I feel lighter, which feels like a great metaphor for our conversation.
I first connected with Shahed through our mutual (& very talented!) friend Kya Buller - as Shahed previously worked with Kya as Deputy Editor at the wonderful Aurelia Magazine. She recently moved to London, where we first got to meet in person! In that first meet, she was extremely encouraging when I was feeling apprehensive about starting this newsletter. I’m grateful for her support, and delighted to have her as my first guest on the Chatkinson portion of Portrait of a Gay on Fire.
Shahed Ezaydi is a Freelance writer and editor, who has written for a range of publications, across both digital and print, including Dazed, Stylist, Glamour, and gal-dem. She’s currently working on her first book, The Othered Woman: How White Feminism Harms Muslim Women, which will explore the relationship between feminism and Islamaphobia and am sure will instantly become vital in the intersectional feminist literature canon. The book will debunk the myths that liberal feminism reinforces when it comes to Islam and how these actually harm Muslim women rather than ‘liberate’ them. The Othered Woman will be published by Unbound, which is a crowdfunding publishing house. So Shahed needs support from readers to get the book into the world and on bookshelves. You can support this important work and find out more information about the book and the Unbound process by following this link. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter @shahedezaydi
The below conversation took place both virtually and in person. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.
David Atkinson (DA): I’m so happy we’re both living in London now! It’s been great to start an in-real-life friendship, although I’m grateful for our internet connection bringing us together. So, now you’re here in the big smoke as a freelance writer - but your degree is in Criminology. In short, what I’m wondering is, what was your journey like from university to where you are now? I’m also interested if your studies influenced your passion for writing and piqued your interest in politics?
Shahed Ezaydi (SE): Also so happy that we've been able to connect IRL, as Gabriella & Troy said in HSM, it's the start of something new! Yes, so I studied Criminology at the University of Manchester. I've always loved sociology and learning about how the world works on a human-level but the theories and research around crime and justice were always the one that interested me most. I didn't even know you could study criminology as a standalone subject until I was researching degrees for my UCAS application. I loved my degree so much and it involved a lot of research and writing, which I loved even more. But then I graduated and had no clue what to do or what I wanted my career to look like (I mean, I was 22...)
I picked up odd jobs here and there for a while until I started looking into writing as a full-on career, which led me to the business world of copywriting. But I also started pitching and freelancing on the side, mostly covering political topics - particularly ones involving the criminal justice system, migrant rights, and social issues. And then, of course, the pandemic came around and I was made redundant from my copywriting job. I was living at home in Sheffield at the time so I had a kind of YOLO moment and decided to try out freelance writing as a full-time gig. And here we are over three years later!
DA: We love a YOLO moment. Carpe that diem etc. Could you ever have imagined yourself where you are now - making a living as a writer, or did you have other career aspirations when you were growing up?
SE: Oh no, I never saw myself as actually making it as a writer or a journalist. When I was a kid, I used to watch the 6 o'clock news with my parents every day (a sort of ritual in our family) and I was in awe of these journalists and their news reports but I never really saw anyone like me on TV. And even reading my magazines, I didn't see people like me on the credits pages or in authors' headshots. I just thought it was a 'white' career and too big a dream for me. I think that's still where my imposter syndrome comes from to this day.
DA: That’s so cool. I feel moved thinking about baby you! She would be so proud of you. Despite the progress in inclusivity in traditionally White Upper Class industries, there’s still a lot that marginalised people have to navigate in these spaces. That’s why it’s so important to have a good support system around you.
You write (extremely well) on a variety of topics, from the political, to the personal (although of course these are not necessarily on opposite ends of the spectrum.) As a writer, have you always known what you wanted to write about? Or has it been more of an expansive process?
SE: I've always been interested in politics, I think most things in society are inherently political in one way or the other (even love and friendships) and most things I have written over the years have been political in some way. But I've also branched out into the world of lifestyle and entertainment journalism and that's been a new found love, being able to read books, listen to music, or watch TV and film and then write about them is pretty dreamy. I do sometimes get worried that I'm either pigeonholing myself if I focus on one topic or spreading myself too thin if I focus on lots of areas but that's more my anxiety talking. I love writing about a range of things because I am a woman of range!
DA: Sources can confirm she does in fact, have the range! You are currently writing your first book, The Othered Woman: How White Feminism Harms Muslim Women. I have no doubt it will immediately take a place in the intersectional feminism canon in literature. How are things going? Can you tell me about some feminist books or writers that have inspired your writing?
