By most accounts, Malala Yousafzai isn’t your typical recent college graduate.
After all, she’s been in the international spotlight for years: In 2014, when she was 17, she became the youngest Nobel laureate ever. She was awarded the peace prize for fighting to protect girls’ education in her home country of Pakistan — activism that led to an assassination attempt by a Taliban gunman when Yousafzai was just 15. In 2013, she launched the Malala Fund, a nonprofit organization aimed at increasing girls’ access to education. The same year, she co-authored “I Am Malala,” her best-selling memoir.
But in another sense, Yousafzai, who’s now 23, is your typical graduate, sharing in the collective uncertainty that comes with graduating in a pandemic. She celebrated her Oxford University degree at home in the United Kingdom, with her family, dressing up in her gown and attempting to re-create school traditions. She’d wanted to travel this summer; those plans are now on hold. “I’m just confused as anybody else as to what to do,” she said over the phone last week. “It’s not been an easy time.”
She is excited about one project, though: She’s leading a book club for subscription book service Literati, which has just launched a new virtual book club platform. Alongside several other notable individuals — including author Susan Orlean and basketball star Stephen Curry — Yousafzai will choose a book every month that’ll be sent directly to book club members. Dubbed “Fearless,” Yousafzai’s club will highlight voices that have historically been underrepresented: women writers and new voices. It kicks off in October.
“One thing we’re definitely sure about is that we want the world to change,” she said. “What we have learned during this pandemic is that we are living in an unequal world, more unequal than we thought.”
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Lena Felton: Hi Malala.
Malala Yousafzai: Hi Lena. How are you?
LF: I’m doing well, and you? Where are you currently?
MY: I’m great, thank you. I’m actually in the U.K., in Birmingham, with my parents and brothers.
LF: Oh, nice. I saw you recently celebrated a birthday — happy birthday. How did you celebrate?
MY: I just stayed at home this year. I usually travel — when I turned 16, I received this global support, so I gave a speech at the United Nations and the U.N. called it Malala Day. And my mission sort of started then, and since then, I’ve traveled to different countries and celebrated with girls to bring attention to those girls’ stories. So I’ve been to Nigeria, Lebanon, Jordan, Brazil, Iraq. So many countries. But this year, because of covid, I stayed at home.
LF: Yeah, that must’ve been a huge difference. I mean, your whole life must be so different during the pandemic, seeing as you just graduated. What was that like?
MY: To be honest, it just happened at home. I was taking my exams online, on my laptop in my room. My family — we organized an Oxford celebration which is known as “trashing.” When you graduate, they trash you with shaving foam and Holi-colored powder, different things. So I tried to keep those traditions alive. I wore the gown and everything to make it feel like a real university experience. To be honest, it wasn’t like that, but I was trying my best.
LF: I do think everyone is just trying to make do with what they have these days. But I’m excited to be talking about the book club that you’re starting. Actually, on the topic of Oxford, I wanted to know — what was one or maybe a couple of books that you read during your time there that have stuck with you?
MY: I was limited to a lot of the academic writings and readings there. It was really fascinating to look at the reading list there, and how there was lack of diversity.
It was just fascinating to see what you learn from what is there on the reading list and what you learn from what is not there on the reading list.
There are attempts to improve things — you recognize how important it is to have the voices of people about whom these books are written and their voices are often not there. There is a lack of female writers and lecturers, there’s a huge, huge lack of Black writers and lecturers. It’s not just Oxford, it’s in a lot of universities. We have this clear and visible inequality there.
But my favorite, favorite module was Plato’s “Republic.” I enjoyed the “Republic” book a lot, and I just love Plato’s writing.
LF: What else did you learn at university that you’re hoping to take with you?
MY: What I’ve learned in university is that your books and the academic content is crucial, and you develop your critical-thinking skills, your analytical skills in how to receive this information, how to evaluate it. I think those skills are really important, especially in this day and age.
At the same time, I learned so much from my friends, from my colleagues, just having daily conversations and debating about a topic: talking about Brexit or U.S. elections and what’s next. Those conversations were really illuminating and enlightening.
And I loved hearing different debates and speeches. I used to go to the Oxford Union, and I heard amazing speakers, from J.J. Abrams, he visited, Hillary Clinton gave a speech, Theresa May gave a speech. All these inspiring speakers were there, and for me, it was fascinating, because I have been on the stage many times. I have been a speaker, but I rarely got the opportunity to listen and to be in the audience. I just loved that I was able to hear and to listen.
