NOTEBOOK PEOPLE: An Interview with Soraya Ahyaudin // Trina O’Gorman

NOTEBOOK PEOPLE: An Interview with Soraya Ahyaudin // Trina O’Gorman

When I was in the fourth grade, I started carrying a notebook after reading Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. The original front cover of the book shows Harriet walking past a boarded-up building while carrying a marble-covered composition book in her hand. According to a review in The New Yorker, Harriet is an intrepid eleven-year-old spy who lives on Manhattan's Upper East Side with her parents and her beloved nanny, Ole Golly. She carries around a composition notebook filled with brutal observations about her classmates and neighbors, many of whom she follows on her “spy route.”’ At nine years old, I didn’t find it to be particularly interesting that Harriet lived in New York, or that she had a nanny. And while I thought it was interesting that she wrote down “brutal observations about her classmates and neighbors” on her “spy route,” I was most interested in the fact that she had a notebook, a marble-covered composition notebook. So, I asked my mother to get one for me. I’m grateful that she did. That was many years ago, and well before social media. Carrying that notebook around everywhere I went and writing in it at every opportunity I had were things I did in solitude. 

Readers, thank you so very much for being an audience for these stories written by that quirky, introverted, notebook-carrying little girl, who is now walking around in this woman’s body. When I originally imagined Notebook People, as a project, I honestly thought that talking to “notebook people” would actually include a lot of talk about notebooks, paper, pens, and ink, the tangible things that connect all of us. I figured that the analogue tools that we love and what make us identifiable as notebook people would be the main topic of conversation. People who write in journals and love fountain pens and paper love to talk about them (right?), and I was prepared to give them the place and space to do that. But I have found that notebooks are simply the common thread that connects all of us, and they quickly give way to the much more powerful human experience that also connects us. 

It is incredible how rich my relationship with Soraya Ahyaudin is, considering we have yet to meet in person. We connected years ago, by way of good ol’ Instagram, shortly after I started the account with my college writing students, as an experiment to see if we could attract followers to a page that was devoted to my notebook. We randomly chose my notebook as the theme of our class Instagram page because we wanted to choose something banal, thinking that that would make our analysis all the more interesting. Would we be able to get people to follow an account that featured only a notebook? To our surprise, we could, and we did. At the time, we had no idea what it might mean to create such a community. One of those earlier followers was Soraya. While our love of traveler’s notebooks is what initially connected us, our bond grew stronger as I was going through my divorce, and we began to share stories about our life experiences. Our stories, along with our love of analogue tools, created a wonderful foundation for our very special and inspiring relationship.



When I asked Soraya when she started keeping a notebook, she reflected on how it became consistent when she was in high school. She recalled seeing the movie Indiana Jones and The Raiders of the Lost Ark. As soon as she mentioned the movie, I knew exactly why she was inspired to keep a notebook after watching. I did some research to get the story right because it has been quite some time since I saw the movie. I found this clip on YouTube, shared by the Loudmouth Pastor in 2019, that shows the Ark of the Covenant being explained in the scene of the movie. In this video, you can see the “notebook” that sent every notebook person over the edge. It is an enormous leather tome with two metal clasps that hold it together. It’s honestly the only thing that I remember about that movie and for years mistakenly referred to it as the “holy grail.” In actuality, I think the book was a Bible that contained clues about The Holy Grail, the cup that Jesus Christ is said to have drank from at the Last Supper. 

After seeing that movie and the giant leather-bound book, which contained the secrets of The Holy Grail, Soraya, being Muslim, wanted to know everything there was to know about The Holy Grail. She recalled going to her Christian friends and asking them about The Holy Grail because she thought that they would know about it. As we talked, she realized that this curiosity may have actually “opened up a path,” in her words. Today, in her job with the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California, she works with all kinds of faith leaders. Currently, she is working primarily with priests and preachers to help them make the content of their sermons more compelling and engaging. The focus is not on the theology, but on the writing, research, and speaking skills that will help them convey their messages. She realizes that people might be surprised to see her, a “hijabi Muslim sitting in front telling [them] about this project.” Hearing her tell this story, I once again found myself amazed by the idea that a simple notebook has the capacity to change lives and connect people in the most curious ways. 

During our interview, I was reminded of the many different ways that notebooks have played a role in my friendship with Soraya. As soon as she agreed to be interviewed, I remembered the beautiful pages she had filled out in our “Traveling Traveler’s Notebook.” In 2014, a particularly difficult year that left us unable to travel, the boys and I decided to remedy our wanderlust by sending out notebooks that would travel to different hosts. Those hosts would fill a few pages, describing the place where they lived. We released three empty traveler’s notebook refills into the wild, sending them to people all over the world. Soraya volunteered to host one of the notebooks, and shared stories of her own boys, and of Malaysia and California. Born in the US, and raised in Malaysia, Soraya now makes her home in California, not far from my/our beloved Baum-kuchen. Her pages were amazing and excited my boys so much. She included Malaysian recipes and tea. The pages she created were rich with stories, culture, and love. 

