Habiba studied English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Huddersfield, where she was Student Ambassador. In 2018 she was selected to attend Penguin Random House’s WriteNowLive event. Since graduating she has held roles at Vintage, Waterstones and the Bradford Literature Festival. Habiba is the Co-Founder of Fox and Windmill Books, an independent publishing company for South Asian British writers in the North.
I was at Carlton Bolling College in Bradford, when I was introduced to First Story. Before I joined the programme, I was already quite a bookish student; I loved reading, and I knew that I wanted to become an author and see my work among all the other stories on the shelves. But I just didn’t know how to do that. When visiting authors came to our school, I’d ask them “how do you get published?” and they would always just say “you need to find an agent.” It was like a riddle I had to solve myself.
Growing up in Bradford, where most of my extended family worked manual labour jobs, the idea of publishing was inconceivable. I had to take a practical work approach, nothing too vague like a humanities subject. This was something I believed because of my environment, not because my parents told me to.
When the opportunity to take part in First Story came around, I was studying English Literature at A-Level with three other students. They told us that our work would be published and I jumped at the chance. It was the first milestone I would reach within the publishing world and – although I didn’t know it at the time – would become something I would list as a personal achievement when applying for university, internship and job applications for years to come.
When the programme ended, I was left with an anthology that I had contributed to, and a fierce desire to learn more about publishing. I attended Huddersfield University and studied English Literature and Creative Writing (a humanities degree!) and became Student Ambassador. One day, I was asked to give a campus tour to a group visiting the university. Little did I know that they would be schoolgirls from my hometown, and on a trip with First Story no less. The honour of being able to show them around campus while seeing myself in the very same crowd of university students was unforgettable. I was just like them and I had made it. So would they. It was gratifying to know that.
Since my graduation in 2018, I’ve been lucky enough to work within different roles in the creative sector. My first experience was going to London and beginning a placement at Vintage, Penguin Random House, in the marketing and publicity team. They publish Nigella Lawson, reprints of the classics and new upcoming authors. However, I found London incredibly isolating and left early as a result of homesickness.
Before I returned to Bradford, I visited Nottingham, as I had been selected to attend an event called the WriteNow programme, run by Penguin Random House. This social action scheme was for writers from low socio-economic backgrounds, the LGBTQ community and the BAME community. It was a great chance for me to have my work looked at by a professional editor and to receive feedback on how I could improve. I’m still working on that story and have kept up social media contact with the editor.
When writing alongside my peers and award-winning poet Andrew McMillian, I learnt so much as the weeks of our programme went on. Writing isn’t just something that you just do; it requires editing, proofreading and formatting. It is an entire process that was incredibly foreign before the First Story programme, and I was grateful to be able to experience it.
I will never forget coming home from our launch and seeing my parents’ proud faces as they read my short stories. They encouraged me to continue writing and never missed a chance to tell everyone that I was published.
I then went to work for Waterstones Bradford. I had previously volunteered at the Bradford Literature Festival, and the manager of Waterstones had seen my hard work and dedication and offered me a seasonal job as a bookseller. This job was invaluable and gave me the commercial experience I needed in the book industry.
Once my contract ended with Waterstones, I was offered a full-time role as an assistant at the Bradford Literature Festival (BLF), and started working there the following week. It was a brilliant and fast-paced role in which adaptability was key. Being at BLF, I was able to develop my networking skills, travel to London for meetings at HarperCollins, meet with directors at various organisations – from the British Museum to Bradford Council – and reacquaint myself with First Story. I now work as an Administration Assistant at a health and social care company called Hft.
First Story had a role to play in each application I’ve submitted, in every single job and experience since. Let me say, it makes a huge difference. It was one of the reasons I was accepted at Huddersfield University. In fact, I mentioned it a week ago on an application for a mentorship scheme at Penguin Random House, and I was offered a place!
With my experience and contacts within the publishing industry, I have now co-founded an independent publishing company called Fox and Windmill Books, in Bradford. Our indie publishing company is for British South Asian writers in the North. This was a niche that we identified, and are determined to bridge the gap. We want to make publishing accessible and inclusive. We are currently working on our website, and will open for submissions in Autumn 2022. Again, First Story has been incredible in offering their support in our venture. It is a programme that honestly keeps giving even after all these years! First Story gave me that first step into the publishing industry that I had no idea how to break into, and ultimately set off a domino effect. One thing led to another and without them, I wouldn’t have accomplished half of what I have today, let alone ended up with an independent publishing company!