Podcast: Zaynah Qutubuddin 

Jun 22, 2023 | Muslim Storytellers, Podcasts

What You’ll Find In this Podcast

Zaynah Qutubuddin, program manager for the Muslim Storytellers Fellowship program, joined George Brown on our podcast to talk more about her writing experience with the Whole Novel online course, the work of the Muslim Storytellers Fellowship program, and her takeaways from her experience as a program manager with other Muslim fellows. 

Podcast Highlights

Zaynah on the vast stories the Muslim community brings:

We have so many stories and so many voices, that there is no one Muslim story. We are not a monolith. The beauty of Islam and the beauty of Muslims is that we have all faces, you know, we have all shapes, and sizes, and colors from all different countries.

Zaynah on her Whole Novel online experience:

One thing I really actually learned from this class and from the feedback letter is celebrating ourselves.

Zaynah on her biggest takeaways from the Muslim Storytellers program:

All we can do is just keep building to that table, keep building that table and adding more and more and more chairs.


We have a lot of voices, and we just need them to be out in the world. 

Full Transcript

George Brown: Hi listeners, this is George Brown at the Highlights Foundation. This podcast is an interview I did with our good friend Zaynah Qutubuddin, who has been the program manager of the Muslim Storytellers Fellowship program over the past two years, actually talks to us about the work of the Muslim Storytellers Fellowship program as well as her experience with the whole novel workshop, which she took as the online course here in the spring of 2023. And we get to know a little bit about Zana and her writing life. Please take a listen. Welcome to the Highlights Foundation gather podcast, where our mission is to positively impact children by amplifying the voices of storytellers who inform, educate, and inspire children to become their best selves. We’re broadcasting from studio four at the Highlights Foundation Retreat Center. Today’s guest is Zana Qutubuddin, our good friend and program manager of the Muslim Storytellers Fellowship. Welcome Zaynah. 

Zaynah Qutubuddin: Hi George. As-salamu alaikum, Peace be upon you. 

George Brown: Thanks for being here. So I want to talk about a couple of things today. One, I want to talk about you as a writer and your writing experience a little bit about your relationship with the Highlights Foundation and then of course talking about the Muslim Storytellers Fellowship. So, tell me a little bit about you and your writing. 

Zaynah Qutubuddin: So I guess this might sound a little cliche, but I’ve been writing since I was little. My mom still has all of my notebooks since I was four years old. That says I don’t know, maybe about cats and dogs and princesses and dragons and things, just my little sentences. And so since then, I’ve just always loved reading and writing and now primarily I focus on young adult fantasy, which I’ve been working on. Hopefully, my what I hope will be my debut, In sha’Allah God willing in the future I am. And I just took an awesome class actually here with Highlights, a virtual class, the whole novel, horror, sci-fi, fantasy, whole novel Workshop. Yeah, and I got some amazing feedback from Crystal Song, who was my faculty reader, had an amazing one-on-one with her and so I am just excited to get my revisions going and I don’t know and sha’Allah fingers crossed query this year and yeah, we’ll see what happens with that. 

George Brown: So I’m going to talk about that because that whole novel workshop that was all online and then there was the optional retreat, which you actually, I think, you kind of took because you’ve been here for a couple of days. 

Zaynah Qutubuddin: I wasn’t able to do the optional retreat portion because I do have a day job. So I wasn’t able to attend, but even the virtual part was fantastic because actually two of our Muslim storyteller fellows took that class as well, the virtual class. And so the three of us met every Sunday after course of the class was on the week night, and every Sunday the three of us would zoom me and the two fellows and just chat about what we learned in the class that week and just encourage each other and say hey, like I’m having this problem in my novel or this, you know, Intisar Khanani who was one of the faculty members who’s a YA fantasy writer and also one of the Muslim story fellows mentor. She you know, she talked about world building. So, hey, I’m struggling with this part in my world building. So yeah, I would love to have taken the in person, but alas. 

George Brown: Well and yeah, and let’s back up a second. So the way that whole novel online is structured is you had submitted your whole novel, your draft. You received a full letter from Crystal before it started.  