SE: Writing The Othered Woman is such a beautiful experience, even with a topic that can be quite heavy to research and wade through. I'm about a third of the way through at the moment and every time I sit down to research and write my OWN book, I still can't really believe it and get such a buzz of pride and happiness that a publisher believes in my book, the subject, and me as a writer. And I see it as a responsibility too because I want this book to inform and educate but also to platform and represent the multi-faceted and beautiful community that is Muslim women. Some feminist books that have inspired me along the way are: Lola Olufemi's Feminism, Interrupted / anything by bell hooks, Audre Lorde, and Angela Davis (Davis especially when it comes to abolitionist feminism) / White Feminism by Koa Beck / White Tears Brown Scars by Ruby Hamad.
DA: *Furiously takes notes*. bell hooks, Audre Lorde and Angela Davis have all been hugely informative to my world view and politics as well. We are so indebted to them for their minds and work!
I think it is both brilliant and bold that the name of the book directly addresses White Feminism, and how it harms Muslim women. Have you had any ‘strong’ (read: defensive) reactions to the subtitle? I think a truly progressive world view requires a lot of dedication to nuance, willingness to sit with your own ability to perpetuate harm within harmful systems, and contemplating how to try to live in alignment with our values. As well as being open to listening and connecting with people who have a different lived experience to us. I’m not always sure people are up for that. I’m rambling, but I guess what I’m saying is I think it’s great to have a statement like that in your title, because it does not promise to hold the readers hand!
SE: Aw thank you for your kind words on the book title/subhed. I wanted the subtitle to be quite direct because as you said, this isn't about pandering to white guilt or holding a reader's hand when it comes to explaining the harms that white feminism has caused to Muslim women (and also women in colour) but explaining in very real terms what this type of feminism does to women it views as not fitting in with their idea of womanhood. It's inviting readers to unlearn deeply-rooted myths and stereotypes subscribed to Muslim women and educate themselves on how we can all be better feminists but also better human beings to each other in a caring and inclusive way.
DA: “Shahed discovers many Muslim women who are rejecting the notion of a white Western feminism, and instead are fighting for their liberation in their own way.”
I have no doubt there will be a lot to learn from reading the book, but this sentence really captured my attention. It makes me wonder: What does liberation mean to you? Has that changed from your research and investigation for the book?
SE: Liberation to me is a world where care and compassion is embedded not only in our relationships to each other and our communities but also in our public services. It's a world free of prejudice and discrimination, free of borders, prisons, and state power - a world where we are all equal, approach problems and solutions collectively, and support each other to be the best people we can be.
DA: I think this is a beautiful definition. It’s one I will return to and be bolstered by. Thank you.
I’m someone who was raised without formal religion and for a long time was adamantly atheist, however as I’ve grown older and connected more with my own evolving spirituality, listening to and reading to people talking about their relationship with their religion is something I often find to be very moving. I guess it’s because whether or not you are religious, in a ‘formal’ sense, many of us have a relationship to faith, sometimes without realizing it. I would love to hear from you about what your faith means to you. And I’m curious if it intersects with how you think about liberation, justice and feminism.
SE: Yes, my faith definitely intersects with my politics and values because Islam is a religion of liberation, justice, and community. It's been co-opted by too many people with agendas, but at the heart of it, as Muslims, we should be thinking about others, helping others, and ensuring that people (and the planet) are not harmed. And it's something I try to remember and focus on every day, even if it's the smallest action.
DA: I love this. Thank you for sharing it with me. I think this ethos is something we should all commit to.
the fun & flirty question section.
“it’s girlie behaviour”
DA: What’s your favourite rom com? I know that’s a hard question. Let’s do film and book.
SE: The film is a Netflix film called Wedding Season. It’s a perfect film. It’s a fun spin on South Asian arranged marriage. It’s a very happy film and I watch it when I’m sad. Book wise, this one was good, Picture Perfect by Jeevani Charika. I love fake dating tropes.
DA: *reading the subheading* “One week. One fake relationship. What can go wrong?” I’m obsessed.
This is my new fave question, what celeb would play your love interest if your life was a rom com? My housemate picked Dev Patel, which I think is a perfect choice.
SE: Ooh, my love interest! Dev Patel is such a good one.
DA: Mine is Jordan Stephens, Jade Thirwall’s bf from Rizzle Kicks. I would lay down my life for that man!
SE: I watched Bullet Train the other day, didn’t realize Bad Bunny was in it. I was like, this man is New Levels of Attractive. Maybe it’s just me because some people don’t find him fit, but I feel no, no, the man has a septum piercing and he pulls it off. So maybe Bad Bunny.
