In Conversation With… Nadiya Hussain

Nadiya, 32, lives in Milton Keynes with her husband Abdal, an IT manager, and three children, sons aged ten and nine, and a daughter, six.

Writing is the one thing I did before baking, before I had access to a kitchen.
 I won a national poetry competition when I was seven – with a poem about being in the bath and getting soap in your eyes! From then on, my dad was always buying me pens and paper, saying, “You’ve got to keep writing – because if you write, maybe one day you’ll get to meet the Queen!”

My parents didn’t read to me as a child – it just wasn’t something that happened. The emphasis on education 25 years ago wasn’t there and families were big. I’m one of six; my husband’s one of seven; my dad, who came to the UK as a child, was one of 14. He worked in the restaurant industry – late hours, early mornings – and my mum had six of us to look after. there was no “alone time”. I can see why she didn’t have the energy to read!

It was at college, studying English Language A Level, that I really started learning how to write, about grammar, punctuation and different styles. Our teacher made us write a monologue a week and said by the end of the year, we’d look back at our first monologues and see how much they’d improved. and I’ve never stopped – i just carried on. I’ve got this whole back catalogue of characters and storylines.

Whether you’re a writer or a cook, everything inspires you.
It could be a design, a flavour, something someone says on the train that you shouldn’t be listening to. Something will come to me and I’ll quickly tap it into my phone. Everything is material!
 
When I was approached about writing a novel, it was like a dream come true.
Although I had lots of ideas, writing a full book was daunting so I set about creating the story then had the publishing team to help me through. The whole thing took nine months and it was a constant barrage of emails going back and forth, me writing something, and them taking things out, adding bits in, bringing the whole story together.

The book hops between four sisters who were brought up in the UK in a close Bangladeshi family.
I do have four sisters and, like the ones in the book, we’re all very different. My oldest sister married at 17 – she’s quite traditional. My youngest sister married at 27 – she says, “I’ve lived a little bit more!” if you’re one of four sisters, there’s constant conflict, but underlying is love. My family know they’ll be material for the rest of their lives!

There are certain things in the book that I experienced but it’s not autobiographical – necessarily!
Some of it comes from the stories you hear if you’re growing up in that culture. It covers some serious issues – arranged marriage to first cousins, infertility, adoption, family scandal. The parents are infuriating at times – the way they favour their son and can’t see that it’s the daughters who hold everything together. But they’re also endearing. I wanted to find the funny side.
 
I was the first person in my family to get into university
King’s college to read Psychology – and I don’t really begrudge my parents for not letting me go. I was the first, and also a girl asking to leave home – it was so new, they weren’t ready for the questions, the comments and the finger pointing. As a parent, I totally understand. If my son suddenly said he wanted to go to the moon, I’d be afraid too. But I wouldn’t say “no” – that’s the difference. He’s his own person and he has to do what’s right.

Instead, I got married when I’d just turned 20.
Abdal and I were introduced by our dads. A year later, we had our son, and our second son a year after that. It was very traditional – I was at home with the kids, like my mum and my aunties. It was my job and I wanted to do it perfectly. I made sure my kids were clean, they went to bed on time, they had routines, homework was done and my house was spotless. Now it’s safe to say my standards have dropped!

Abdal used to be the one who was leaving first thing in the morning without seeing the kids and coming back late at night.
Now we have to balance it out. I have to say, he has taken to it like a duck to water. He does the bedtime routine when I’m not around, the hoovering, the ironing. He’s really good… although I wish he’d see the dirty corners on the stairs instead of me having to prompt him. And the cooking is awful. It’ll be fish fingers! Even if I make a curry and ask him to heat it up and cook some rice, he’ll go out and buy chapatis instead. I don’t think it’s about confidence – I think it’s laziness!

My daughter Maryam is the only person who hasn’t adjusted yet.
She can’t cope with my absence. She hates it. But it’s important for the children to see me go to work – especially my daughter because that’s what I want for her. When I was a full-time mum, I always felt like I wanted more, and that I had more to give. I don’t want her to be reliant on anyone. I want her to be able to go out and have an equal relationship with her partner, which is what I feel I have now.

Life is pretty busy since Bake Off.
I don’t know how I’ve done so much. I suppose that energy comes from being somebody who was so desperate to do well. I want to be the version of me that I’ve always wanted to be – so I’m constantly striving for that.
 
People ask what I’ve bought with the extra money and the best thing is a dehydrator.
I love it! Freezing adds moisture and takes away flavour, and there’s nothing I don’t dehydrate now! I went to bangladesh recently and brought back loads of lemons and grapefruits, all of which I dehydrated. My mum didn’t believe it would be any good but when she saw the results, she was so impressed.

I’d love to do more TV and I’m definitely planning to write more books.
I’ve learned so much writing this one. I was used to short, snappy monologues so it was an absolute pleasure bulking it out and learning how to put it all together. I’m looking forward to going back to my back catalogue and creating something completely different. I’m not quite sure what it’ll be yet – but I’m getting there!

Nadiya’s Top Picks


I have my own weird little routine when choosing what to read next. I read the first chapter first, the blurb on the back second – and then if I like it, I’ll read the book.
Once I’ve started, even if I’m not enjoying it, I’m one of those people who really doesn’t like giving up. Someone has gone to the effort of writing it – I feel too guilty to reject it, unless I can persuade someone else to read it instead!

My all-time favourite is The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold (Picador)
I love the way it’s narrated by someone who isn’t even there – Susie Salmon was murdered, and is now watching her family and how they fall apart after her death. I was 16 when a Waterstones opened in our town and this was the first book I bought. I read it in six hours.

My best-loved classic is Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (Arrow)
We read it in high school, but it was wasted on me. When you have 30 students, and each one has to read a page and you can’t hear the person at the back, you just think, “oh, this is depressing”. But I asked my teacher if I could keep it at the end and I went back to it after school finished. It’s such a beautiful, poignant read, I still have that same school copy and I love it.

The book I wish I’d written is Underground to Canada by Barbara Smucker (Puffin) A historical novel for younger readers, it was one of the first books I read when I was at college. It’s about a woman who risked her life to help some slaves escape from the American south to Canada through an underground railroad. The way it was written was so emotional – I could almost feel those tears. It made me realise that freedom wasn’t something I should take for granted.

Nadiya’s Debut Novel
It tells the story of four sisters in
the only Muslim family in a small English village. After an accident,
will Fatti, Farah, Bubblee and Mae resolve their problems, pull together
and save the day? The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters by Nadiya Hussain (HQ) is out on 12 January.

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