Zaynah Qutubuddin: During. Yeah, well, so actually, so we submitted, we started a class and then we had a deadline which was about 3-4 weeks into the course, which was kind of nice because we were able to learn a couple of little things. We submitted the full novel, which was really helpful to have the course push me, me primarily personally to say hey, I need to get to the end, No more flexing around and editing and whatnot and we submitted it and we got a 10 page minimum feedback letter.  And after the course ended, and it was fantastic. Yeah, like we also learned about how to provide a letter. So with the full novel, we provided a letter to our faculty member that said, hey, these are my strengths, these are my weaknesses and these are my concerns, which then our faculty was able to respond to and also this one thing I really actually learned from this class and from the feedback letter is celebrating ourselves, the fact that we, you know as creatives. We tend to be really hard on ourselves and saying, Oh my gosh, that was a horrible first draft or that was horrible, horrible, horrible. We’re always putting ourselves down and the first several pages of the feedback letter was just praise say this is what you did. One the fact that we completed it right, it’s really difficult to get to the end. And then two, here are the things that you did well even there was a part that I think I said, I feel that one of my weaknesses is some of the character development and really getting to the heart of the character and Crystal pushed. It’s like I think you’re wrong, you shine at character. I was sitting there, I was sitting actually at work that day at my cube. You know, sitting at my desk and I get this letter and I said, no, I can’t open it yet. I actually had an article to finish for work on deadline as I finished that up and then during my lunch break. I’m reading through my letter. I’m just like, half sobbing in my queue because it’s just so beautiful to hear someone else who doesn’t know me, who has never heard about my work just tell me these things that I’ve just been so down on myself on, you know, friends tell you. But you know, friends they’re like your mom, they gotta love you. So I really learned that just from taking this course from Highlights that, hey, let’s stop for a second and just celebrate ourselves. 

George Brown: And I think that’s one of the things as writers, we see a lot is like we’re so isolated often and by ourselves, and writing as solitary as that, that encouragement that we need to remember that, yes, you can do this. Yes, you are a great writer, and so I’m glad that that letter gave you that piece of inspiration. 

Zaynah Qutubuddin: It really did, I mean. It only matters how many years maybe you’ve been writing or classes you’ve been taking. We just, we’re our own worst critic and it is uplifting to have someone just say no, stop you’re good and Highlights gave us that. 

George Brown: So you did the whole novel online, you’ve got your feedback, you had the online sessions that were craft related that helped you think about your revision pieces. So now you say you’re ready. And you’re preparing to submit? 

Zaynah Qutubuddin: Well, I’m going to prepare my revision, so while I’ve actually been on campus, yesterday, I sat down with their feedback letter and I did what actually, Crystal recommend it. She said, sit down with the letter, highlight all the things and make notes where you want to work on or make changes. So I went through that and then I made, started making my revisions list. So my goal for the next you know, until my, well my goal until I leave and go home is just to have a list. Here’s my checklist of which chapters I need to revise, which themes I need to pull out, what characters I need to maybe delete. 

George Brown: So you’re building yourself a road map before you start digging in on the specific pieces? 

Zaynah Qutubuddin: Yeah, I’ve learned the hard way that I am, I’m a pantser, but I think the stage where I’m at is that I need to be a little bit more strategic about how I move forward. If I really want to do this, if I really want to make sure that I get, I get my book out there, I got to be a little bit strategic. So hopefully I get that road map out. I brought a stack of craft books with me. I was really optimistic that I would get through all the craft books. That’s not going to happen, but I got through a couple of chapters I think to help me. 

George Brown: And so talk a little bit about what do you think your writing process will look like right? You mentioned you have a job, so you have a full time job. So you’re trying to get the writing in around the edges of that. 

Zaynah Qutubuddin: So I work full time 9:00 to 5:00 with the MCV Foundation in Richmond, VA and so my day job is a digital engagement manager, which is on the communications team, which primarily means that I do a lot of the social media and I also do wright during my day job. So I am often writing our social media posts and I also do get a chance to write articles. I actually just got my first two bylines. Thank you, my first feature just got published in one of our magazines and the next one we’re in revisions for. And so, it is a little tough because I’m already in front of the computer during the day and then oftentimes writing something or other, and so my goal is, I mean, first of all, it helps that the days are getting longer. I think the sunlight will really help off a lot of times. What I like to do is just go to the public library. I like to go public library after work and just sit there because it’s just, it’s, here’s the thing, the public library is where I used to go when I was in high school. It’s my old public library, Laprade Library and so it just has this feeling of comfort of, I need to get this done. And a little bit of anxiety induced too, because you know, when I was in high school, oh my God, I gotta study for, gotta get for, So there’s that feeling. 

George Brown: It’s that motivation to keep you moving. 

Zaynah Qutubuddin: That right, whereas at home sometimes you know I’m in my bedroom and there’s just the bed and it’s just comfortable. So yeah, my plan is get my list, my revisions list, and start going through my craft books because I do also want to focus on craft. That’s something that I think I’ve forgotten about. That’s just sort of dropped because I’ve been so focused on, oh my gosh, figure out this revision or this plot point or this world building or magic system that we often forget the heart of the matter of craft, and that’s what I started with, and I want to go back to it. So let’s see this summer work through that probably, you know, work, you know, right during lunchtime, after work on the weekends. We have a couple of long breaks coming up through the summer and maybe by August. My goal is by August have the next draft done and sent to a couple of friends who have been dying to read the end. Two of my really good friends, I’d be remiss if I did not mention them in this podcast: Sarah Davis and Frias Sefeer. Who have been with me, they’re to my best friends and they’re not writers. But they’re avid readers, and they’ve been with me through the weeds of my current story that I’ve been working on for five some years, just on and off right and they’ll kill me if I don’t finish. 

