Photograph of a woman in a dark dress, photographed against a dark wall, holding a gorgeous cake with toffee shards on top. Next to her, a book cover featuring similarly gorgeous cakes
Ashia Ismail-Singer and her second cookbook (Photo: Christall Lowe)

BooksOctober 31, 2021

The value of banging your head against a brick wall

Photograph of a woman in a dark dress, photographed against a dark wall, holding a gorgeous cake with toffee shards on top. Next to her, a book cover featuring similarly gorgeous cakes
Ashia Ismail-Singer and her second cookbook (Photo: Christall Lowe)

Ashia Ismail-Singer spent seven years petitioning New Zealand publishers to give her first cookbook a chance. Why? She talks to books editor Catherine Woulfe. 

A bit of background before we jump in: Ismail-Singer was born in Malawi, Africa, in an Indian family. They moved to the UK when she was 16, and she moved to Aotearoa 10 years ago after meeting her husband here. She works as a nurse, splitting her time between Westlake Girls High School, where she’s a school nurse, and ShoreCare, a 24-hour emergency clinic in Takapuna. (She’s not looking forward to being back at school this week.)

Ismail-Singer blogged and contributed to NZ House & Garden for five years before her first cookbook, My Indian Kitchen, was published by Potton & Burton in 2018. Her second, Saffron Swirls & Cardamom Dust – a sumptuously photographed cookbook of spiced-up western desserts – released this month, via Bateman. 

The Spinoff: What I’ve heard is most interesting about your story is just how long it took, how long you banged your head against a brick wall. It’s remarkable that you kept going.

Ashia Ismail-Singer: Well I wasn’t going to give up! It was crazy. It was about 10 years ago, and just before we left the UK that I decided I wanted to put the book together, and I did start putting my feelers out but there was nothing. Because I wasn’t a celebrity it just wasn’t going to happen. 

So when we came here I started writing to people, calling people, calling publishers. One publisher, quite a big one, said, “Oh, it’s a pipe dream.”

Oh! Isn’t every book a pipe dream until it’s published?

Absolutely. And I just wanted to share my story because I knew there was something in it. I wanted to share my family story and I didn’t want my kids to forget that they are part-Indian, and I thought it would resonate with people, resonate with other immigrants. 

I wrote to so many publishers and kept getting nos. Kept getting nos. But I’m just one of these people. I just don’t give up easily. When I know I’ve got something to say I just have that in my head and I think I need to do this, I need to do this

And I was working as a nurse, and I’ve got a daughter who has extra needs, and I needed to do something for me.

A family of four, with two adult children, photographed on a golden-sand NZ beach.
Ismail-Singer and her family (Photo: Supplied)

I’ve got a son and a daughter, they’re 20 and 16. Zara was born with a global developmental delay and language and speech delay, so that was a… you wouldn’t call it a hurdle, but it was something that as a mother, I had to deal with and come to terms with, which took me a very very long time. 

When we first arrived here 10 years ago I ended up being that mother that fights – you know, you’re your child’s advocate – to try and get her the help she needed. I had to fight to get her ORS funding, it took us three goes. Zara wasn’t at a very high needs level, she was kind of mild to medium, so it was really difficult. I kept emailing the powers that be and I said, “look, if she doesn’t get this I’m going to come and camp outside your office door because she deserves this, she needs this funding”. She did get it in the end and it’s been great for her. 

That’s a part of my story that obviously I don’t tell everybody but it just kind of puts things into context, I suppose. It helped make me stronger and more determined.

Pushing to get your book published seems very low-stakes compared to that. 

Yeah. I just needed something to vent, something to do on my own, for me, as Ashia, rather than mum and wife. 

Then finally, I was talking to Jo [McColl, of Unity Books Auckland] one day and she said, “Oh, have you tried Potton & Burton?” I had written to them previously actually and got a no but they were now doing cookbooks, they were trying something new. So I wrote to them and a few months later I got a call, and that’s when my book journey started.

So how many publishers, or how many approaches do you think you made before you hit that point? 

Oh, so every publisher in New Zealand. All the big ones, all the small ones as well.

I kept going back to them. That was the thing, I thought I’m not going to give up, I’m not going to give up. 

What response were you getting from the publishers who said no? What were they telling you? 

Ah, you’re not a celebrity, you don’t have a platform, nobody will have heard of you, you’re not famous. I think it’s just such a shame. But it’s all changed now, you know. With Instagram you can become a celebrity, you can become an influencer. Social media’s just changed everything. 

You said in a Spinoff piece about diversity in food media that it may have been about race as well. “We have to work twice as hard,” you said. “We deserve better, we have so much to offer.” And you pointed out this astonishing fact: “In New Zealand – other than my cookbook – there are no Indian books published by mainstream publishing houses and only a couple of self-published ones.”

Yes. I think it is much harder, or it was much harder, to get noticed if you were not the right skin tone. Maybe people are discouraged, or don’t feel that they can do it because of the restrictions they’re experiencing. 

I mean even now, I’m part of the food writers guild [Food Writers New Zealand] and there’s not many of us around, there are about three or four of us I think, or maybe a few more now, of Asian or Indian heritage. 

That’s one of the reasons why I held off self-publishing. I felt well, I want to be in the mainstream, I want to be validated, I want people to say, “Actually, this person has the right to be here”, you know? 

Beautiful photographs of a woman holding a huge sponge cake topped with cherries, and a plate of little pies topped with rosettes of apple
From Saffron Swirls & Cardamom Dust: sponge cake, left, and rose apple pies (Photos: Christall Lowe)

You must have put a lot of your own money and time and energy in across those years.

Absolutely, and the other thing is, even publishing through a publisher, you take some of that risk, so I had to pay for the photography for both my books.

Oh wow. 

Yeah. And it’s not cheap.

That seems ludicrous.

Oh totally. Totally. I’ve had to basically take an advance on my royalties, so I basically don’t get anything, I don’t make any money from it, for both my books. It’s not a money making thing, it’s a passion to get my story out there. I want other people of ethnic heritage to say, “She’s managed to do it, I’m sure we can too”. 

I’m not that familiar with cookbook publishing but it must be much more of an investment for the publisher than, say, a novel. You know, these are big beautiful hardbacks, big glossy pages… 

Absolutely. You’ve got full-colour pages, I mean the new one that’s come out, it’s a hardback, 90 recipes, and a colour photo for every single recipe. So yeah, it is a big risk for them, so obviously they want to make sure that the book’s going to sell. And then we hit the Covid period and it’s like, great.

The first book must have done OK if you managed to get a publisher for the second?

It didn’t fly off the shelves but it’s done well, they printed 3,000 copies and I think there’s only 140 left. 

That’s actually really good for NZ!

Over the last couple of years I’ve also been writing to publishers in the UK and America to try and see if I could get that first book picked up by an overseas publisher.

When I spoke to Potton & Burton about it they said, “Oh look, these kinds of things don’t happen, it’s very rare for a book to be picked up by an overseas publisher”. But I just kept going and emailed so many different publishers, and kept getting nos, and then finally it got a yes. 

So My Indian Kitchen is being published in America, and it comes out in November.

Saffron Swirls & Cardamom Dust by Ashia Ismail-Singer (Bateman Publishing, $49.99) is available from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington. 

Keep going!