We continued to talk about our love for our sons. We found ourselves talking about how we might go about leaving our notebooks as a legacy for our children. This has been something I’d been thinking a lot about lately, and shared with her some of my thought processes. She then shared that her father had passed away 17 or 18 years ago, and one thing that she had and treasured was one of his old notebooks, a small Kokuyo notebook, which she had brought back with her from Malaysia. “I have one of his notebooks that I brought with me here, so I can see his handwriting. I can see what his thought process was when he was looking through those notes that he has in his book. So random, like, you have a to-do list, and then the next page is his research notes.” 

Sadly, Soraya more recently lost her mother in February 2021, who also kept notebooks. For about five years prior to her passing, her mother had fallen in love with Hobonichi notebooks, which Soraya would bring with her to Malaysia. She said that even though Malaysia is closer to Japan and her family has access to Japanese stationery in their country, it was a ritual for her to go to Baum-kuchen, prior to her trip, to get everyone’s planners and notebooks to bring back to Malaysia with her. It was part of the bond that she and her mother shared. Her mother’s notebooks were a powerful and loving legacy. In them, she’d written very detailed, practical notes and information that would help her family manage everything when she died. She’d been doing that for years, long before she knew she was going to die. Soraya shared, “I don’t think she knew, but I think in a way, the universe was just putting it in [place], where she felt she had to put things down in order. So that really helped us figure out how to handle everything.” Soraya has one of her mother’s notebooks with her in the United States and the others are back in Malaysia. This has really inspired me to keep my notebooks and to continue writing, so the boys will have my notes and thoughts when I am no longer here. As sad as this might sound, that is not my intention. When Soraya talked about her parents’ notebooks, I didn’t sense sadness, but I did sense her deep love and her gratefulness to have those artifacts. 

As for her own analogue artifacts, Soraya is currently using a black Ace Hotel edition Traveler’s Notebook, which she reminded me that I got for her in New York when the Traveler’s Caravan was visiting. How I’d forgotten about that, I have no idea. I am blaming it on the fact that many notebooks pass through my life and are often passed on to others. But I love the fact that I also have a black Ace Hotel edition Traveler’s Notebook to match hers. She also has a brown one, which she sometimes uses. She loves Tomoe River paper and Stalogy notebooks. As for writing instruments, she’s not using fountain pens often these days and is currently enjoying gel pens. Her favorite is the Pilot Juice Up 0.4 pens. 

To anyone wanting to start a notebook, she offers this bit of advice: “Do not fear the blank page. Trust yourself and explore yourself, your mind, and your inner being.” 

I am so incredibly grateful that the universe brought Soraya into my life and my family’s life. And I’m grateful that something as simple as a notebook can create these very special and lasting connections. 

Thank you for sharing your story with us, Soraya.



  • Kit: April 01, 2024
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    I meant to say earlier, too, that I love your idea of sending a notebook out into the wild, so to speak, to collect what others would share. I recall having a pen pal many years ago, and I found a notebook made for correspondence exchanges. The notebook came with envelopes and labels appropriately sized for mailing the notebook, ideas of what to write about and how to use it. It was so much fun to send it back and forth, each of us adding more in turn. I wouldn’t mind doing that again, now, as an older adult. I’ll have to think on that. Thanks again.

  • Kit: April 01, 2024
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    I LOVE this article. I found it by way of The Well-Appointed Desk’s weekly Link Love post I receive via email. I’m behind going through them and trying to catch up. I can relate to so much you’ve written here.

    Indiana Jones – you referenced the huge Bible he used in the movie to show government intelligence officers a picture of the Ark of the Covenant. (And your friend is right – it’s not really talked about among Christians. At least not in the churches and seminaries here. I’m a seminary graduate, I should know. We were too busy dealing with the theology of our childhoods being crumbled to dust, if we were paying attention.) Nut the notebooks that really appealed to me were the small, almost square notebooks he kept in his pocket, and the notebooks his father used in his research on the Holy Grail. I always loved the idea of having a thick little notebook with blank, unruled pages that would get tattered and worn with use and abuse and the oil of my fingers. And like the notebooks that you mentioned having a to-do list on one page and research and deep thinking on the next. A Commonplace book. I’ve never really worked at filling a notebook in such a way until I was an adult in grad school (seminary). Anyway – I love the fountain pen community, the analog nature of recording thoughts and then spin-off thoughts after that, with drawings and pictures… though my drawing is… horrendous. I think writing saved my life, and it’s how I got to know myself apart from the negative opinions of my father. I’m forever #teamanalog.

  • Loren Gaffin: April 01, 2024
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    Enjoyed the interview with Soraya. Harriet the Spy wasn’t around when I was growing up. I remember the Nancy Drew series. I started my journaling in middle school and used the black/white composition book. Putting pen to paper allowed me to explore beyond my everyday activities. I’m glad to see that there are others who did the same as youngsters and continue to do so now. Trina, thank you for interviewing the people for Baum-Kuchen each month, as I enjoy reading about them.

  • Cinzia: April 01, 2024
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    I thank you all for these stories.
    I have some difficulties to read them because english is not my first language, but I enjoy every time.

  • Idalia : April 01, 2024
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    Beautiful and Encouraging. I love her quote:
    “Do not fear the blank page. Trust yourself and explore yourself, your mind, and your inner being.” So so good!

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