Review Q&A: Ayaan Mohamud with her World Book Night listed YA novel, You Think You Know Me.

AiW note: This year, Sunday 23rd April is World Book Night.

Running over the evening of the UNESCO International Day of the Book— whose theme this year is indigenous languages — World Book Night is a UK-sprung celebration of reading and books run by The Reading Agency (a UK charity), with a focus on reaching and inspiring people to become more regular, confident and enthusiastic readers. Books selected for the World Book Night list are being gifted through reading and books organisations — including to prisons, libraries, colleges, hospitals, care homes and homeless shelters — and there’s a host of related book-library-writers-and-reader-communities-loving events, also taking place in the UK.

(NB. The books on the list are UK based, but they’re not and need not be prescriptively so – we’re taking inspiration from the night and its aims – what would your curated World Book Night book list look like?)

Inspired, some of our AiW Eds want to share the book love (always, areweright?) and use the excuse to get involved – so we’ll be taking part in World Book Night as individuals – dedicating reading time in the #ReadingHour from 7-8pm on 23 April, reading for ourselves and with others; and with some of us joining the Road to Reading, a 10 week habit-forming pledge to read for 30 mins…

– And yes, OK, we hear you! – while we are and very well should be in a more regular reading groove by dint of our very nature and being, pledging to read for 30 mins every week for 10 weeks gives all sorts of readers a chance to make new space for thinking about their own reading, to develop, refine, switch up or get creative around their reading habits — how they read, what and when, what kinds of readers they/we/all want to be…

From the World Book Night 2023 book list, we have settled on Ayaan Mohamud’s You Think You Know Me, published in February this year. It is Ayaan’s first novel and it’s a YA fiction.

Told through the lens of a refugee, the story is informed by Ayaan’s personal experiences of Islamophobia as a young Somali growing up in North West London, as well as the haunting stories of others, while celebrating Somali culture and community.

Ayaan was compelled to write the story following the tragic deaths of Shukri Abdi, a 12-year-old Somali refugee, and Lee Rigby, a British Army soldier. Shining a light on the real-life stories behind the headlines, You Think You Know Me explores how the backlash from a crime affects an entire community and leads to a vicious cycle of violence.

And it’s a great read. On the eve of World Book Night 2023, Katie – an AiW Ed. – and Sara Osman Saeed – an AiW Guest – have skipped ahead and already had the pleasure of reading You Think You Know Me, with the extra bonus of speaking with Ayaan about her book and its writing in a World Book Night look-ahead Q&A, which we’re bringing you now…

Q&A: You Think You Know Me (2023), by Ayaan Mohamud. 

Asking the Qs: AiW Guest, Sara Osman Saeed and AiW Ed. Katie Reid, for Africa in Words.

Sara is a recent English graduate from King’s College London and currently works at its Student Union as a Sabbatical Officer; Katie is a perennially recovering academic and an editor, also a founding member and editor at Africa in Words.

Publication day! From Ayaan’s Twitter page.

Giving us the As: Ayaan Mohamud, author of You Think You Know Me, her debut YA novel, selected for the World Book Night book list 2023.

Ayaan wrote You Think You Know Me while studying as a medical student, during lockdown, and as part of NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month – amazing! –  NaNoWriMo began as a challenge to write 50,000 words of a novel in 30 days, beginning November 1st – inspired by her own experiences of Islamophobia and a desire to write about Somali culture.

The protagonist, or main character, of You Think You Know Me is Hanan, a young Somali Muslim woman, at sixth form in London at a prestigious school, who is studying for her medical exam to go to uni and fulfill her dream and, perhaps, her family’s expectations, to be a doctor.

Katie: Thank you, Ayaan, for your poised and warm book full of love and hope, family and friendships, of seeing things and people in new and fresh lights. I really enjoyed reading it and would recommend it to everyone – I think it reaches beyond its target YA audience, as much as it lands there, too. It’s hard to imagine that this is your debut, your first.

Sara: Hello Ayaan. I loved the book you’ve written and the characters you’ve crafted. As a Somali woman born and raised in London – and even in a neighbourhood much like Hanan’s – I fell in love with her and her family and felt as if she could have been my own best friend back in school. 

As someone who shares the identity of the main character of the novel, I feel a sense of anger and injustice at the subject.

When writing the book, how did you want your readers to feel or what did you want them to take out of it? What parts of the story writing process were enjoyable and what parts were painful or too close to home?

Ayaan: In writing an “issues” YA book around Islamophobia – exploring how it is experienced by the Muslim characters in the story and how it is perpetuated by their local community – I knew there was a fine balance to be struck.