George Brown: Ok. 

Zaynah Qutubuddin: So there’s that motivation. 

George Brown: So there’s that peer pressure. 

Zaynah Qutubuddin: There’s that peer pressure and I do want them to read that and you know, but I’m excited. They don’t get this draft, though this messy. 

George Brown: Well, so this is May and you said August. So we’ll check back with you in a couple of months and see how you’re doing. 

Zaynah Qutubuddin: Please do. Please do. 

George Brown: Well, that’s exciting. Well, good luck. I can’t wait to hear how it goes. When you’re ready for the submission stage and your next steps on that. 

Zaynah Qutubuddin: Thank you. I am too. 

George Brown: And I appreciate the conversation around craft, right? Like so much of the process is what’s personal and how the writing works for you, but then falling back on craft and what some of those books are teaching us. 

Zaynah Qutubuddin: Yeah, a craft is important because that’s how we improve. It’s great to take the classes and I, thanks to the Highlights class, I have a huge list of books, so you guys, do you guys reimburse for those books that your faculty recommends Because I have a really long list of books on craft that I need to get now. 

George Brown: Great. Glad to know that we’re keeping the publishing world alive through your craft books. So speaking of the Highlights Foundation, maybe just talk a little bit about your history with us, I remember it was the 4th of July weekend when you first came to see us. 

Zaynah Qutubuddin: Yeah, sad, lonely Zaynah had no 4th of July plans. What was it, 2017?  

George Brown: Was it? Yeah. Wow. 

Zaynah Qutubuddin: I think so. I mean, I feel, yeah, it’s been a while and no, so I was living in Boston at the time where I was for about 10 years. That’s actually where I went to grad school for Emerson for my MFA and then I ended up working there. And yeah, I’d heard about Highlights and the retreat center. And so I said, let’s do this. Let’s just go. So I booked a flight, got to Newark. You guys were great. You picked me up, and then I came here and I fell in love. So I came back another two times and I stayed at the cabin 11. I called myself the cat. What is it? The hermit of cabin 11. It’s on my Instagram. And I think it was that the third time, second or third time I’ve lost count, actually I’ve lost count. But there was one of those times that, you know, George, you came up to me and we were just chatting. And I had posted on my Instagram that hey, I’m here and there was the Jewish writing retreat. They were just doing custom retreat. A lot of the Jewish writing ladies were here and I just kind of happened to be there. I think at this point this was maybe 2018 or 2019. 

Zaynah Qutubuddin: They adopted me. There was a lot of Jewish moms. At one point I fell, I tripped a little bit, twisted my ankle. They all took care of me, but, but you know, I posted, posted on my stories and Saji S.K. Ali, who’s the author of Love from A-Z is one of my absolute favorites. Yeah, I love it. I love it. The first book actually that I really felt that I was represented in in many respects and Saji was like, Oh my gosh, we should do a Muslim writing retreat. I was like, yeah, let’s do it. And so I was letting, I was telling you, George, remember. I think it was over like breakfast or lunch. Like, yeah, I just saw this Saji messaging me, we should do something. And you’re like, yeah, let’s do it. And then, you know, life happens. And then you emailed me, and you came back and said, hey, we’re putting together a proposal for Doris Duke Foundation to do Muslim Storytellers fellowship. Do you want to be part of the program committee? And I said, of course. I don’t know what any of this means, but yes. 

George Brown: And that worked. That was amazing and so we got that grant from the Doris Duke Foundation through the Building Bridges program and the Building Bridges program supports national efforts working with U.S. Muslims to increase mutual understanding and well-being among diverse populations for the benefit of building stronger inclusive communities, and here we are. That was like, a 2 year program and we’ve just finished the end of that first Muslim storytellers fellowship with the symposium where we had our 17 Muslim storyteller fellows. We had a number of the mentors who were part of the program, working with the Fellows and publishing professionals from the industry who were here for three days of great conversation. So I know you can’t tell us about the whole thing because there was so much that happened, but I wondered, like Zaynah, maybe share with us a couple of your takeaways or thoughts that have come from that experience. 

