Tag Archives: Muslim characters

5 Things I Learned While Writing “Written in the Stars”

By Aisha Saeed

saeed-writteninthestars1. You will get criticism. It’s part of putting your work out there in the world.

When I first began writing my novel, a family member asked me what my book was about. When I told her the novel was about a Pakistani American girl who is forced into a marriage against her will, her immediate response was: great, because that’s just what we need, another story to make Pakistanis look bad. That strong reaction really threw me for a loop and worry settled like a seed in my heart. I never considered not writing this novel but I did get worried about how people would react to it. The truth is, I had friends who were pressured into marriages against their will and while yes aspects of this book are not flattering to a culture I belong to and love, I did feel it was an important story to share. The reaction I got about the novel’s premise made me realize I would get pushback and negative responses for writing about a problematic part of my culture. Ultimately, I continued writing it and I stand by what I wrote because while I do address a problem, as a Pakistani American who loves her culture, I wrote this story from a place of love. The novel shows the complexity of Pakistan which includes the warmth of its people, the beauty of its surroundings, and the nuance that abounds. It’s a fine balance and its never fun to get criticism but it’s part and parcel of creating art- it’s subjective and everyone is entitled to how they feel. You have to do the work you believe in anyways.

2. Forced marriages are a cultural problem, not a religious problem. 

As a Muslim I have always known forced marriages are condemned in Islam just as they are in every religion on earth. I did not however know that people thought forced marriages were approved of in Islam until I got asked this question over and over again. The truth is, forced marriages are not a problem limited to Muslim countries, forced marriages happen in many different countries and also take place among different faiths as well. Unchained At Last, a fantastic US based organization successfully challenges this misconception and highlights people here in the United States who were coerced and forced into unwanted marriages. Realizing the link many people would make between the problem highlighted in my book and my religious faith, I felt it was important to include an author’s note to address this misconception. I also made sure it was clear to readers that Naila actually found comfort in her faith and did not blame her religion for the predicament she was in.

3. Writing a book takes a lot of time. Make peace with that. 

I’ve read about how agents brace themselves for the post NaNoWriMo submission surge and tell writers to wait and make sure the book they submit is the best book it can possibly be. They are right. Revising is a labor intensive and exhaustive thing to do. I have lost track of how many revisions I’ve done. For example, Written in the Stars began as a third person past-tense novel. After some time with it though I realized the story would have a deeper sense of immediacy and urgency if it was narrated in the present tense and in the first person by the protagonist, Naila. This required a complete line-by-line rewrite but it was completely worth it because the effect of writing it this way helped the story come to life for me in a way the other format wasn’t doing. It’s frustrating to keep changing things and revising but for me that’s part of the writing journey. I also believe being this critical helps the novel become better and it also helps you become a better writer ultimately.

4. When it comes to writing, particularly writing about marginalized groups, take the time to research and get it right. 

Yes it’s fiction but if you are writing a novel you have a responsibility to do your best to write a respectful and honest representation of whatever it is you take on. That responsibility is huge because what readers are reading may be their one and only introduction to the culture you are writing about. I am Pakistani American and much of my novel takes place in Pakistan but because I haven’t been to Pakistan in some time, it was important for me to make sure the details were accurate. To this end I had many beta readers including my parents. Most of Naila’s time in Pakistan is spent in her parent’s village. That setting is entirely fictional but loosely based on my parent’s ancestral village. For this reason I had them read each line and give me feedback to make sure that the representation was as accurate as possible. Friends also gave me feedback in areas where more nuance could be added and where more complexity could take certain characters from being black and white to more complex. In a world that is still battling racism and bigotry on a daily basis it is so important to not stereotype and resort to clichés and it is also important to portray people, particularly marginalized people, respectfully even if you’re addressing difficult topics. Take the time, even if it delays the manuscript going out on submission, even if it takes going through a lot of people to double and triple check, but get it right.

