Listen, Layla: Coming-of-age as an African diasporic Muslim

Listen, Layla: Coming-of-age as an African diasporic Muslim
5 min read
06 October, 2021
Book Club: Sudanese-Australian novelist Yassmin Abdel-Magied's follow-up to 'You Must Be Layla' is a brilliant bildungsroman continuation of a young Sudanese hijabi and the navigation of her identity, religion and sense of belonging.
By having a Black, Muslim, Hijabi as its protagonist, Abdel-Magied's latest novel opens up new pathways of empathy for the reader [Penguin Books]

Listen, Layla is the second novel in the middle-grade collection by Sudanese-born Australian writer, broadcaster, and social advocate, Yassmin Abdel-Magied. She sets the story in the summer break after the first novel, You Must Be Layla. Following the success of her team Grand Design Tourismo robotics competition, Layla (a Sudanese American teenager) spends her summer break brainstorming and preparing exciting inventions for the grand competition in Germany. But since life rarely goes as planned, her grandmother falls ill in Khartoum and her family of six needs to rush to Sudan.

Here, Layla experiences a world that is different from all she knows in Brisbane. She grapples with her dual nationalities, the societal norms and expectations in Sudan, and her understanding of injustices and faith. As large protests erupt across Sudan, Layla clamours to save the day with a revolutionary invention but, perhaps what she needs to do is pause and listen.

"Listen, Layla is a humorous, exciting, and educative novel that explores the African diaspora experience through the coming-of-age story of an inspiring teenage Muslim girl, which other Muslim girls can see themselves in"

Listen, Layla is a brilliant book. There are very few books – middle grade, young adult, or literary fiction – with a Black Muslim hijabi protagonist that navigates life without a warped relationship with her faith. This story is geared towards a teenage audience but, the simplicity with which Abdel-Magied explores complex topics (like injustice, identity, religion, and personal development) allows older readers to equally enjoy it.

Although Listen, Layla is a follow-up to You Must be Layla, readers can enjoy the former as a standalone because Abdel-Magied recaps the basic plot of the latter – so that the recap does not overwhelm previous readers, and new readers understand Layla’s journey. The pace is just right, and each chapter ends with the right amount of suspense for the next one. Unlike You Must Be Lalya, whose plot doubles up towards the end, Abdel-Magied maintains this steady pace throughout Listen, Lalya. She also ensures that all subplots are well-concluded so that at the end of the novel, readers yearn for more of Layla's stories than other characters.

And Layla does make it easy to yearn for her. She is funny, passionate and has a strong sense of self. While she does experience moments of identity crises, she is aware of herself, her emotions, and her mistakes. This makes her character development exciting and educative to follow.

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In addition to the aforementioned, Abdel-Magied explores patriarchy and women issues in Sudanese culture. Through Lalya’s grandmother, Abdel-Magied dissects these themes without demeaning Sudanese culture or making excuses for harmful practices. A case in point is this thoughtful explanation that Layla’s grandmother provides when Layla asks why boys can do things while girls cannot: “People find ways to make sense of the world, and then that becomes normal. But just because it’s “normal”, it doesn’t mean it’s right. And just because it’s what everyone else does, it doesn’t mean you have to do it… I found a way to make the system work for me. We did this so that your generation would have it easier.”

This explanation makes sense to Layla and it will surely do the same to young girls like Layla. Her grandmother’s explanation also gave me a different perspective on why a common phrase (we did not inherit our mother) ignores the tactics and resilience of past women. Just like with racial liberation in You Must be Layla, Abdel-Magied informs readers about women who created essential human inventions in Listen, Layla – this is a brilliant bridge between the lessons Layla learns both as an inventor and as a burgeoning young lady.

"There are very few books – middle grade, young adult, or literary fiction – with a Black Muslim hijabi protagonist that navigates life without a warped relationship with her faith"

Readers also get a quick window into the history of Kandake Amanirenas, the queen of the ancient Kingdom of Kush (now Northern Sudan) known for skilfully defending her kingdom against invasion by the Roman empire. Thus, Listen, Layla packs lessons for every type of reader.

Another complex issue that I wish Abdel-Magied focused on more is balancing injustice with faith as Muslims. After one of the many protests in Sudan gets violent, Layla has a conversation with her cousin, Yousra. She tries to console her, “Allah’s got us, Yousra’. Her cousin replies, asking where Allah was when protesters got shot, “…where was Allah then? Where has He been for the last thirty years, as the country fell apart?”

Naturally, Layla cannot answer these questions, but she decides that she needs to hold on to faith because what else does she have? I think this conversation is vital because even adults find it hard to balance their faith with the injustices rife in the world. It is a difficult topic, but I wanted Abdel-Magied to explore it beyond this conversation. 

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Still, she portrays Islam beautifully in this story. Layla is comfortable in her faith, another quality that makes her Listen, Layla an authentic representation. Even when she struggles with a crush or finds it hard to imbibe forgiveness as recommended in Islam, she maintains a healthy relationship with Allah.

Abdel-Magied depicts this relationship through Lalya’s conversations with Allah (outside of obligatory prayers or recommended supplications). These conversations illustrate how Layla views Allah beyond haram and halal and that she finds genuine solace in these conversations and her obligatory worship. Depicting Islam in this manner is a breath of fresh air from which teenage Muslims can benefit. 

Listen, Layla is a humorous, exciting, and educative novel that explores the African diaspora experience through the coming-of-age story of an inspiring teenage Muslim girl, which other Muslim girls can see themselves in.  

Aisha Yusuff is a book reviewer with a focus on African and Muslim literature. Her work can be found on @thatothernigeriangirl as well as in digital magazines like Rewrite London.

Follow her on Twitter: @allthingsaeesha