On the one hand, I yearned to share the kind of representation I was starved of. A young hijab-donning Muslim woman, a person of faith who finds comfort in her religion and spirituality. Someone proud of their identity, not someone who shies away from it or identifies it as a source of grief and dissonance. In this way, I really dreamed that the book would allow young Muslim teens to feel seen and heard.

On the flip side, I felt another responsibility in depicting these characters – their faith, way of life, and culture – in as accessible a way as possible for those readers who don’t identify as Hanan and her family do.

Thankfully, balancing the two was not as difficult as I anticipated because the answer was, and always will be, authenticity. If you speak from a place of honesty, you will find very few people who aren’t drawn to truth. 

Writing this book as a debut has been an educational experience. I found the deepest moments of joy were, for me, in understanding my intention before penning a single word and then getting to the end! Marking the beginning and conclusion of this project were milestones that I will always hold dear to my heart. The challenging parts were everything in between – particularly writing about the bullying and instance of hate crime that Hanan and her family suffer through.

Katie: What does the selection of your debut for World Book Night 2023 mean to you? 

I am still struggling with the idea that the book will have an incredible reach thanks to World Book Night, that those who have restricted access to books and reading, in youth centres, care homes and hospitals, will be able to read Hanan’s story and follow her journey to finding her voice. That they may be inspired to interrogate the world around them, appreciate a faith and culture in a new light, or simply enjoy the story. It is a wonderful privilege and one that I am so proud of, given the themes of the book. 

Katie: You have such a lovely author’s note at the end where you discuss how the book formed in you, why it was so important to write it and why you want it to be read. I think everyone should read that note – every aspiring writer especially, and especially YA writers who are YAs themselves! – it speaks so generously and directly straight to us; I was also really struck by the ways Hanan uses a gift she’s given of a lovely notebook to find her voice and speak back to the powers that have been dictating her sense of self, what she should and/or shouldn’t do.

So, some related questions: Could you also talk to us about your experience of writing the book when you did during lockdown – what was it like writing at that crazy time, and participating in NoNoWriMo? Did you have “the whole book in you” (whatever that might mean!), ready to come out in that timeframe? Did it feel like it was the right time? Or was it more juddery than that? What brought Hanan, her friends, her school, and her family to you?

Ayaan: Lockdown was an incredibly difficult period – one that nobody is keen to return to – but I do feel it gave a lot of people the gift of time. I’m sure a multitude of stories were imagined over those months and I am really just grateful You Think You Know Me was one of them and that it was able to step out of my head and onto the page.

I had the idea for Hanan around a year before lockdown, and then, in the summer of 2020, after I finished my exams at university, I decided to see where this seed of a character and idea would take me.

Of course, I had no idea how to go about writing a full-length book, so I did what any reasonable person would do and turned to Google. A few deep-dives later and I had my answer: Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat Beat Sheet — a handy guide of 15 “story beats” to help craft an imagined world. Using these beats helped me to create a map for You Think You Know Me, and I’m not entirely sure I would have been able to complete a first draft without it.

While it felt a bit like walking in the dark, I did feel this compulsion to write and keep writing. As a Muslim, a believer in God’s guidance leading you to things at the right time, something in me was inspired to pursue this dream. Even now, when I think back to that time, I find it difficult to isolate the exact turning point because it just happened!

About half of the book was completed in that summer, and the other half, a few months later during NaNoWriMo. Part of me didn’t expect to finish it before the year was out, as I had just started my fourth year of university and the academic demands were beginning to pile up, but NaNoWriMo gave me the final push.

Sara: Currently there is discourse around writing and objectivity (particularly within journalism). Writers of colour and Muslim writers can have their narratives undermined and some may not want to lean into their identity too much because of this. Can and should POC and Muslim writers be ‘objective’ and did you have this particular struggle when writing and publishing You Think You Know Me?

Katie: And my related question would be, why YA? The book doesn’t shy away from Hanan’s identity and a lot of really difficult topics – bullying, “integration” and difference, violence, racism, casual and ignored, and institutional, with all its critically dangerous effects – for example, grief and loss, drugs and dealing, cyclical racist violence in society at large – and it often gets straight in there. Did you have any particular concerns about that – about simplifying or not, that kind of thing? Or how have you found what Sara is talking about, and the demands that being positioned as a particular kind of writer might place on you, to be at work when writing YA fiction?

Ayaan: The decision to write You Think You Know Me as YA was a natural one as the story formed. The Hate U Give had a big part to play in this as it was the book I kept coming back to during that time. Angie Thomas’s debut was a phenomenal, ground-breaking YA novel that looked straight into the eye of racism and police brutality in America when it published, and I aspired to write something that, similarly, wouldn’t shy away from uncomfortable truths around Islamophobia in the UK.