5. I love writing and I hate writing. 

In the prologue of Amy Poehler’s memoir Yes Please, she says writing is like hacking away at a freezer with a screwdriver. I laughed out loud at her description because that is what writing feels like to me. The truth is, writing is something that feels like a calling and it’s something I love to do, but in the same breath I also find writing one of the most challenging and difficult things I take on. I hate the self-doubt and the frustration of going through the first draft [which is my least favorite draft] and wondering if all the work will even amount to anything or if this will remain the rubbish it seems to be. I’ve learned through reading many memoirs of many lovely writers whom I admire that this is normal. For most writers, writing is hard work and it doesn’t get easier the more you do it. I’ve made my peace with it because while I don’t love the act of writing out the first draft, I do love the feeling of finishing writing a novel. I think it’s the act of finishing writing a story I’m proud of that pushes me through the painstaking process of creating.


Aisha Saeed is a YA author, attorney, and educator and one of the founding members of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign. Her upcoming debut Written in the Stars will be released in 2015 by Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin. She lives in Atlanta with her husband and two sons. Visit her online at www.aishasaeed.com or follow her on twitter and tumblr: @aishacs.

Purchase a copy of Written in the Stars here.

A Brother’s Love

By N. H. Senzai

One of my favorite books while growing up was Sport by Louise Fitzhugh, who also wrote the iconic Harriet the Spy. Within its pages, Louise dropped me into the kaleidoscope of multicultural, 1970s New York City where I met Sport and his friends: Harriet, Seymour, Chi-Chi, and Harry, who crossed religious, cultural and gender lines. I was able to crawl into their skin — relishing our similarities and appreciating our differences, but when I reached page 19, I stopped dead in my tracks …

“Like the Black Muslims,” yelled Sport.

“Don’t laugh, man,” said Harry, suddenly serious. “Not funny.”

“Hey,” Seymour was laughing — “you a Muslim, Harry?”

“I am for me,” said Harry. “I am with nobody.”

I re-read these lines, heart pounding. It was the first time I’d seen a Muslim character in the pages of a contemporary American novel. Like a majority of minority children growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, I almost never came across characters that resembled me. So finding Harry, an American Muslim, as part of Sport’s social landscape gave me the warm fuzzies.

Years later, when I started writing, I single-mindedly followed the expert’s advice — write the best book you possibly can. A plot-driven writer, I wrote what I hoped was a “mainstream,” exciting, fantastical adventure story — my character’s culture and religious background were secondary layers. I signed with my agent based on that book, which eventually did not sell. As I contemplated my next project, my husband joked I that should write about him since he was the “most interesting person I knew.” After I stopped laughing it struck me that he might be right, and my agent agreed, since my husband was from Afghanistan and had escaped the country when the Soviets invaded in 1979.

Although an intriguing idea, I was leery. It was 2008, seven years since the devastating attack of 9/11. And let’s be frank, Islam and Muslims were not viewed in the most positive light in the media, in politics, the boardroom or the living room. Hate crimes against Muslims had skyrocketed, and sadly, these feelings had trickled down to the schoolyard where children who appeared Arab or Muslim (i.e. brown) bore the brunt of bullying. So the idea came with a Pandora’s box worth of challenges — did I really want to write about 9/11, Osama bin Laden, the war on terror, the Taliban, Islam, Afghan culture and politics, coupled with my husband’s family personal history? It was a heavy burden — to convey that Islam was not a violent religion, that not all Muslims were terrorists, and that not all Muslim women and girls were oppressed.

Though I resisted, the story kept niggling the back of my mind and I realized that if I didn’t write it, no one else would. So, Shooting Kabul came to life, weaving in the complexities of the issues in the box. The story begins with the protagonist, Fadi, fleeing Kabul with his family, and accidently leaves behind his 6-year-old sister, Mariam. They end up refugees in Fremont, California, and adjusting to life in the United States isn’t easy for them as the events of September 11th unfold. As the prospect of locating Mariam in a war-torn Afghanistan diminish, Fadi tries every hare-brained scheme he can think of to find his sister. When a photography competition with a grand prize trip to India is announced, he sees a chance to return to Afghanistan and find her. Disclaimer. Shooting refers to photography not guns.

