Interview: Sufiya Ahmed on the incredible inspirational stories of British Indian Women
Updated: Nov 26, 2022
One of the best things about history is that, as historians discover more about a particular period or era, more and more new voices from the past emerge. This means we can learn new things about the past every single day, even things that we thought we knew everything about.
We love learning more about history, which is why the books My Story: Noor-Un-Nissa Inayat Khan and My Story: Princess Sophia Duleep Singh proved a delight to our eyeballs and brain cells.
These fantabulous children's historical fiction books share with the reader the stories of two remarkable women in a super accessible and inspirational way.
We set out to go and speak to Sufiya Ahmed, the book's writer, to find out more about her work. Fortunately, we succeeded in our epic quest and below are the results!
Imagining History: Could you tell our readers a little bit about your fantastic books: My Story: Noor-Un-Nissa Inayat Khan and My Story: Princess Sophia Duleep Singh.
Sufiya Ahmed: Noor was a WWII heroine, one of Churchill’s spies sent to occupied France. She was amazingly brave and showed courage when most people would have fled the Nazis. Hers is a thrilling, daring story that I love to share with children.
Sophia was a suffragette and Goddaughter of Queen Victoria. She was also a Red Cross nurse in Brighton to Indian soldiers injured in WWI. The book came out in January this year.
Just to focus on My Story: Noor-Un-Nissa Inayat Khan for a moment, what inspired you to tell the story of this real-life secret agent?
Because Noor is a role model! I run a girl's rights workshop in schools and both Noor and Sophia feature in the slide show of role models. It made me sad that very few teachers and absolutely no children had heard of them. I wanted to change that and so I wrote their stories for children.
Their stories are inspirational because they put the cause that they believed in ahead of themselves. Noor was against fascism, Sophia believed in woman’s right to vote. They both stood up for what they believed in. These British Indian princesses played a role in two of the defining historical events of the 20th century.
What was the most fascinating thing that you discovered during your research?
With Noor it was that she was a published children’s author and a musician too.
Sophia, that she was involved in projects other than women’s rights. She built a shelter for the S.Asian sailors at the London docks. Known as lascars, who worked as crew on the ships that sailed around the empire, and who were sometimes sacked, not paid wages, etc. They were destitute and she raised money to support them from all her aristocratic English friends.
How did you go about researching Noor-Un-Nissa Inayat Khan's life and times?
I read some non-fiction books that have been written about her.
How did you take this complex story and transform it into exciting historical fiction that is suitable for children?
I listed the main events of her life that needed to be covered and then wrote scenes suitable for children around those events. And because I’m telling a story, I thought a lot about how she was as a character. Noor was shy and quiet, but one of the most courageous women I’ve ever read about. It was important to show where her courage came from and it stemmed from a sense of duty and doing the right thing.
Now to look at your latest book, My Story: Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, what was it that drew you to tell the story of her life?
I admire Noor for her courage. I don’t think I could have done what she did. I think we are free in this country because people like Noor sacrificed their lives. In that sense, I am in awe of her and believe we should honour and remember her.
I suppose I identify more with Sophia because she campaigned for women’s rights. I am a girl’s rights activist. I believe in using the democratic process to push for change in girls’ rights. If I am able to do that today, it is because of women like Sophia and Emmeline Pankhurst. We stand on their shoulders.
What do you hope children will learn or come to understand when reading this story?
On a general level, an understanding that people of colour lived in and thought of Britain as home because of the existence of the British Empire. On top of that, the fact that brown women like Sophia played a part in one of the biggest movements of the 20th century, the suffragettes.
With Sophia personally, I think I’d like the reader to see her tenacity. Her refusal to give up at a time when the suffragettes were ridiculed and imprisoned. She believed in her cause and she did not give up because friends and family thought she was wasting her time. She campaigned for what she believed in. It’s important that young people understand that change doesn’t happen overnight, you have to be determined and patient too.
Princess Sophia Duleep Singh is an incredible figure and played a deeply important role in the Women's Rights Movement of the early twentieth century, yet she's not as well-known in schools as Emmeline Pankhurst and Florence Nightingale, how do you think we can change this?
I think the change can only come through books about her in classrooms and libraries. Also to include Sophia when the suffragette topic is being taught in years 5 and 6.
The change can only come through positive steps by schools.
How do you ensure your books are historically authentic but don't get bogged down in too much unnecessary detail?
I imagine the historical figures as fictional figures. This allows me to think of the scenes I need to place them in, their emotions, the drama, and the conflict. The books are fictional tellings of real-time events.
Finally, what are you working on next?
The second book to Rosie Raja: Churchill’s Spy, which is set in Egypt during WWII.
The first book was just released at the beginning of August. Here is the information about it:
A thrilling and empowering WWII adventure about the French resistance and their British allies, with a determined, Muslim heroine. Perfect for fans of Michael Morpurgo and Emma Carroll, and those looking for diverse historical fiction. July, 1941. Rosina Raja is half-Indian and half-English. She has always lived in India, so when her mother passes away and she moves to England (where it rains all the time) she is miserable and doesn't have any friends. Life changes dramatically for Rosie when she discovers that her army Captain father is actually a spy for the British government. She can't bear to be left behind, so she stows away in his plane. Finding herself in occupied France, Rosie is soon drawn into the struggle against the Nazis. With new allies and new enemies at every turn, she must help her father complete his mission, and more importantly… make sure they both get home alive.
Thank you for taking the time to talk with us Sufiya, it's been a fascinating chat!
To check out the full range of Sufiya's books, head on over to bookshop.org by clicking here