LF: Being so recognizable and respected around the world, do you feel like your classmates treated you like a normal person? Was it weird at all?
MY: To be honest, they were all very supportive. My friends welcomed me as their friend, and I made a lot of friends quite quickly. There were instances and moments where it got a bit — not weird, but somebody would stalk me for a picture or somebody would say hi. And there would be people where you could tell they are talking about you, but you pretend you don’t see it.
But it was all amazing. They welcomed me as a student and as a friend, and that’s all I wanted. I’m really glad and happy with my experience, even though it didn’t end as I anticipated it to.
LF: And now you’re starting this book club, which is very exciting. What has the role of reading been in your life?
MY: I believe in education, this has been part of my life. My father was a schoolteacher, he started a school; we had many girls in that school learning, and I was one of them. And when Talibanization started in Swat Valley, girls’ education was banned and girls were not allowed to school. And I realized how important girls’ education was — that it was a tool for the emancipation of women. The terrorists banned girls’ education because they knew it empowered women.
In Pakistan, in a lot of schools, the students are mostly limited to their textbooks. Unfortunately, they are not able to read books outside their school curriculum and children lack support in reading in the majority of schools. But I was able to read eight or nine books, and I thought I had accomplished a lot for reading those eight or nine books. I was able to read “The Alchemist,” that’s sort of my all-time favorite since then. “A Brief History of Time” by Stephen Hawking too, and I must say, the first time I read it, I did not understand most of it. And then I read it two or three more times. There’s another book called “Meena,” which was about an Afghan women’s activist, and it was also really inspiring.
But when I came to the U.K. at 15, I realized that books and reading are such an important part of school curriculum here. Students are encouraged to give a few hours a week to read any book they want to read. I was fascinated that there’s a library and students can read anytime and pick up any book they want. Because I did not have access to those things, I recognized how valuable it was.
LF: What’s the process been like for selecting books for the book club?
MY: I love the whole idea of how Literati works — having a few books every month and passing them on to passionate readers and creating this community of readers where they want to learn new things.
We have been in touch for the past few months, and we have been talking about what books to choose. My priority has been to focus on feminist voices, to focus on unheard voices and to focus on first-time book writers. These are my focus because these are passionate people who are facing many obstacles in their way to raise their voice. These are people who dare to speak and who dare to write, and through this opportunity that Literati has given me, I’ll be able to uplift those voices.
LF: What do you personally hope to get out of leading a book club?
MY: For me, learning is an important part of life. And I think it should never stop. It should not stop when you’re outside a classroom, it should not stop when you leave your university building. What I have learned from my elders, teachers, seniors, is that they continue to learn.
So I feel like we need to remind people, especially in this day and age, when we are surrounded by fake news and misinformation, we need to open ourselves to new knowledge, we need to open ourselves to different opinions, we need to look for facts, we need to understand science, we need to understand how things work. I think for that, reading is a crucial element.
Secondly, I hope that when we uplift these young, feminist writers, that their books inspire other writers, other young people who want to write books who are maybe a bit scared, maybe a bit worried. They have those fears and worries about how society will react. They have those external and internal fights, and they overcome that fear by seeing that yes, their books are important, their voices are important, their voices need to be heard.
Again, it connects back to the idea of being fearless.
LF: That’s really beautiful. I’m guessing you’re getting this question a lot right now, and probably not just from reporters, but besides this book club, what’s next?
MY: If you had asked me this question a year ago, I would have said travel. But right now, I don’t know how to do it. Things have changed. So I’ll set that aside for now, but it is part of my plan. Malala Fund has projects in around eight countries, and I would love to go back and see those projects, meet the champions who are fighting for girls’ education, meet the amazing girls who are working for their rights toward empowerment, toward education, against child marriages, against inequality.
I’m also really excited for my work with Literati, and I’m looking forward to that. Other than that, I’m just as confused as anybody else as to what to do. It’s not been an easy time. After finishing university, I’ve been thinking through what to do.
LF: Well, I don’t think anyone has all the answers.
MY: One thing we’re definitely sure about is that we want the world to change. What we have learned during this pandemic is that we are living in an unequal world, more unequal than we thought. Our system is unfair and unequal from health to education to politics to the whole system of justice. There is inequality for people based on their skin color, their income, their background.
I think these things need to stop. And for that, we need to continue learning, learning through reading, learning through listening to people. We need to continue fighting for a world that is more equal, that is fairer, that is sustainable for each and every one of us.
You can subscribe to be a member of Yousafzai’s book club here.