Fatima Shaik, October 2021
Acclaimed author and Louisiana native Fatima Shaik is the 2021 recipient of the Louisiana Writer Award, presented annually by the Louisiana Center for the Book in the State Library of Louisiana. Shaik is the twenty-second recipient of the prestigious award presented to recognize outstanding contributions to Louisiana's literary and intellectual life exemplified by a contemporary writer's body of work.
Fatima Shaik is a literary author whose meticulous research and commitment to the languages of Louisiana are evidenced by a nearly half-century professional writing career in books, magazines, and newspapers. Her books include her recent nonfiction work on a largely forgotten aspect of Louisiana history, two short story collections, two picture books for children, and a young adult novel, all set in Louisiana.
Shaik is the recipient of awards from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, the John Anson Kittredge Fund, and the Platforms Fund sponsored by the Andy Warhol and Joan Mitchell Foundations. Her books have received Kirkus stars and accolades from a variety of publications.
The current that runs through Shaik’s books is her desire to parse the truth from oral tradition and document it, incorporating Louisiana musicality and ancestral weight.
Her first book, The Mayor of New Orleans: Just Talking Jazz, of which the title story is written in the scat patter of conversing musicians, is, according to National Public Radio, a “terrific charging solo.” Publishers Weekly said that the “three lush and evocative novellas…capture the special ambiance of southern Louisiana.” Shaik’s second adult book, What Went Missing and What Got Found, which describes members of a community before and after Hurricane Katrina, is a "collection of fabulous short stories,” according to Susan Larson of The Reading Life. Bostonia magazine wrote, “Shaik’s strengths as a writer are in creating everyday dialogue, in painting her characters’ lives, in moving her plotlines quietly and slowly along. She brews her characters—their status, their intellect, even their skin color—slowly, like tea steeping in a porcelain pot…In compelling fiction such as this, there is power, and truth.”
In picture books published by Penguin, Shaik introduces readers to the syncopation of New Orleans drumming by the phrasing of text, the history of racial segregation through parade traditions, and the names of 19th century Creole authors through rhyming as children dance past a cemetery. Shaik captures African call and response communication “through her rhythmic language that reflects both the complex pattern of jazz music and the emotion and energy it evokes from the second liners” (Marigny Dupuy, The Times-Picayune, New Orleans). Recommended by Parents’ Choice, The Jazz of Our Street, according to Kirkus, is a “compact cultural history.” On Mardi Gras Day was chosen as one of the Best Holiday Books of 1999 by the Bank Street College of Education.
Melitte is a YA novel narrated by a child in 18th century Louisiana who learns that she is enslaved and the daughter of her captor. “The emotional first-person narrative and well-researched historical detail paint a vivid picture of the times and provide a wrenching look at slave life….Accessible and affecting historical fiction,” according to School Library Journal. Melitte received a Best Books for Young Adults recognition from the American Library Association and was an American Booksellers Association Pick of the Lists. The book has been translated into German as Melinde.
The New York Times wrote that Shaik’s seventh book, a nonfiction narrative entitled Economy Hall: The Hidden History of a Free Black Brotherhood, published by The Historic New Orleans Collection, “is so inviting that the true depth of its scholarship is revealed only in its bibliography, which lists dozens of archival and other sources. Shaik’s monumental book…is lyrical and mysterious and always captivating.”
Besides The New York Times’s review, Economy Hall has been described as “a must read” and “a landmark work in Louisiana history” (Susan Larson, The Reading Life), “stunning” (America magazine), “remarkable” (The Iron Lattice), and “lively, readable” (Kirkus starred review). Shaik’s research has been referred to as “painstaking” (Christian Science Monitor), “extensive” (American History Review) and “prodigious and fascinating (Washington Independent Review of Books).