DA: No, I agree he’s so hot! Okay, what’s the loveliest thing that’s happened to you this week?
SE: This is going to sound boring but my housemate washed my laundry! I was out for a coffee and a stranger told me that I had really lovely hair.
DA: Acts of service! Very sweet. And about your hair: She’s right.
SE: It’s a compliment that doesn’t require anything in return! Not like a creepy guy who wants something from you.
DA: Giving compliments is girlie behaviour. It’s like your girls gassing you up on insta but in real life.
Have you seen a good email sign off recently?
SE: Mine is “Kindest,”
DA: Me too! That’s very us, haha. This isn’t really a proper sign off but I saw one at work the other day that is the one that comes up when you send from your phone rather than computer, usually it says “Sent from my iPhone” or whatever, but it said “sent from my fingers and thumbs” !!!! so cute.
SE: That’s so cute. I’m quite girly and I like a ‘x’ in an email. If I know the person, an editor I know, or if someone’s emailing me about something a few times, I will slide in a kiss or two. And I love it when someone sends me one back.
DA: I AM PRO KISSES IN EMAILS!!!! I especially love it when a straight man sends me a kiss in an email x
SE: I’ve never had that! And I would love that to happen to me.
DA: It is slightly different for me to be fair. I think they’re like, giving “ally” of the year lol.
I love this one. If you could only drink 5 beverages (water doesn’t count), on rotation for the rest of your life, what would they be>
SE: English breakfast with milk, Lemon & ginger tea - that’s my night time tea, Diet Coke - that’s number one!, big fan of an orange juice. And I do love alcohol free prosecco
DA: *shocked* NoSecco?! Does it taste like prosecco?
SE: No. But it is nice! And it’s like £2. Sometimes it’s £3.
DA: I actually noticed the other day that the price of diet coke…..
SE: It’s rising!
DA: ISN’T IT! I hate to age myself, but when I was younger….
SE: You could get a can for 40p. A can is like a £1 now.
DA: Cozzy living Crisis….is real! Final question. What is the first thing that comes to your mind when I say three words that changed a nation: Emily in Paris
SE: *laughs* Um…Tacky, but I love it. Like, I do love that show.
DA: I could talk about it all day.
SE: Someone should do a 4000 word essay.
DA: Babe, anything about Emily in Paris, I have read. I’m obsessed. The Atlantic have an incredible podcast about it, Haley Nahman did a brilliant essay for Maybe Baby.
SE: It is a cultural moment of its own.
DA: I like, hate it, but I also love it so much. There’s too much to say and I don’t even think that was their intention lmao. Did you know that Mindy is actually a singer in real life? She’s in Mean Girls on Broadway! But her singing in the show is problematic for me. Why so many songs??? There’s too many. Enough! Why are they dedicated to pushing that agenda? I also am sure I saw something somewhere that said that people had requested her covers on Spotify, and I was like don’t lie to us.
SE: No they didn’t! That’s not true. It’s part of the show but I do agree we don’t need a song in every episode. Because what I’m looking for here, is Emily. What are we on, Season 3?
DA: Yeah and Season 4 has been confirmed. Although I think it’s the last. Perhaps for the best. Maybe what I want is an Emily in Paris movie in like 5 years. I mean it is Darren Starr, same cinematic universe?! Wait, have you seen And Just Like That?
SE: I’ve never seen Sex and the City.
DA: *the gayest gasp you’ve ever heard*
SE: I know. What am I doing?
DA: Wow. Okay I think there’s a market for you watching it for the first time and writing your way through it. I would LOVE that though. We need to pitch it.
SE: “Things I’ve Learned from Watching SATC For The First Time in 2023”
DA: I WOULD INHALE IT!!!
Thanks again to the wonderful Shahed for her time and being my first interview! Please support her book by pledging here - this essentially acts as a pre-order for your copy, you can even get your name in the back of the book.
I changed my mind (randomly I can be spontaneous) and will send another email with recommendations on Tuesday. This will be available to everyone, but moving forward, they will be for Paid Subscribers only. If you enjoy reading my work and have the means, please consider a paid subscription. It is a huge help to me, and supports the time and labour that it takes to make this newsletter happen - that I do freelance alongside my full time job.
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Other ways you can support me include recommending to a friend or sharing your favourite excerpts on social media. I’m @adavetoremember on instagram, and for this letter, please also tag @shahedezaydi (Insta/Twitter)
Back on Tuesday with recommendations!
Have a great start to the week.
Portrait of a Gay on Fire is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.