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Emory junior’s debut novel showcases young Black Muslim women’s voices
Laila Sabreen

Laila Sabreen has quietly been working on fiction projects while pursuing additional undergraduate research and community service. Her first novel, “You Truly Assumed,” debuted Feb. 8.

— Stephen Nowland, Emory Photo/Video

A junior in Emory College of Arts and Sciences will make her literary debut Feb. 8 with a book heralded as both one of the “best” and “most anticipated” young adult novels of 2022. But you can be forgiven if “You Truly Assumed” wasn’t on your radar.

The Robert W. Woodruff Scholar from the Washington, D.C., area has kept her accomplishment close.

Laila Sabreen didn’t bring up the book with the professor who oversaw her yearlong research into the portrayal of Black Girlhood in Black women’s fiction — a question her novel addresses through the story of three Black Muslim teens who become friends after a terrorist attack heightens the Islamophobia they face.

Sabreen did discuss her writing with friends. But, after they recorded her signing her agent contract as a first-year student in the Raoul Hall lounge, most conversations centered on more traditional college chatter like weekend plans, classes and exams.

“My writing was originally just for me,” Sabreen says. “Then I realized it could go somewhere a lot of stories don’t, with Black Muslim characters written by a Black Muslim author. I hope (the novel) makes space for more Black Muslim authors to write whatever story is authentic to them.”

You Truly Assumed book jacket

“You Truly Assumed” is being published by Inkyard Press, a young adult imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

“You Truly Assumed” is being published by Inkyard Press, a young adult imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Sabreen will share her experience writing the novel during a virtual book launch with Decatur’s Little Shop of Stories bookstore on Feb. 8. An Emory-centered online event, featuring Margari Hill of the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative, will be held Feb. 16, co-sponsored by Emory’s departments of English and religion.

She may also be a featured speaker in Muslim Women’s Storytelling, the cross-listed Emory College course that has included the novel for analysis this spring.

“For a while, it was just mine,” Sabreen says. “Looking back, I realize it was a coming-of-age story with little pieces of me in it. A lot has changed since then now that it’s ready for anyone else.”

Scholar and author

Growing up, Sabreen always enjoyed reading and writing. She ran a book blog with her reviews during her first two years of high school, then shifted to writing as a way to express her feelings as she watched anti-Muslim sentiment grow following the 2016 election.

Even as author Adiba Jaigirdar helped her with the novel’s revisions and provided other support through Author Mentor Match during her senior year of high school, Sabreen expected her writing would remain private.

At Emory, she initially planned a pre-health neuroscience and behavioral biology (NBB) major or a quantitative methods (QSS) major focused on health care. Days before starting her first year on campus, she completed Emory’s STEM Pathways pre-orientation program for students from underrepresented groups interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.

There, she cemented the close friendships that have marked her time at Emory. She told her friends she was a novelist in the same matter-of-fact way that others might describe a day as sunny, but it didn’t quite register.

“As STEM people, we didn’t really know what it meant to be a novelist other than it seemed serious to have an agent,” says Olivia Bautista, a junior majoring in QSS with a concentration in biological anthropology. “Now I know Laila is always in the process of writing a novel, even though she does all these other things at Emory.”

Though the pandemic ruptured Sabreen’s first year on campus, she has been active as both an executive board member with the Emory Black Student Alliance and as a tutor at the Emory Writing Center.

An introductory sociology class opened her eyes to analytical approaches to explaining how people interact with each other and the world around them. She declared a double major in English — literature, not creative writing — and sociology to explore that overlap.

“Working on the edits of my book made me more aware of what I was enjoying at Emory and gave me the confidence to follow that interest,” Sabreen says. “The writer in me is very interested in people’s motivations and what that means if I can create more realistic characters.”

When Sabreen reached out near the end of her first year to Meina Yates-Richard, an assistant professor of African American studies and English, it was not to discuss her own writing.

Instead, she presented a reading list to begin the research she wanted Yates-Richard to guide. Sabreen is now submitting the resulting Scholarly Inquiry and Research Experience (SIRE) project to a peer-reviewed journal.

She also is expanding the project, focused on Black female authors in the 21st century, to include authors from the 19th and 20th centuries for her honors thesis. Her plan after that is a PhD in English literature.

“We met at least bimonthly, sometimes weekly, for an entire year, and she never mentioned [her novel]. Not one time,” Yates-Richard says. “Discovering Laila is an author makes such sense, though, because I can see her aligning herself with a specific tradition in African-American literature whose depth comes from a grounding in research that fuels the imagination.”

‘An important window’

Sabreen’s ties to the tradition of scholar-writers continue this spring, with “You Truly Assumed” being included in the cross-listed Muslim Women's Storytelling course.

Instructor Rose Deighton, a post-doctoral fellow in Emory’s Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry, assigned the novel as the first text for the class. The unit pays particular attention to the ways Black Muslim women are overlooked in public understandings of Islam and marginalized within some Muslim communities.

“Laila’s engaging storytelling offers an important window into the multiple different ways Black Muslim girls and women negotiate their identities and experiences,” Deighton says.

To help readers, especially anyone unfamiliar with that intersectionality, students in Deighton’s class also are creating a readers’ guide for the novel.

The guide will include a glossary and chapter-by-chapter prompts, such as asking about Sabreen’s intentional use of slang and decision not to italicize Arabic words. Deighton will edit the guide, then give it to Little Shop of Stories to share with customers.

“As publishers recognize that more diverse stories need to be told, we’re seeing a lot more adults reading Young Adult novels now,” says store co-owner Diane Capriola. “It’s an exciting time to be a YA bookseller. We have a lot more to offer readers when they are looking to read a book like Laila’s.”

‘To reach as many people as I possibly can’

It is also an exciting time to be Laila Sabreen, in both author and student form. She stepped away from serving in Emory’s BSA to focus on book events this spring, but she continues mentoring with Matriculate, helping low-income high schoolers navigate the college application process.

She also has begun digging in on her honors thesis and recently submitted her second novel. Written during the first book’s editing, the novel is an examination of grief and loss Sabreen wrote after the sudden death of a family member just before she came to Emory.

“A lot comes out in my writing. It’s my way of processing what I’m feeling and thinking,” she says.

Sabreen has told friends that a short story – part of an anthology due next year – was loosely inspired by her first semester on campus.

“I know she will keep it general, but I can’t wait to read it,” says junior Helena Zeleke, an NBB major who became close with Sabreen in STEM Pathways.

“Being around Laila, seeing her go after the things that seem unimaginable and succeeding, has made me wonder what is out there for me to try,” adds Zeleke, who applied and was admitted to the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai with Sabreen’s encouragement. “It’s powerful to have a friend like that.”

Lest it not take any future readers by surprise, Sabreen’s powers also include drafting a third novel over the recent winter break. That way she can focus on her favorite part of writing — the revision — while making time for her academic work.

“My interests change, so I want to be able to shift focus,” Sabreen says. “I want to reach as many people as I possibly can, when I’m ready.”

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