Author and historian Caryn Cosse Bell said about Economy Hall, "Afro-Creole writer and activist Rodolphe Lucien Desdunes first offered a glimpse into the Société d’Economie’s early history in Nos Hommes et Notre Histoire....Now, Shaik, a twenty-first century heir to the Desdunes’s legacy, proposes to open an exciting new window onto the city’s rich multiethnic, multiracial history. As her eloquent 'Prologue' indicates, she is ideally suited for the task."
Fatima Shaik’s family can be traced to the 1700s in Louisiana and includes enslaved and free ancestors from Europe, Africa, India, and the Americas. She was born in the historic Seventh Ward of New Orleans and was bred on the oral history of her Creole family and neighbors.
Shaik began working professionally at The Times-Picayune in New Orleans in the summer between her junior and senior years in college, where she spent free time rummaging through its “morgue.” One of her early articles was about Marie Laveau, in which she quoted from an 1875 article. She spent her first two years of college at Xavier University of Louisiana. Her undergraduate thesis for Boston University’s School of Public Communication described the Black newspapers in 19th century New Orleans. She received a B.S. in Journalism in 1974 from BU and an M.A. in Political Science from New York University in 1978. Before attaining her Master’s, she was a summer reporter for the Miami News, statewide editor for the Louisiana Newsleader, and Assistant Editor and Foreign Digests Editor for McGraw-Hill World News.
Shaik was a Scholar-in-Residence at New York University and taught as a tenured faculty member at Saint Peter’s University where she founded its Communication degree program in 1992, received tenure in 1998, and retired from faculty after 28 years.
Shaik’s work appears in several anthologies including N. O. Lit: 200 Years of Louisiana Literature (Lavender Ink), Men We Cherish (Doubleday), African-American Literature (HarperCollins), Streetlights: Illuminating Tales of the Urban Black Experience (Penguin), and Breaking Ice: An Anthology of Contemporary African American Fiction (Penguin-Viking), and she is featured in A Booklover’s Guide to New Orleans. Shaik has written for The Southern Review, Callaloo, Tribes, The Root, the Review of Contemporary Fiction, Literary Hub, and The New York Times among others. Her articles have appeared in the foreign-language magazines Nikkei Architecture and L’Expansion. Her four-part series of essays after Hurricane Katrina for the magazine In These Times followed the evolution of her community over a decade.
Live at the NYPL featured Shaik on its program entitled "Reshaping New Orleans History,” and author Jennifer Egan interviewed her for the Brooklyn Public Library on C-SPAN. Shaik also appeared on a panel called “Mining History” for the 2021 PEN World Voices Festival along with Kaitlyn Greenidge and Saidiya V. Hartman, moderated by Clarisse Rosaz Shariyf. For PEN’s digital festival the previous year, Shaik was one of the “Writers in Residence” and cooked Gumbo Z’herbes. She explained, “This was survival food that carried my family and many others through the centuries. I think about these families and their silent histories when I write. I write stories about Louisiana. I write in its language, and I like to keep that language in my mouth…I wanted you to know this food, so its story goes into the wider world.”
Shaik has also appeared at the Miami Book Fair, the Brooklyn Book Festival, the Louisiana Book Festival, the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival, Louisiana Historical Association conferences, the National Conference of Social Studies, the Satchmo Fest, and more.
A member of The Writers Room in New York City, Shaik is an ex-officio trustee of PEN America as co-chair of the Children’s and Young Adult Books committee. With PEN, she spearheaded the transfer of a children’s library from New York to the lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. That effort evolved into a visiting authors program for the Martin Luther King Jr. School for Science and Technology that has lasted more than 12 years. She is the subject of an upcoming documentary, The Bengali, by director Kavery Kaul.
Shaik is married to the abstract painter James Little, lives in New Orleans’s Seventh Ward and Manhattan, and has three daughters.
Regarding the Louisiana Writer Award, Shaik says, “I am honored to be recognized by my state. Louisiana is dear to my heart and its cultural history is central to my work. Anyone who knows me knows that Louisiana is ‘home.’"