Illustrator Debra Cartwright shares an image of her illustration that became the cover for Angie Thomas’ debut YA novel, *The Hate U Give*, alongside the film adaptation’s poster on her Instagram page.

For me, YA was also the right direction when you consider how impressionable we all are, but how amplified this is for young people at a time when they are learning so much about the world and their place in it.

Preconceptions and prejudices are formed in us by the media, entertainment, and especially from those close to us. In You Think You Know Me, there are characters who unwittingly hold toxic biases about Muslims because these beliefs are established in them by friends and family. YA felt like the right place to encourage young people to dismantle rooted prejudices, to think critically about what they are told by others, and to ultimately form their own opinions.

And for young Muslims experiencing this toxicity first-hand, I wanted them to see a character who, despite all she is forced to endure, never once questions her identity. Hanan is steadfast, certain about who she is and what she wants of the world, and I hope that young Muslims find something reassuring in that; that they do not need to fit into a predetermined mould to be accepted but, rather, they should be welcomed into any space as they are.

Sara: A lot of media representation of Muslims in the UK focuses on Middle Eastern and South Asian communities. How do you think your book will contribute to the representation of Muslims in media and fiction? Do you think your book will illuminate the diversity of the Muslim community and how Somalis are different? 

Ayaan: This! I love and appreciate all Muslim representation but there is still so much more to do in terms of ensuring it reflects the diversity of the group. Many non-Muslims, to this day, associate the Muslim identity with being South Asian or Middle Eastern, and all the cultural connotations that come with that. I, myself, have spoken to people who have instinctively assumed that I am South Asian, unaware that being Muslim is not tied to a particular ethnicity or race.

Book cover image, You Think You Know Me, by Wasima Farah.

And so, it is special, for me, to not only see a hijabi Muslim on the cover of the book, but also someone black, Somali, African. The work of books and stories is heavy but I have always boiled it down to this: it is the job of a writer to open the reader’s eyes to something different. I saw my job as trying to authentically represent not just a cast of Muslim characters, but a culture that is rarely visible in media and fiction, beyond the burden of its stereotypes. Somalia, like every country, is rich with culture and history, and I hope that I did its portrayal some justice in this book.

Sara: As the book delves into the problem of Islamophobia, do you think Muslim children are free to express their religious identity regularly in this country or are they more likely to suppress it? How does London compare to other cities, in your opinion? In addition, how do you think the British schooling system plays a role in the upbringing and psyche of Muslim children in this country?

Ayaan: I think the perceived freedom for young Muslims to practise their religion is shaped by the ‘tolerance’ of their environments. If a social climate – and especially a school climate, in the case of You Think You Know Me – is hostile to a minority practising their faith, it doesn’t sound far-fetched to assume that those young people might feel compelled to suppress their identity. For fear of harassment, perhaps, or even the worry about being ostracised and seen as ‘other’.

But in writing Hanan’s character, I was intentional about portraying her as a young Muslim who, despite the harassment and ostracization she faces, continues to ardently practise her faith. I knew even before I started writing the story, that I needed to make her proud – and visibly so – of her beliefs because, otherwise, what message was I hoping to send? 

From my own limited perspective, I do think that young Muslims in cities like London, on average, likely fare better in terms of the Islamophobia they might face in a school setting, and that comes down to the multicultural, multi-faith make-up of the city but, of course, I could be completely wrong. That’s not to say that Islamophobia is rare in diverse cities – only that the average may be marginally lower. However, when you take this wider conversation and hone in on institutions like grammar and private schools, where the multicultural, multifaith window narrows considerably, the story is doubtless different. This is why the setting for You Think You Know Me is a fictional grammar school called Grafton Grammar, which despite being in London, is a microcosm of a society that is Islamophobic at large.

Katie: There is that point where Hanan’s mum insists she carries her keys in such a way that the sharp end is ready to jab at someone if they came at her, and you discuss how the hijab identifies wearers as a target – it makes young Muslim women “not invisible”, in a way that Hussein, Hanan’s twin brother, can be – he can pretty much, if it’s appropriate as a phrase, “pass”, and become involved in other dangerous avenues that city life, London life, presents to him, being on his doorstep.

Could you talk to us a bit about the intersectionality in the book – thinking about the theory of how overlaps of people’s various social identities (such as, say, gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, or socio-economic status, to name a few) end up in them being subject to particular types of oppression and discrimination? Hanan is a young adult, not even yet legally an adult, but is carrying so much adult weight of expectation, mainly – due to her position as a highly intelligent, ambitious Muslim woman, who lives in a dodgy area of London, from a family with refugee status in the UK, leaving Mogadishu via Kenya…

Sara: And more generally, how do you think being the eldest child of an immigrant family particularly affects the mental health of young women taking part in looking after their families?

