Farhana Shaikh is a writer and publisher born in Leicester. She is the founding editor of The Asian Writer, an online magazine championing Asian literature. In 2010 she established Dahlia Publishing to publish regional and diverse writing talent. She has facilitated creative writing workshops and judged competitions in the UK and India. In 2010, Farhana received an Arts bursary from the Royal Shakespeare Company. Farhana now regularly reviews productions for The Reviews Hub. She writes feature articles, poetry, short stories and scripts. Farhana lives in Leicester with her husband and their two children. She can be found on Twitter @farhanashaikh talking about books and publishing.
Hello Farhana. We’re delighted you’ve agreed to judge this year’s competition and thank you for answering the following questions. We’re sure everyone will be fascinated to read your responses.
Alison: You are an indefatigable champion of writing and writers and we’re delighted to have you as our judge in 2023. You set up Dahlia Publishing in 2010, partly to champion regional and diverse voices. I’d like to ask, have you noticed a difference in the twelve years since, in how those voices are represented. Have things improved at all?
Farhana: I think there’s been a huge shift in recognising that both regional and diverse voices are critical to enriching mainstream literary culture. At Dahlia Books we’ve published female short story writers like Catherine Menon and Susmita Bhattacharya, who’ve gone on to have their collections broadcast on Radio 4 Extra. Report after report has shed light on the experiences of Black, Asian and working class writers. So progress is being made but I think it’s still primarily the small presses who are moving faster at really valuing the talent that exists out there and doing the heavy lifting to nurture those writers.
Alison: You also set up a literary magazine for new writing, Present Tense, accepting poetry, flash and short fiction as well as creative non-fiction, with a strong sense of place. You live and work in Leicester, a City that is very important to you and where you host Writers Meet Ups as well as the Leicester Festival of New Writing. How important, especially now, do you think place is, in writing? And perhaps, taking it a bit further, connection to and dialogue around a sense of home, place, environment?
Farhana: Present Tense was a pandemic baby and I think it came out of me re-evaluating my relationship with space, place and time during that difficult period. I’ve never left the city of my birth and yet have rarely felt like I belong here. The pandemic forced us all to be still – in our thoughts and movements, and I think in some ways, forced us to reassess our relationship with the natural world and more pertinently, the role that our daily lives have played in destroying it. Place writing can be both setting as well as our response to our environment and is powerful in helping us to understand the relationship between the internal and external worlds. Post-pandemic, place writing has a role to play in helping us to rediscover the outside world and the joys of everyday life.
Alison: Amongst your many other projects (including your own writing!) you run Short Story September, an absolute gold mine/treasure trove for readers and writers alike. I love the balance of writing prompt, short story reading and critique. Could you tell us how it came about and how you choose the stories?
Farhana: Most of my projects stem from a deep desire to connect with others and to form a community around my own interests. Having been a reader of short stories for many years I had begun to wonder why short story writers aren’t given a bigger platform to share their work. I’d heard of NaNoWriMo and thought it would be wonderful to throw a spotlight on the work of short story writers for one month and encourage more people to write short stories at the same time. That’s how Short Story September was born. Each year I consider which writers have published a collection, read a few of their stories and then whittle down a list. It’s getting harder to pick just 30 which is great as it means that more collections are being published.
Alison: You run your own short story competition, Leicester Writes, and tweeted recently about common mistakes authors make. Could you precis that for us or pick out a few of the most important pieces of advice, based on your reading?
Farhana: I think the most common mistake writers make is not recognising the short story as a form and use it as an opportunity to send in an extract of a longer work. It’s a technically challenging form and one that is more than just about word count. Many short stories that I read feel like they are part of a longer work and fail to capture the essence of the short story form – which for me, is all about a moment. It doesn’t have to be a huge moment but it does have to be significant for the protagonist.
Alison: Our prize has a 2200 word limit. What advice do you have for authors tackling stories of that length? Any final words for readers thinking about entering?
Farhana: This is probably not what you want me to say but I would always say this to writers: write what you love, and write with abandon for yourself first. Put it away in a drawer for some time so you can get some distance between you and the words. Then and only once you’ve done this, seek out people who can help you to refine what you’ve written, offer critical feedback so you can polish the work before sending it in. It’s amazing what happens when you re-work a piece with fresh eyes. Good luck!