For me, the main theme of the novel crossed cultural and religious boundaries — it’s about a brother’s love for his sister and his perseverance in finding her. Culture and religion were still secondary threads. In the way I’d vicariously experienced the lives of Sport and his friends, my goal was to have readers walk in Fadi’s shoes, finding similarities and appreciating their differences. I also wanted to illustrate that the world was not made up of “good guys” and “bad guys”; nor was it black or white, but shades of gray; that life is a result of choices governments, groups and individuals made. The Cold War between the United States and Soviet Union contributed to the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. America provided arms to the Afghans (freedom fighters) who were working with Osama bin Laden (who was a “good guy” then, but we knew what happened later…). When the Soviets left, the power vacuum was filled by the Taliban who brought stability and peace (good guys). But then they chose corruption and oppression (bad guys). The boys who harass Fadi also have their own demons, but it is their choice to bully the kids at school.

Since Shooting Kabul debuted, I have not regretted my decision in writing it, and the thing I’m most proud of are the emails I’ve received from kids. First, they’ve enjoyed the story (most important). Second, they’ve empathized with Fadi even though they do not share the same culture or religion. Since Harry’s proclamation of being Muslim in 1979, the current landscape for multicultural literature has improved, but there is still a lot to be done. It should be our goal to bring to life characters that kids encounter and get the warm fuzzies of self-recognition and affirmation.

N. H. Senzai is the author of award winning SHOOTING KABUL, chosen by the Asian Pacific Librarians Association as their Young Adult Literature winner and an NPR’s Backseat Book Club pick, and its companion novel SAVING KABUL CORNER.  She spent her childhood in San Francisco, Jubail, Saudi Arabia and attended high school in London, England where she was voted “most likely to read a literary revolution” due to her ability to get away with reading comic books in class. Today Ms. Senzai lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and their son. Her upcoming novel is PARTITION JUNCTION (Fall 2015). Visit her online www.nhsenzai.com.

You can purchase Shooting Kabul and Saving Kabul Corner here.

Notable Novels for Teens About the Arab World

By Elsa Marston

Abdel-Fattah, Randa. Where the Streets Had a Name (Scholastic 2010). Palestine, MG/YA. On a secret mission of mercy, a girl makes her way—strictly forbidden without permission from Israeli authorities—from her village into Jerusalem. [Also see this author’s books about Arab immigrants in Australia: Does My Head Look Big in This? and Ten things I Hate About Me. Both have appealing teen voice.]

Al-Maria, Sophia. The Girl Who Fell to Earth (Harper Perennial 2012). Arabian Peninsula and Egypt, YA. The daughter of a mixed marriage spends time with her father’s family in a Gulf State, tries to reconcile her two radically different heritages.

Barakat, Ibtisam. Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood (Kroupa/Farrar Straus Giroux 2007). Palestine, MG/YA. Memoir of a young girl set in a time of war and displacement, but revealing solid family experience.

Carmi, Daniella. Samir and Yonatan (Levine/Scholastic 2000). Israel/Palestinians, MG/YA. A Palestinian boy being treated in an Israeli hospital relates to the children and medical staff.

Carter, Anne Laurel. The Shepherd’s Granddaughter (Groundwood 2008). Palestine, MG/YA. In a rural village under attack from a nearby Israeli settlement, a young teenaged girl starts to broaden her horizons.

Clinton, Cathryn. A Stone in My Hand (Candlewick 2002). Palestine, MG/YA. During an outbreak of violence, a young girl in Gaza copes with loss: her father’s death and her brother’s participation in the insurrection.

Laird, Elizabeth. A Little Piece of Ground (Haymarket 2006; originally Macmillan UK 2003). Palestine, MG/YA. A boy defies Israeli-imposed curfew in his efforts to claim a place to play soccer.