Ayaan: The intersectionality of Hanan, as a main character, is dizzying at times. She is Muslim, female, black. She is the eldest daughter, a refugee, a half-orphan (or orphan, from an Islamic perspective). Her identity has been forged through some extremely traumatic fires in her life. When I consider all of that wrapped up in a teenager, I’m even astounded by the strength of her character and resolve through so many turning points in the book.

Hanan sees her duty to her family as her driving concern. Growing up in the shadow of loss, she had no choice but to mature because life demanded that of her. Alongside that, as the eldest daughter who witnesses her twin brother not living up to his potential, and not bearing the brunt of family duty in the way that she does, there is no question in Hanan’s mind that she must do not only what is expected of her, but whatever it takes to keep her family afloat.

We see all this tension and responsibility building progressively throughout the book though Hanan is always quick to deflect any introspection. By focusing on her family, and her duty to them, Hanan deftly neglects her own needs, particularly that of her mental health. But, of course, after a devastating turn of events, she is eventually forced to turn her observant eye inward, and after an emotionally charged conversation with Hooyo, her mother, in the latter half of the book, we are finally able to see Hanan let go of duty for the first time and begin to heal. 

The conversation around eldest daughters and the unequal family burden distributed on them, whether knowingly or unknowingly, is gaining traction these days and I think it’s an important one. Hanan’s story is just one example of what happens when eldest daughters reach breaking point. 

Katie: Thinking about geographies a bit more, you have a section, around the centre of the most gripping, difficult and uncertain part of the narrative, full of questions, that you write in italics; it’s a retrospective, where we learn about the tragedy of the death of Hanan’s father (that’s not a spoiler, btw, dear reader, it’s something we know from the very early parts of the novel, although we don’t learn about how it happens until this section). I don’t want to give anything away or offer more spoilers – but this was so effective. How did you come to this section of the writing and presenting it in the way you do? 

Ayaan: The placement of this retrospective can only be explained by expert editing. After signing with my agent in 2021, we set to work on structurally editing the novel before going on submission to publishers. This process took several months and there was a substantial amount that changed to strengthen the writing and the story, although every edit always stayed true to the characters and the message at heart.

My agent truly has the most exceptional eye for editing. She suggested that the flashback explaining the family’s tragedy be aligned with the present-day tragedy that Hanan and her family experience in the latter half of the book.

I am everlastingly grateful that I listened to her because the book is so much better for it. Now, whenever I struggle with editing, I always think back to the moment where I changed a pivotal moment in the book and it worked. As excruciating as it is, editing only serves to elevate a story!

In terms of writing the retrospective, it was important, for me, that the flashback did the work of illuminating Hanan’s mental health to readers. Throughout the book, we see glimpses of PTSD and the anxiety that Hanan struggles with, and understanding the trauma that this is birthed from is essential. It was definitely one of the more difficult scenes to write because I was continually questioning if what I was writing was true to Hanan and her family’s experience. It can be easy to write trauma for the sake of trauma but I wanted to be intentional with this section because it’s so heavy.

Sara: I wondered too, how much did your Somali heritage inform your writing journey? As Somalia is known as the nation of poets, did any traditional Somali literature or poetry help? And do you have any favourite Somali writers/artists? 

Ayaan: I am ashamed to say that I don’t (yet!). It was only several years ago, when I travelled back home to Somalia for the first time, that I began to feel connected to the homeland in a way that I never had before. Since then, I have been slowly discovering pieces of its literary heritage. Hadraawi, regarded as one of Somalia’s all-time great poets, is someone whose life and works I have been exploring. I’m currently writing and editing my second YA novel, which I hope will encompass some of Somalia’s literary heritage.

Katie: There’s a wonderful bit where you write about Hannan’s grandmother’s – Abooto’s brilliance with storytelling and the belief “in the gift of the Somali people to bring stories to life”…

“as if tradition has a beating heart that needs to be nurtured across time and place…where our people are scattered”.

Do you feel this sense within you, and if yes, how do you find it coming forward?

Ayaan: Absolutely. I think all Somalis grow up with an innate storytelling ability, and I’ve always felt a shadowy magnetism that our oral storytellers have, particularly the elders, that imbue every tale with an irresistible richness that simply pulls you in. The oral form is one that our culture is well-known for but I wouldn’t say it’s my strong suit.

I do feel this storytelling sense within me but I believe I’m probably better suited to writing. It gives me the chance to delete every paragraph and start from scratch if I’d like to!