Zaynah Qutubuddin: I mean, first of all, I just want to say it’s been an honor and a privilege to be the program manager and of something that I never dreamed could be possible. So thank you to George and Alice and Highlights and honestly, thank you to God bless one of Allah for making this unknown dream a reality. So yeah, it was a fantastic few days and we are still processing, but we had a lot of fantastic conversation there, really good conversations about community, and about publishing particularly I think the big take away was that we have all these, we have all these stories. We have so many stories and so many voices that there is no one Muslim story. We are not a monolith. The beauty of Islam and the beauty of Muslims, is that we have all faces, you know, we have all shapes and sizes and colors from all different countries. And so you’ll see that sort of reflected in in our fellows, right, we try to be very cognizant of the diversity of Islam just from a visual perspective. And then you go down deeper and you see that there’s even more and more and more diversity and more and more and more beauty. That has not been shared with the world, and so our publishing professionals as our champions and allies really listened right, we the Muslim story tellers really came up with, you know, they shared their concerns that marketing and publishing his biased or they’ll maybe often share only the Muslim stories that are about pain, about Muslim pain, about stereotypes about war or about the rebellious Muslim teen girl who wants to take off her hijab. But they’re not pushing the stories of the Muslim teen girl who wears her hijab with pride and is struggling with math because she wants to be a mathematician or, you know, the Muslim boy who wants to play basketball but maybe he’s too short. You know, we have so much joy to celebrate, and those are the ones that are being swept under the rug. So for example, we have a great book and I say we as like the community. There is a book by 4 Muslim writers authors called Grounded coming out May 9th, and yeah, it’s about four, It’s just about four kids who meet in an airport. It’s middle grade and the chaos that ensues because there are four children and it’s by Aisha Saeed, SK Ali, Huda Al Mashari and Jamila Tompkins Bigelow, and three of them are part of the fellowship. And so I’m so excited for that. But, you know, here’s the sad part. It’s not being promoted as much because it’s not about these kids who are, who are struggling with their identity of being Muslim, and I think that was the biggest take away is that. We have a lot of voices, and we just need them to be out in the world. 

George Brown: And I think what I was encouraged by from the group with the fellowship was this idea of building a community of Muslim storytellers and continuing to work together to have your voices heard. 

Zaynah Qutubuddin: Yeah, this is not the end. I think that was that was also the thing no one wanted to say goodbye and we’re not saying goodbye. We actually do have a few more months of programming left online and we’re working to figure out what is the next step forward because our group here, this is the first time a lot of us have a community together. We all thought we were alone. Like you said earlier, George were like, Oh my gosh, writing is so isolated, but maybe it doesn’t have to be. And then being a Muslim writer, a lot of us did feel like we were isolated. Fun fact, two of our mentors applied to be fellows, two of our mentors who were very well established, but they applied to be mentors or sorry, they applied to be fellows because they were looking for community. And so because Highlights too, because given us the opportunity to become this community, it’s our job to next build this foundation. We are the foundation and then to see how can we help. How can we pay it forward? How we, how can we connect with other creatives out there who aren’t part of the fellowship, but they’re still part of the writing community? They’re still part of the Muslim community, so. We don’t know what that is yet so stay tuned. We’re working on it. Lots of ideas were being tossed around. Lots of excitement, lots of gears turning to something’s coming down the pipeline. We just don’t know what yet. 

George Brown: Well, and there are a couple of things we know about. One, we know that there will be a Muslim storytellers cabin at the Highlights Foundation and a number of authors and illustrators brought their books to put on the bookshelves in Cabin 11, actually, which is the one you referred to right as your special cabin when you first came. So we’re excited for that and we’re also excited to have continued support from Doris Duke and the Building Bridges program to be able to create a whole novel for Muslim Storytellers and a crash course for Muslim storytellers. Thinking about expanding that seat at the table and bringing more Muslim storytellers into the Highlights Foundation programming over the next three years. 

Zaynah Qutubuddin: And I’m excited to see what stories come from that and to be part of that journey. I’m very thankful for Highlights for providing that that platform and those seats, I mean, all we do, all we can do is just keep building to that table. Keep building that table and adding more and more and more chairs and I’m excited to see what happens. Yeah, and the cabin. And yeah, it’s not ending like we have. I’m super excited to see how all this cabin looks too by the end, because we’re just going to all be bringing, like different things from our different like countries of origin and my best friend, she has actually offered to make us a quilt. Yeah, we already have a logo that our graphic designer orthographic, but one of our fellows who is a graphic designer and artist and illustrator Mosali he designed for. Taking into account Islamic geometric shapes and hopefully you know what I at least for the cabin, I know it’s gonna be filled. It’s going to be full so soon. It’s going to be full with all of our stories and it’s going to be beautiful. And we will have a prayer rug in there. Some, you know, we’ve already got some prayer rugs donated and I think there’s like talks about of the bidets because Muslims we use bidets or for those for those of you listening. We will have some lotas. So I’ll be nice and custom. 

George Brown: Fantastic, well, thank you, Zaynah, for joining our HF gather podcast in studio four, AKA my office at the Highlights Foundation. And thank you all for listening. This has been another podcast with the Highlights Foundation may all of your writing and illustrating dreams for children come true. 

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