Meet Sara Bawany: A Self Published Author and TEDx Speaker

I remember being around 10 years old and dreaming about being a published author one day. I had no idea what that would look like, or what I would write about, but I always dreamed for it to happen. Fast forward 14 years, and if you google “(w)holehearted Sara Bawany,” you’ll see my first poetry book listed on Amazon, published less than 6 months ago, and having sold almost 400 copies.

My journey to actually publishing my own book was an interesting one. Between the time I wrote (what I thought were) fantasy “novels” and to writing (what I also thought were) songs, and the time I actually started seriously writing again was a span of about 5 years. In those 5 years, so much happened that I was up to my throat with issues ranging from low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, insomnia, and trauma. I was 15 when I wrote my first poem of the nearly 10-year long journey it would take until I published those poems in book form. The first poem was about closure. The second was about my mother. And it went from there.

Initially, I shared my poems with a few close friends who were also up and coming poets. But there were many things I wrote about that I wouldn’t dare share with anyone. They were too terrifying, too taboo, and would almost invite judgmental attitudes to my doorstep. I thought I was the only one. I truly felt alone. I never thought that anyone else in the Pakistani Muslim community had experienced what we did. I couldn’t even fathom how anyone in the community would handle knowing I came from a family with divorced parents, in addition to all the things that had built up to it. That kind of stuff just didn’t happen in the Muslim community.

Or did it? 

I wish I could say that writing poetry was simply for the sake of the art itself, but in reality, it was me crying out and coping with not only the stressors that all teenagers experience, but feeling like the weight of the world was on my shoulders and me suffocating under it. My poetry started off very structured. Everything rhymed. But there was a rawness to it that I didn’t realize I had until I slowly started sharing it with friends and then with Facebook friends. I was realizing that not only was I not alone, but that my words were drawing in complete strangers to read my experiences in verse form and find solace in them. 

The majority of my book “(w)holehearted” was written in college, which were four of the most trying years of my life. I underwent a huge transformation, emotionally, mentally, and even spiritually. I started sharing a lot more of my writing, and performing drafts of spoken word pieces at open mics. More than 7 years after I wrote that first poem, I created a public Instagram poetry page and it grew fairly quickly. I received literally hundreds of messages about my words from people all over the world, photos of people crying over a particular poem I wrote, and stories about similar experiences, with people feeling comfortable sharing horrifically traumatic experiences with a complete stranger such as myself. 

I wrote about identity primarily, as that was something I, as a Pakistani-American hijab-wearing Muslimah struggled so much with, despite appearing proud and confident on the outside. However, I felt that I had no choice but to act that way while growing up in all-white communities, and going to 11 different schools up until college, most of which lacked any diversity. I looked so different from my peers and felt that it was useless to try and fit in, despite how much I subconsciously wished for straight blonde hair and lighter skin instead of my frizzy mane of dark curls and a very deep tan. I wrote about femininity and domestic violence, because my experiences as a Muslim woman were further made difficult by the abuse I witnessed and was sometimes subject to in my childhood. I wrote about mental health, as all these experiences had crumbled my own. I wrote about racism, about social justice issues, and about relationships (both platonic and romantic) as I navigated through my high school years and encountered one too many issues with people I trusted with these very personal narratives. And somehow, in some way, I ended up with over 200 poems written over about 8 years. It was then that I realized I basically had a book; now all I had to do was put it together. 

I started reaching out to poets that I had met through Instagram, some with much bigger platforms and some with more modest ones, all of whom had published a book in the last few years. Although they agreed that traditional publishing had its benefits, they all recommended self-publishing, as one would retain complete control over their work. Additionally, as a Social Work graduate student at the time, I didn’t have the time or energy to reach out to different publishers and then play the waiting game, and then try again if (or when) I got rejected. From what many other authors had told me, the reward was better as a self-published author both in terms of control, as well as in terms of profit. 

I also published a Kindle version of the book. My good friend Huda Bint Adnan, who previously self-published her own book of poetry, generously took the time to edit mine and help me with the process. When it came time to decide a title and cover, my best friend Amina Choudhury drew the heart on the cover and my husband, Usama Malik, pieced it all together on Photoshop, exactly the way I had wanted it. The best part about all this was that I had people close to me who I trusted who knew my style and worked well with me to give me a final product that I was 100% satisfied with. It’s a blessing to be surrounded by such talent, Alhamdulillah. 

My book was published in September 2018 (on accident, 2 months earlier than I had actually planned!) It sold like wildfire and was listed as #1 on the Amazon category of Asian Poetry for about a week. People I didn’t even think would read my work purchased the book and it was overwhelming and incredible. The love I received for what was in the pages was heartwarming. To know that my book was in shelves and desks and luggage all around the world was one of the most beautiful things I had ever experienced, and something 10-year old Sara Bawany would be in awe of. 

The journey didn’t end there, however. Many people ask if I would publish a second book, and the truth is that I don’t know, especially when I want to make sure I’ve done full justice to the first. Marketing is something that never ends. Through Goodreads, Amazon Marketing Services, and Instagram, as well as simply networking, I’ve managed to continue to push my book to a variety of audiences. I’ve been invited for book readings and poetry performances in Austin, Dallas, Ithaca, Washington D.C., and Detroit. I’ve also performed poetry at two TedX talks in Austin in 2016 and in 2019. I’ve managed to tie in a lot of my background as a social worker and mental health professional into these talks as well and connecting them back to Islam. I’m hoping that the list of cities I speak and perform in will continue to expand and reflect the diversity of my readers. Overall, this has been such an incredible (and ongoing) journey, and although the reach is not what one would expect, just knowing that my book has impacted the hearts of hundreds has made all the difference in the world.

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