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Return to the Tropical Romance Book Club – an Interview with Hana Sheik

Due to.. uh… (gestures widely at everything), AAR’s Tropical Romance Book Club has been on hiatus for a long time. I’m very excited to bring it back with a conversation with Hana Sheik, the Somali-born, Canada-raised author whose debut for Harlequin – Second Chance To Wear His Ring – is set in Somaliland and Ethiopia. Welcome, Hana!

CR: First, can you talk a bit about Somaliland, the homeland for your hero and heroine Mansur and Amal?

HS: Somaliland covers the north of Somalia. It’s an independent state (its own flag, independence day, history), and Hargeisa is its capital. That’s where the opening chapters of Second Chance to Wear His Ring takes place! So when I say Somaliland, it’s not actually interchangeable with Somalia. They have a heated, even martial history (see Somalia’s Civil War) and Somalilanders will staunchly deny being “a part of Somalia.”

CR: I know you didn’t grow up in Somaliland, but can you tell us about reading culture there?

HS: There aren’t romance novels/authors in Somaliland (or Somalia for that matter). At least none that I know of… Tons of Somali folktales, folk songs, and modern music talk of love and the different kinds of love candidly, but there’s a lack of the subject in the form of literature.

I do know that you can read and access ebooks easily enough. I had my Kindle app on my tablet, and I read Harlequin romances and other romance fiction while I was visiting family a few years ago. And, yes, some of those romances were steamier and more erotic. Paperbacks and hardcovers might be available, but I highly doubt any store is selling explicit books openly. If that’s happening, it’s happening “under the counter,” and I haven’t witnessed it.

CR: What is your personal history with romance novels?

HS: I’ve always gravitated to romances. First in fanfiction, and then later when I discovered the romance aisles in bookstores and libraries.

CR: I ended up in romance via X-Files fanfiction! I have to sidebar here and ask for your fandoms :-)

HS: My first fanfic reads were from the Sailor Moon fandom, but I quickly drifted to X-Men (I blame Hugh Jackman and Liev Schreiber for my Wolverine & Sabretooth obsession!). More recently I’ve become a die-hard Trekkie and I can’t get enough Spock and Data fanfics to feed my addiction.

CR: And then regular romance novels?

HS: Yes, I started reading romance novels very early! Unfortunately, I couldn’t check them out of the library on my own until I was a little older. I remember I had to wait until I was 12 to get my first library card. My parents were extremely good with feeding my reading habit, but they would have questioned the sexier romances I was drawn to (lol).

Scholastic book fairs, regular library trips and book sale hauls make up a huge part of my childhood! Fun fact: the first Harlequin Romance I read was Jeanne Allan’s A Mistletoe Marriage.

CR: This is your Harlequin debut – congratulations! Can you share your publication story?  

HS: I’ve wanted to write for Harlequin’s category romances for a long while now. I tried submitting a few times before Second Chance but with no luck.

I did take what I learned and applied it to my writer’s craft skills. So when Write For Harlequin announced the Harlequin Romance Blitz in January 2018, I knew I had to enter! Fast forward nearly three years later after I completed three full revisions and I got The Call from my wonderful editor in October 2020. I originally pitched the book as an amnesia/second chance tale, mostly because I love both tropes so very much and my hero and heroine, Mansur and Amal, demanded I tell their story. I’m just so very grateful that I had the chance to do that, and now the book’s out in the world!

CR: What sort of travel or research did you do to develop the setting?

HS: A huge part of my inspiration for Amal and Mansur came after my most recent trips to Hargeisa and Mogadishu in 2016 and 2017, respectively. The people are friendly and welcoming there, my family greeted me with open arms, and the sub-Saharan desert lands and fertile, verdant fields are surreally beautiful. I packed much of my experiences and emotions from those trips into the book, and I hope it comes across to readers.

CR: Ethiopia is also an important setting in the book, with the protagonists travelling there and spending significant time there. You describe its food culture, its health care sector, and its natural beauty. Do you have a connection to Ethiopia that inspired you to include it? (If you got to go to a resort in Addis like the one in the book as “research” I will die of envy)

HS: Good news: you won’t have to die of envy. Sadly, I didn’t get to go research the resort in Ethiopia like I wanted – COVID-19 and lockdowns stalled my plans. However, I do still plan to go sometime soon. I’ll have to visit family in Somaliland on the way, but it’s a shorter trip from there. :-)

As for being an important setting, Addis Ababa has a long-shared history with Somaliland and Somalia. Much like how my heroine, Amal, goes to Addis Ababa for a medical reason, many Somali do seek more advanced medical aid in Ethiopia. Also, the easternmost region of Ethiopia is the Somali Region of Ethiopia. It felt very natural to use it as the main setting for Second Chance to Wear His Ring.

