City Lit Blog

In conversation with Sumayya Usmani: part two

Story added 13th Jun 2017


This May, we were thrilled to welcome acclaimed food writer Sumayya Usmani back to City Lit to discuss her latest cookbook, Mountain Berries and Desert Spice: Sweet Inspiration from the Hunza Valley to the Arabian Sea, and to enjoy some delicious samples of her latest recipes.

Sumayya studied food writing at City Lit with Nikki Spencer. Her debut cookbook and memoir, Summers Under the Tamarind Tree, was published by Frances Lincoln in 2017. The book was shortlisted for the Food & Travel Awards 2016, the Edward Stanford Travel Writing Awards 2016, and was voted a cookbook of the year in many publications including the GuardianIndependentIrish Times and Sunday Herald. Her latest book is available now.

Below, you can read Sumayya's reflections on the road to publication and her advice to aspiring writers. Plus, click here to read part one of our conversation, in which Sumayya offers her thoughts on the genesis of her first book and the inspiration for her second.

In conversation with Sumayya Usmani

Starting out

I’ve always liked cooking and I always wanted to do this. I had a bit of a breakthrough about six years ago. I used to have a blog that was written in the same way as the books: lots of memories, recipes, and so on. And it was just there to idly pass the time. But then I got approached by a production company about recording something for a television show with Madhur Jaffrey. And when I met her, she said, ‘Somebody really needs to write about Pakistani cuisine.’ And I said, ‘That’s my dream! That’s what I want to do.’ And she said, ‘Well, you should!’ She was lovely and incredibly inspirational.

The first big step

Nine months later, I quit my job because I thought I thought, ‘Right, this is what I really need to do, and I need to be really focused on this.’ I had some savings and some bits here and there. So that was my turning point. It was just about taking a giant leap into the abyss…

Pitching to agents

After finishing the book, I wrote my proposal. I was fortunate enough to be a member of the Guild of Food Writers and I was friends with food writers, so their advice helped a lot. Eventually I had my synopsis and my three chapters broken down with four or five recipes. I pitched it initially to literary agents because cold-calling publishers is not really the done thing. I looked at the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook and used it to choose agents. There’s a lot of things to be careful of. A lot of the old-fashioned agents like paper copies, so I had to post a hundred pages to them every time! And then they send it back to you to say they’re not interested. But some are more modern and like to have things by email.

Difficulties along the way

At first, every agent I spoke to would say, ‘I don’t know if it’s going to work. It’s too niche. Nobody knows about Pakistan. Everything that comes out of there is negative. People are a little bit afraid.’ And I said, ‘Well, that's the problem, people need to hear the voice of positivity coming from a country that does get negative press! I want to celebrate the cuisine and the people.’ But I met with that sort of resistance for a while.

The road to publication

Eventually my agent finally picked the thing up and said, ‘Oh, wow, we really like this!’ And that led to finding a publisher. That took nearly two years, and I was absolutely losing the will to live. It was kind of through personal contacts because I’d been a member of the Guild of Food Writers and I was doing tons of freelance writing at the time.

Advice to aspiring writers

I stuck to what I wanted to do. I said, ‘If it can't be like this, then it's not going to be.’ So one thing I always say to people when they ask for advice is that you have to be true to yourself. And the best way to start writing something is to write about what you know…  


Thanks again to Sumayya for visiting us, signing books, and bringing along such a delicious selection of things to eat!

>>Visit Sumayya's website to learn more and get your copy of the book.

>>Find out more about creative and non-fiction writing at City Lit.

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