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January 14, 2019

A Girl Like Me: Aisha Saeed

The best-selling Pakistani-American author talks to Verve about complex identities, multicultural teenage romances, and staying true to her roots

Writers of young adult fiction reach out to readers who are just starting to form their worldviews. Verve picks three English-language authors of the South Asian diaspora who are changing the once homogenous landscape of this mainstream literary genre; they have crafted diverse, empowering characters and nuanced cultural narratives that reflect the experiences of young desi women outside the Subcontinent.

When you decided to write, was there any doubt about telling stories for the South Asian diaspora, or were you clear about it from the beginning?
I’ve always wanted to tell stories featuring South Asian characters but I grew up hardly ever seeing myself in the media. The few depictions there typically involved stereotypes and harmful clichés. I had the stories I wanted to tell but it wasn’t until I read Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies, that I realised how powerful it was to be seen in literature and that I should actively try to get published as an author. Seeing her work and realising that stories about South Asian characters deserve to be told authentically, I knew I wanted to be one of the people writing them. I feel very blessed that my work has found an audience and readership.

The current explosion of ‘desi’ YA writers outside South Asia is a clear indication of the need for more inclusive voices in the genre. Could you talk about what you think led to this wave of diversity?
When I first sold Written in the Stars, I was thrilled to at last have a book coming out in the world, but learning about the sobering statistics of how diverse books like mine fared in the marketplace deflated me completely. A group of people including myself began a hashtag movement called We Need Diverse Books to discuss why diversity was important. The hashtag went viral with an outpouring of support. Since then, WNDB has become a non-profit dedicated to keeping the subject of diversity in children’s literature alive. The work to bring more diverse books did not begin with WNDB and is not limited to WNDB and I am grateful to all who speak up about the importance of such works. We need diverse books and while I’m thankful for the rise in more South Asian writers in the children’s book world, we need many more of them.

You’ve mentioned that you grew up in a rather strict Pakistani-American household. Now, as a mother, how do you balance the passing down of your culture and heritage to your sons, while giving them the choice to create their own identities?
I think many immigrant parents can feel extra protective about their children because it must be intimidating to navigate a brand new culture that they are not native to. Because of this, parents work extra hard to ensure their children maintain a respect and love for the faith and culture they grew up with. As a parent myself, I now understand this desire they had. I am passing down language and faith and aspects of our culture that are meaningful to me which I value but I also recognise that my children, like myself, are growing up in a hybrid culture and I hope my husband and I can incorporate the best of both worlds as we raise our children.

With Written in the Stars, what was it like to write the love story of Naila and Saif — the type of epic teenage couple I imagine you would have wanted to read about when you were growing up? Could you also talk a little bit about why Saif is Pakistani, and not white — which would have been the expected choice in a narrative about brown daughter vs parents?
What I would have given to see a story like Written in the Stars when I was a teenager! It would have meant the world to me to see myself reflected in literature growing up. I wrote Saif as a Pakistani-American because that is simply the person Naila fell in love with. That was naturally how the story unfolded for me. I imagine she connected with him over their shared hybrid identity and he could understand her restrictions in ways others outside their shared culture perhaps couldn’t. Saif’s parents also did not have strict restrictions on their children. Though they were also South Asian and Muslim, they were fine with dating and marrying outside one’s culture. It was important for me to reflect the diversity of viewpoints within the South Asian and Muslim communities. While Naila’s parents weren’t open to such things with their daughter, there were others within their own community who saw the world differently.

You tackle the tradition of forced marriages head on, and don’t really gloss over the issue. Based on any interactions with your young readers, could you tell us how this aspect of Written in the Stars might have impacted them?
The biggest and most important impact the book has had is reaching people who have faced this issue in their own life and helping them feel seen, as well as reaching those who are afraid a forced marriage may happen to them. I cannot properly express how powerful it has been to read e-mails and letters from people around the world telling me about the marriages they had been forced into and how in reading Written in the Stars they felt understood. And equally, it has been powerful to hear from people who are afraid they may be at risk for following in Naila’s footsteps and being able to connect them with organisations that can help them.

Malala served as inspiration for the 12-year-old protagonist of your latest book, Amal Unbound. Why are you drawn to stories about resistance? How does your identity as a Muslim-American woman factor into this?
I think it’s important to tell stories about Pakistan and Muslims especially at a time when there is so much misinformation and dangerous and harmful stereotypes about people who identify as either. Though I have tackled topics such as forced marriages and indentured servitude, I take care to also showcase the diversity of views on such matters and the humanity and beauty of the culture because the truth is all cultures have beauty as well as things they could improve upon, and it is important that both truths are reflected in the literature we read.

Nostalgia for Pakistani villages is strongly present in both your books, and it’s interesting to have YA literature for young girls who grew up in the West set in these seemingly remote places. How did you navigate the writing process so as to educate, and not alienate your readers?
My ancestral roots go back to a Pakistani village in Punjab much like what is seen in Amal Unbound and Written in the Stars. As such, I am drawn to write about a land that is a part of me and where my ancestors lived from time immemorial until my father immigrated to the United States. Perhaps I like setting stories there because it is the life I could have lived had my father not moved here. It is a way for me to pay homage to my ancestors. Additionally, so little is known about Pakistan beyond terrifying headlines. It is important to me that readers can live a day in my characters’ shoes and see Pakistanis as people and not scary headlines and recognise the common threads of humanity that bind us all together.

Did the contentious political climate in America have any impact on your writing process while you were working on Amal Unbound? And what role, if any, do you see the current state of affairs playing in the type of stories you want to tell next?
I began writing Amal Unbound in 2011 long before any of the current political climate manifested itself. Time and again, I hear from people who remark upon the timeliness of the book, but when I began writing it I could never have imagined the relevance the themes in the book would have for children today. I am grateful that I can write a story that speaks to young people and highlights the power each of us have to affect change in our world.

You are a part of the growing movement to increase the representation of young women of colour in mainstream American media — those who need to see themselves reflected more on screens, and in books and magazines. Could you leave us with your thoughts about this?
Representation matters. Seeing ourselves reflected in the media positively is a message that we belong and that we are seen. Growing up, I never had that in my life. And though things are changing and there is more representation, I hope for a day when all books by authors from marginalised communities have a voice and a place among our bookshelves. There are as many stories as there are people and all of us deserve to see ourselves in print.

Aisha Saeed is a New York Times bestselling author. Her novel Written In The Stars was listed as a Best Book of 2015 by Bank Street Books. Amal Unbound, her second book that released earlier this year has been a Summer 2018 Indie Next Pick and has received acclaim from Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus. She is also a founding member of the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books. Saeed currently lives in Atlanta, Georgia with her husband and three sons.

 

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