CR: A major issue in the book is the fact that the hero’s father had a (legal) polygynous marriage and a second family.  Can you talk a bit about that plot point?

HS: I don’t want to give away too much, but my hero, Mansur, does struggle with his father’s choice to have a second family. The strain of that personal conflict leans into the romantic arc in a way that I hope comes across naturally to readers.

I know it’s not common knowledge in the Western world, but polygynous unions do happen often enough in Somalia and other Islamic countries. When polygyny is discussed, it’s almost always maligned as evil, wrong, backwards, and a way to subjugate women. What I want readers who are new to this subject to understand is that polygyny in Somaliland and Somalia is culturally and religiously accepted. That means a man can legally marry up to four wives (as Sharia law allows), with the caveat that he must care for them equally. He can’t have a “favourite” wife and shower her with all his money, affection, and attention. At least that’s what an ideal polygynous marriage should be. However, this isn’t always the case.

Sometimes the first wife has no clue that a second, third, or fourth wife exists. Sometimes the women aren’t treated fairly and equally by their husband. So, it felt natural for it to be a point of contention in Second Chance to Wear His Ring. Of course, not all polygynous marriages are unhappy. I cover both sides of this topic in the hopes that I’m treating the subject as fairly as possible.

CR: The book’s heroine is a hijabi, and I saw on your FB that the Australian cover may be the first Harlequin hijabi cover model, which is an exciting milestone! (The US/UK covers feature the hero). Did you have any involvement with the cover processes? 

HS: The Aussie cover with the stunning hijabi model caught me off guard in the BEST way possible. I hadn’t been prepared for her, and she took my breath away. When I say it’s such an honour to have the distinction of having the first hijabi model grace my book’s cover, I feel like it’s an understatement.

I didn’t get to choose the Australian or UK and North American covers, unfortunately. I did help by putting together a Pinterest board to help guide the wonderful Harlequin/Mills & Boon Art department when it came time to put together a cover for Second Chance to Wear His Ring.

CR: What does it mean to you to write a hijabi character?

HS: I grew up not knowing that I hungered for more protagonists, heroes and heroines, who looked like me. Characters who had my beautiful brown skin, shared a similar cultural background, and practiced the Islamic faith. Now there’s an abundance of books for my generation and the next (hi, Gen Z!) to stock up on thanks to the progressive push of publishing industry allies and the loud and proud BIPOC bookish community. I’m just over the moon that I get the chance to be of some small help to this movement that’s getting more color and culture and stories onto all our bookshelves.

CR: Part of the Tropical Romance Book Club’s purpose is to share great stories and expand our reading globally. Do you have recommendations for books (romance or otherwise) for readers who would like to get to know East Africa, the East African diaspora, or Somaliland in particular?

HS: A new-to-me author is Nadifa Mohamed. She’s a UK-based Somali author who writes literary fiction touching on the lives of Somali characters. I’m reading her debut title, Black Mamba Boy, and the tale is sweeping me away to another time, but a history and place that still feels present in modern-day Somalia.

Another author whom I adore – she’s the absolute sweetest person, too – is Imani Jay. She’s an indie author who writes scintillating erotic romance (seriously, it’s sizzlingly good!). I mention Imani because she’s Black Muslim like me, and I’m only discovering more of us out here in Romancelandia. I recommend her Owned Body & Soul series.

I’ll also give a shout-out to Somali-British poet Warsan Shire. I don’t write poetry, but when I find poets who can touch my heart and force me to gaze into my soul, it’s hard to forget the experience. Warsan’s magic with words in her poetry collection, Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth, does that.

CR: And will your book be available in Somaliland anytime soon?

HS: South Africa has Harlequins on their bookshelves, but the Horn of Africa has yet to know the pleasure of Mills & Boon (soon though, hopefully). My aunts were asking me for a Somali translation of Second Chance to Wear His Ring. I told them that it’s not in the works, but who knows, maybe I’ll have to nudge Harlequin and let them know there’s an eager market? :D

CR: Thanks so much for sharing your story with us, and helping our readers reach a new corner of the world!

HS: Thank you for having me on the book club!! ❤️

CR: And thank you, readers, for joining us!

Hana SheikYou can find Hana Sheik here:

Website: https://hanasheik.com/

Twitter: @HanaSoChic

Facebook: HanaSheikAuthor

And if you missed any of the previous Tropical Romance Book Club features, check them out!

The Philippines: Bianca Mori

The Dominican Republic: Lydia San Andres

Trinidad and Tobago: Roslyn Carrington

Singapore: Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan

Nigeria: Kiru Taye

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