Nye, Naomi Shihab. Habibi (Simon & Schuster 1997). Palestine, MG/YA. An Arab-American girl visits her father’s natal village in Palestine, under occupation, and absorbs experiences both exhilarating and distressing.

Marsden, Carolyn. The White Zone (CarolRhoda 2012). Iraq, MG. Two boy cousins cope with the sectarian strife that separates them during the fighting in Baghdad.

Marston, Elsa. Santa Claus in Baghdad and Other Stories About Teens in the Arab World (Indiana University Press 2008). Several countries, MG/YA. Young teens in eight contrasting Arab societies face universal challenges of adolescence; the most adult story in subject matter is “Honor” (Jordan).

Perera, Anna. The Glass Collector (Whitman 2011). Egypt, YA. Valuable chiefly because of its setting in the “trash-collectors community” in Cairo.

elsamarstonWith an M.A. in international affairs from Harvard University in hand, Elsa Marston attended the American University of Beirut on a Rotary Foundation Fellowship. Sojourns in different countries, especially Lebanon, Egypt, and Tunisia, have helped inspire Elsa’a work as a children’s/YA author and specialist in literature about the region. Her most recent books are a YA biography of a remarkable Arab hero, The Compassionate Warrior: Abd el-Kader of Algeria (Wisdom Tales 2013), and Santa Claus in Baghdad and Other Stories About Teens in the Arab World (Indiana University Press, 2008), a collection of stories set in different Arab societies, focusing on growing-up experiences that young Americans can relate to. A picture book about post-civil war Lebanon, The Olive Tree, is forthcoming in 2014.  Her website is www.elsamarston.com.


5 Things Jessica Martinez Learned While Writing THE VOW

By Jessica Martinez

Book cover for The Vow by Jessica Martinez (left); the author Jessica Martinez (right)

1. No Lying

Let’s start out with a little honesty: I’m not diverse. I won’t pretend to be. I’m a thirty-something, heterosexual, Christian, white woman, which is the exact opposite of diverse in this country. Thanks to my husband, I have a Hispanic last name and kids that are 1/8th Cuban. That’s it.

Now as a writer, I have two choices. I can fill my books with people who check off all the same little boxes that I do, or I can tell the stories that move me. It’s not a tough decision. Writing my own story over and over and over—that’s called writing a memoir, and I’d rather not.

The Vow has two main characters. One of them is Mo, a seventeen-year old guy from Jordan who has been living in Kentucky since he was eight. Now, I get it if Arab American teens look at the author bio at the back of the book and think, “Who does this white Canadian woman with a Hispanic last name think she is???” I totally get it. The answer to that question is I think I’m a writer. I wonder about things. I spend a lot of time imagining about what it would be like to be somebody else, be born somewhere else, be faced with different choices, and I write stories out of all that wondering.

But if I want my stories to be any good, honesty is key—both with myself and with my characters. When I sat down to write The Vow I felt like the combination of my research and my life experiences could take me pretty far into Mo’s world. But I had to be real about what I couldn’t do, which is why this book is not about religion. Part of that is because I wanted immigration and national/cultural identity to take center stage, but it’s also because I know all the research in the world wouldn’t put me in a place where I could accurately portray what it’s like to be raised in a deeply religious Muslim family. I think even if I tried my hardest, I’d get it just a little bit wrong, and I have enough respect for the religion and my readers not to get it wrong. So Mo is Muslim, but he isn’t devout. That’s a choice I made to keep this book honest. Writing good characters means being truthful to what the character was purporting to be, and while I don’t preach “write what you know,” there’s something to be said for “don’t write what you know you’ll never know.”

2. Lie Your Pants Off

So I just said not to lie, except of course you have to lie. Writing fiction is lying. When I write, I morph into my characters, and despite all the borders I had to cross to go from being me to being Mo, I have more in common with him than most of the other characters I’ve written. Mo isn’t so fundamentally different that I couldn’t imagine what it was like to be him. Fiction is what happens when you’re lying so completely that you’ve forgotten you’re lying, which is why Mo made me forget that I wasn’t actually a seventeen-year-old Arab American boy. It was kind of a cool place to be.

3. No Fear

The thing about writing diverse characters when you’re not actually diverse is that you occasionally have to stare at yourself in the mirror and completely freak out. Picture me doing this screaming, “Who do you think you are Martinez?!” I’d generally let the spaz session run its course, and then I’d go back, sit down in front of the computer, and continue writing.

My fear—that everyone was going to think I was full of crap—was legitimate, but even the legitimate fears can kill a book. I learned to ignore it. Now that the book is about to release, the fear rears its ugly head occasionally (cue mirror-screaming fits!) but luckily it’s already out of my hands. I could hold down the delete key on my computer for a week, and The Vow would still be coming out into the world. EEEEEEEEEEK!

4. Be Very Afraid

All that courage notwithstanding, there are healthy things to fear. Like stereotypes. The fear of making Mo a caricature made me determined that the interesting thing about him would not be his ethnicity. In making him a unique person, though, I didn’t want to create a character that Arab American teenagers would look at and feel misrepresented by. I really wrestled with this. In the end, I decided that Mo isn’t an Arab American ambassador to the world. He certainly doesn’t represent all the Muslim teenagers in this country. Mo is just Mo. That’s all. He’s brilliant and hilarious and neurotic and loyal. He’s one person, one story, and those things about him—his ethnicity, his religion—those are crucial elements to his story. They affect who he is, and they can’t be separated from the plot or his character, but Mo doesn’t define those categories. Mo is just Mo.

5. Own It

Somewhere during the writing process, I decided to shove my imposter complex in the closet, and own the research that I’d done. Because I did a lot of research. I have a stack of books marked with stickies and marginal notes, fiction and non-fiction written by and/or about Arabs in America, the Middle East, Europe, etc. And while relatively few of those details made their way into The Vow, the reading gave me a sense of ownership and ease while writing. For example, none of this book actually takes place in the Middle East, but I read several books that do, one written by young American man living in Jordan there for a year. It was fascinating, and his reality gave me some frame of reference for what Mo might face if he was sent back to Jordan.

The research also allowed me to be comfortable straying from stereotypes while still staying within what would be normal or expected of a non-devout Muslim immigrant family in America. Brace for the music analogy: I find research to be like practicing scales. You never actually perform scales, but you can just tell by listening to someone if they haven’t practiced them enough. (Seriously? Must I always make a music analogy? Apparently I must.)

More owning it: I may not be diverse, but I’ve had experiences that make this story mine to tell. I taught a year of school in an east London neighborhood that was almost entirely Bangladeshi immigrants. I saw my students there form identities somewhere between two worlds, and I wondered what would happen if they ever left their unintegrated neighborhood and tried to belong in either the Western world or the Middle East. I’d spent the previous year teaching high school in a small town in Indiana. It was 2001, the year the twin towers fell and the year we went to war with Iraq. I don’t think there was a single Arab student at that school, but the anti-Arab and anti-Muslim comments I heard from my students were staggering. Looking at my sweet, unsuspecting Bangladeshi British students the following year, I had to wonder what would happen if one of them was transplanted into the environment I had just come from.

I didn’t write this book to spice up my work with a little diversity. And I didn’t write it to cater to the cry for more diverse characters, although that would’ve been a valid reason. I wrote it because I felt compelled by that seed that had been germinating in my brain for a decade. The precise idea for the plot came as I was waking up one Sunday morning, and I was so instantly thrilled by it that I practically jumped out of bed. Some writers get a killer idea every other day. I’m more like once a year, so I can’t afford to throw them away because I’m too scared to put the research work in, or because I might not be the right ethnicity/religion/race/sex for the job, or because it pushes me to do something I’ve never done before. No way. I knew this idea was all mine to write.

The Vow is now available. Visit Jessica Martinez at her website or follow her on Twitter.