Katie: And I wanted to ask you about language, in a related sense. We open with a resounding phrase that comes back again and again through the narrative – “A closed mouth is gold – it helps you get home in one piece” – from the Somali; and you include two glossaries – Somali and Arabic – at the end of the book. I love the way these languages are so present in the fabric of the narrative as we read.

Somali writers I have spoken with before have talked about the language’s richness, the inherent lyricism, the particular untranslatable into English qualities the language holds – and I’m thinking especially of that bit where Hanan translates a phrase back to her mum, who’s offering her some life advice:

“Kiss a stone or slap a stone…? Okay, I think that’s the weirdest one I’ve ever heard, Hooyo”

– but also the way Somali offers a space to be, linguistically, which is already here and now, and somewhere else at the same time, and so, has a kind of nostalgia inbuilt – a longing for something… how that can help when writing poetic prose or poetry, for example. 

But here you are writing a Young Adult novel with a protagonist who has such deep friendships with her close circle at school, who chooses to adhere to her faith even in the face of bullying and being “othered” by it, who is – am I right in saying – the only person to speak and understand with full fluency both English and Somali, and who code switches more or less comfortably between the two..?

As with Somali, the Arabic words are included seamlessly in the prose – they tend to be in reference to Hanan’s and her family’s faith, something that is at the heart of the voice of the novel. I loved, for example, the description of Hanan’s prayer mat – it brought what it meant to her, for her friendships, so evocatively into the novel.

Could you talk a bit about your relationship to language when writing the book, how this came out for Hanan in the novel, and the decisions you took in including and weaving both Somali and Arabic into her (London) voice, the glossaries, so on..?

Ayaan: Language is a pillar of both Hanan’s culture and faith and using these two languages – Somali and Arabic – is second nature to her, so I knew this needed to be weaved into the story in such a way that you could not have one without the other. That erasing the prose of Somali and Arabic would leave you with a text so jarring that you would question everything. It needed to be seamless and flawless because that is what it’s like for Hanan and her family. But I also wanted to provide some direction for readers who may not understand the meaning of certain words from context or who may be seeking a more accurate definition of them. The glossaries, separated as Somali and Arabic, are provided as that direction. Although these languages are not separated so distinctly for Hanan and her family in day-to-day life, it was important to have that separation for interested readers. The Somali tongue comes from culture but the Arabic tongue, from her faith. I have my mum to thank for ensuring I spelled and defined those words properly!

And to close — and thank you so much for talking with us so generously, Ayaan — a question from us both: if you could recommend any one YA (or any) novel other than your own, what would it be?

Ayaan: Run, Rebel by Manjeet Mann.

Ayaan’s book, You Think You Know Me was published in February this year by Usborne YA, and is available now (in time for World Book Night’s #ReadingHour?! 7-8pm Sunday 23rd April…)

And find out more about their book list, the night itself, and how to get involved in World Book Night 2023, Sunday 23rd April, on their website –

A stunning debut about finding the strength to speak up against hate and fear, for fans of The Hate U Give andI Am Thunder.

“Fiercely brilliant from beginning to end.” Beth Reekles, author of The Kissing Booth

People like me are devils before we are angels.
Hanan has always been good and quiet. She accepts her role as her school’s perfect Muslim poster girl. She ignores the racist bullies.
A closed mouth is gold – it helps you get home in one piece.
Then her friend is murdered and every Muslim is to blame.
The world is angry at us again.
How can she stay silent while her family is ripped apart? It’s time for Hanan to stop being the quiet, good girl. It’s time for her to stand up and shout.

We’ll be running a review of Ayaan’s book on the site soon, and after World Book Night too – and as it’s our recommendation for #ReadingHour, if you’re a YA reader or no, there’ll be enough time before the review for it to be your World Book Night read: Sara and Katie would be delighted to have others join in the conversation and share your thoughts about it at that point. Let’s be in touch? Contact details are on our home page, or you can comment on the site here with any ideas or thoughts, on the book, the night, or anything else for that matter…. 

World Book Night 2023 will take place on 23 April, and you can get involved!

There are lots of way that you can celebrate World Book Night. Click the options below to find guidance for specific settings, or find out more about the following:

  • Take part in the #ReadingHour from 7-8pm on 23 April and dedicate time to reading, alone or with others
  • Kickstart your reading and join the Road to Reading. Pledge to read for 30 minutes every week and create a lasting regular reading habit.
  • Download a free audiobook, whether you already listen to audiobooks or want to try for the first time

Categories: Conversations with - interview, dialogue, Q&A

Tags: , , , , ,

join the discussion:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: