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October 5, 2016

Badass Ladies You Should Know: Saba Sulaiman

Kate Hart
When literary agent Saba Sulaiman isn't ushering new writing talent into the world (or mothering her new baby!), she's busy working to make publishing a more inclusive place -- whether that means counseling women of color about their path into the industry, judging entries for the We Need Diverse Books Walter Grant, writing posts at Pub Hub, or just taking the time to answer a few questions for interviews like this one. If you have a manuscript that's ready to query, be sure to get Saba on your list of potential agents.


Kate: Describe your career(s) and/or current projects. What path(s) and passions led you there?

Saba: I’m a literary agent, and I can safely say that this is my dream job—not a day goes by when I don’t reflect on how incredibly lucky I am to be able to find and work with inspiring, talented writers and introduce them to the world. I was lucky to have stumbled into this field myself—I was in graduate school and sometime towards the end of my time there, I decided to switch tracks from academia to…well, the real world. So I began looking for jobs in CT (where my then fiance lived) while writing my MA thesis, and after almost a year of searching, I got my start as an Editorial Intern at Sourcebooks. I ended up working there for almost a year, with other fabulous, very badass women, and because it was a small, satellite office, I got to learn the ropes of the industry pretty hands-on. And then, my boss referred me to my current boss for another internship, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Kate: What's your biggest challenge?

Saba: Finding the time to do everything I want to, and then overcoming the paralysis that sets in when I realize I haven’t done even a fraction of what I set out to do for the day. I’m working on setting smaller, more achievable goals, and being more disciplined with my time.

Kate: Did you have any defining moments that galvanized your understanding of and/or commitment to feminism? How does it inform/inspire your work? 

Saba: I came of age in an environment where it was normal to be leered at. Young girls in Pakistan are essentially taught to expect mild to middling levels of sexual harassment if they walk around in certain neighborhoods, even in broad daylight. And I happened to go to school in one of those neighborhoods, so I couldn’t really escape it. The catcalls, the deliberate attempts to brush against me, to grope me and smell me. A guy once licked me. I shrugged it all off at the time. My female friends and I kept a running tab of how often we’d get harassed, and laugh at our male friends’ horror, the tough girls we were. Because being tough about it was the only option, really. At least that’s how I was made to feel.

I now think back to those moments and feel rage. I’m angry that so many women in the world are never given the opportunity * not * to be tough about it. They aren’t really allowed to process their trauma—in fact, more often than not, they’re blamed for the experiences that caused it. My commitment to feminism has always been strong (thanks to my feminist hero, my father), but these experiences have motivated me to encourage women to speak their minds and hearts, about everything.

I’ve benefitted a lot from being a part of an industry that is mostly populated by women. Not many other bosses are as kind and caring as mine has been when it came to matters such as sick leave due to a difficult pregnancy, maternity leave, and child care. This kind of consideration should be universal, and although I don’t have the kind of clout to affect much social change in this regard, I do what I can to advocate for it. I have clients who are mothers, and I encourage them not to apologize for taking the time they need to attend to their responsibilities as mothers first. And, of course, I read and enjoy books by female authors, and actively encourage everyone around me to do the same.

And just another heads up: I’m also committed to supporting and bringing in more women of color to publishing. There’s a dearth of us around here, and I’m always willing and eager to speak to young WoC who are seriously considering a career in publishing. Reach out to me, and we’ll talk!

Kate: What are the best ways to support other women?

Saba: Give other women’s words the respect and thought you expect your own words to receive. Encourage everyone, including men, to do the same. Point out the tiny injustices women face on a daily basis. It’s not complaining – it’s spreading awareness. It might lead to a better world for young women in the future. Don’t belittle your struggles, or judge other women for struggling just because you may not have had a hard time doing the same task. You can never know the difficulties of another person’s conditions. Acknowledge their pain, and don’t be afraid to admit to your own. Do what you can to reject, and fight against the unrealistic expectations society puts upon women.

Cheer us on as we carve our own, unique way towards excellence. Give us the license we deserve to define what it means to be beautiful, what it means to be successful, what it means to be strong. It’ll inspire other young women to do the same, to answer to no one except themselves.

Kate: What is your advice to aspiring badasses?

Saba: Keep fighting for what you want and what you believe in, but don’t be too hard on yourself—remember, you get to define what it means to be badass. Don’t be afraid to occupy all the space + take all the time you need to achieve your goals. Find a community you connect with, and do what you can to nurture the relationships you make through it—these relationships will give you strength when you need it the most. Remember that asking for help does not mean you are weak. And most importantly, stay true to yourself, no matter what.


Saba Sulaiman is a literary agent at Talcott Notch Literary Services, a boutique agency located in Milford, CT. She holds a BA from Wellesley College and an MA from the University of Chicago, where she studied modern Persian literature. Being a first generation immigrant in the process of negotiating her own identity and sense of belonging in a place she now calls “home,” she is committed to highlighting more diverse voices with compelling stories to tell; stories that demonstrate the true range of perspectives that exist in this world, and address urgent and often underexplored issues in fiction with veracity and heart.  //  //  @agentsaba  // Pub Hub

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