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Creative spotlight: Aisha Yusuf

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Aisha Yusuf is a 23-year-old writer and former communications student at MacEwan University. Yusuf was attracted to the program due to its emphasis on storytelling and expression. Indeed, Yusuf had that “spark” to engage with ideas from a young age.

“I was very fortunate that I come from a family of writers. My dad instilled that in us. Write, write, write. And, you know what he would do, he’d take random articles that he would find throughout the day and he’d post it on the kitchen fridge. And be like, ‘I’m going to come back. And then when I come back from homework, (we’re having) a discussion about this,’” Yusuf says. “So that’s how I grew up (to be) like my dad .… It’s just random articles, random excerpts, random things and making us really talk about it. From a young age, (it made) us have that discourse, even if we didn’t understand.”

“So I think because we were given that safe space, a space that we were allowed to talk, no matter how problematic our ideas were … was really what made us who we are.” Having a solid foundation to guide her and her siblings, it was surprising to no one when Yusuf established an independently run publishing house with them called Abayo House. This year marks the first publication of the house, a book Yusuf herself wrote entitled Race to the Finish Line. The book itself touches on complex themes such as institutionalized racism, truth and justice, and a young woman’s journey fighting back against established norms. It’s no walk in the park, but the themes touch on stories that are often left untold in mainstream media.

Growing up, Aisha loved to read. “I realized at a certain age that when you become aware of things like diversity and representation, I never saw myself,” she notes. “And that really disconnected me from my love of reading. And I stopped reading and I was complaining one day about a book I read or something that happened that really irked me about why can I never see anybody that looks like me? Why am I portrayed like this? Why can’t I see a Black Muslim character? Why do I feel like I don’t exist in the eyes of the world? I am here and I exist.”

The sentiment is not uncommon. In a 2019 survey conducted by Lee & Low Books on diversity in the publishing workforce, noted that 79 per cent of respondents identified as white. Those that identified as Black or African American comprised a measly five per cent. A claim stating that the publishing industry lacks diversity has some substance to ground it, so it is no surprise then that when a writer of colour attempts to get a book published with a POC protagonist, they will face adversity. “Being able to tell my story authentically felt like I had to fight tooth and nail to be able to do that on something that’s so integral to who I am as a human being,” Yusuf explains. “Why am I not allowed to express that? ”

On Yusuf’s website, there is a quote from author Toni Morrison that reads: “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” Yusuf explains the reasoning for leaving the quote there. “I went into a Toni Morrison hole and that is what inspired me. (It’s) how she always talks about, like, don’t write for the white gaze. And that’s the quote that inspired my writing journey, especially with this book. (It was) to write a book that I’ve always wanted to read.”

On March 12, 2021, the journey to tell a marginalized story came full circle with the publication of her book. Reflecting on the process of writing and publishing, Yusuf is quick to note that the eight-year journey was not always an easy one. “It felt impossible at times. I never really thought that my book would ever see the light of day, but it did. And a lot happened in those eight years. But I’m here now and I think it’s a testament that nothing is impossible.”

The idealist perspective that Yusuf gives off also has a pragmatic side. Her advice to those aspiring for success? “You don’t need to wait for somebody else to extend the hand. You can do it. It will require a lot of time and require a lot of work. And it’ll be hard, but it’s not impossible.”

Her book Race to the Finish Line is available for purchase on her website via Abayo House as well as local book retailer Glass Bookshop.

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