Q&A: Aisha Saeed

I am thrilled to post the following interview with story and chai’s own Aisha Saeed, author of the beautiful and heartbreaking YA debut, Written in the Stars, which portrays a Pakistani teenager navigating a forced marriage. As a fellow novelist who is Muslim, I know the last thing a writer from a marginalized community wants to do is play into stereotypes, and yet we cannot shy away from tackling difficult issues in our fiction. Therefore, I was eager to get Aisha’s thoughts on writing truth in a diverse context. I’m grateful for her thoughtful answers and hope they help both readers and writers of diverse literature. – Jennifer

Jennifer: How did the story in Written in the Stars come to you? Did you know that you wanted to write about arranged marriage (or here, forced marriage), or did the character of Naila come to you first? Is the story based on situations you know of in real life or was it informed primarily by research?

Aisha: Growing up I had some friends I’d known since childhood who were pressured and coerced into marriages they didn’t want to enter into. None of them were outright forced as the main character in Written in the Stars is, but they did not want to marry the people they ultimately married. The stories of my childhood friends always stayed with me and the idea of this story was something I wanted to share to highlight a problematic issue I saw often but one I hadn’t seen talked about in novel form.

That being said, the character of Naila came to me before I began writing this particular story. I remember I was in college when I had a vision of what my main character would look like. I sketched out how I thought she looked and who her parents were and the type of upbringing she had. When I sat down to write, both my experiences from childhood and my thoughts on the main character Naila, converged on the screen and a story began to form. I’m not typically a “pantster” [one who writes as they go without planning ahead]. I plot out most of my novels, but with this is a story I began without an end in sight, and the story really guided me and led me the whole way through.

Jennifer: Naila’s parents, who are Pakistani, act in ways that many readers, particularly those who are not Pakistani or Muslim, may find shocking. Certainly there is a spectrum of “parental pressure” in the Muslim community surrounding the issue of marriage. Do you feel like the portrayal in the book was an extreme example, and if so was that choice purposeful?

Aisha: Naila’s parents’ parenting choice in forcing their daughter into a marriage against her will to protect their family’s “reputation” is very extreme. This is not the norm and as far as that critical aspect of her story goes, Naila’s parents are not typical of Pakistani American parents. That being said, many aspects of Naila’s upbringing and her parent’s restrictions are very true to life to myself and many of my friends experienced growing up. Like Naila, I couldn’t have sleep overs at classmates’ homes, I couldn’t go to soccer or football games, and I most certainly could not have a boyfriend. While much of what happens in the novel is the extreme end of the spectrum, the day to day of Naila’s world before tragedy struck was not identical but certain not unfamiliar to my own experiences.

Jennifer: In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s amazing TED talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” she talks about the potential for people to extrapolate from the specific to the whole when writers from minority or marginalized communities speak about abuse or oppression within their communities. How much did you worry about readers imputing the actions/approach of Naila’s parent to all Pakistani parents? How did you balance any such concerns with the need to tell this story?

Aisha: This was a huge concern of mine. Writing a story about a marginalized group means that people may take that one window into another culture and impute that story as speaking for all the people within that culture or faith. As important as I felt this story was to tell, the worry that people would take Naila’s experience and vilify my faith and my culture was something that was there every step of the way. Ultimately, I think this worrying was a good thing. Writing about a marginalized culture or faith, even if you belong to that culture or faith, comes with responsibility and that worry reinforced my commitment to get this story right and to work hard to ensure it had nuance and complexity. I also included an author’s note to be explicit about the state of forced marriage and that the roots of it do not lie in any one culture or faith but in truth the practice is a global issue spanning faith and culture.

Naila’s story is one story in a huge spectrum of rich diversity in the lived experiences of Pakistani Americans and no one story can be the definitive statement on a culture and its people. Constance Wu, one of the stars in the new sitcom Fresh off the Boat, said in an interview with Time magazine that while people may extrapolate her character to speak for all Chinese Americans that’s not the case and the show’s goal is not to speak for all Chinese American experiences. Similarly, my intention with this novel is not for this book to be a representation of all Pakistanis or Muslims. It is one story and there are as many stories as there are Muslims and Pakistani Americans.

That being said there were many times I considered not sharing this story. I had family members who expressed skepticism and worry that my novel could shed a bad light on Muslims in general and Pakistanis in particular. It was certainly something that weighed on me, but I believed this story was an important one to share. I think if we don’t speak the hard truths because we are afraid of what people will think, then the difficult things we need to fix will never be resolved. Only through conversation can we begin to unpack the things we need to do in order to change problematic situations such as forced marriage. Just recently an article was published in the Washington Post about the silent epidemic of forced marriages in the United States and Canada. This highlights why novels like these must exist. It is deeply unfortunate if someone takes one story to stand for the lived experiences of millions, but that does not mean one does not write about real and honest issues that need to be addressed.

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Jennifer: I have heard a lot of Muslim writers express pressure to write defensive narratives, to show only the “good,” because we are so maligned in the current political climate. And we know that too often the American public is ready to consume stories that play into stereotypes about Muslims. How can we as Muslim writers stay “true to story” in the face of such pressures? I guess what I’m really asking is how can we avoid producing propaganda instead of art?

Aisha: One of my writing mentors told me that honesty is key. Our writing must be truthful. However, being truthful about a problem within a culture or faith should not vilify the entire culture or a faith. Forced marriage is a problem that occurs globally and also occurs in Pakistan. One can discuss this without reducing the entire country to this one problematic aspect. Every country is more than its problems and challenges. In my novel I try to show this with the way Naila connects to her relatives and enjoys the food and the clothing and getting to know the places her parents grew up in. I also try to round out the in-laws and family Naila marries into. It would have been easy to paint them as black and white villains, but life is all about nuance and so this family is no different. Naila even reflects that the life she married into could have been quite nice for someone else, just not her.

Jennifer: When you write, do you feel like you are representing the Muslim community? Do you think Muslim writers, especially women, can ever just be writers?

Aisha: I am one person belonging to a faith practiced by over one billion. I cannot possibly be the representative.  If I felt that I was the representative I would never write- that is too heavy a burden to bear.

That being said there may be people who see me and think I represent the Muslim community- this is unfortunately the case often when people see one person from a culture or a faith and extrapolate from them the goodness or lack thereof of an entire people. While I see myself as a writer I realize that there are people who see me as a “Muslim writer” or a “Pakistani writer”- I guess it’s just the reality and I’m aware that this happens but that being said, when I write, while the world may see me as a Muslim writer, in the act of creating, I am just a writer. I am Aisha. To think beyond that would be to destroy the ability to create.

Jennifer: Do you think your audience is mostly Muslim or non-Muslim readers? Did that affect the writing of this book?

Aisha: I wrote this book first and foremost for myself. I wanted to read the story that I wrote and so I wrote it. I never truly considered who my audience would be until my book sold. I think my audience is teenagers and young people who will identify with the story perhaps on its specific topic or in the general topic of doing what you think is right and fighting against what you know is wrong even if your community does not approve. I hope that both Muslims and non-Muslims can learn something from this story and also can connect to the common universal threads of humanity that lie within.

Jennifer: Your novel does a brilliant and heartbreaking job of raising awareness of the issue of forced marriage. Do you know of any organizations or organized efforts to address this issue? Do you think it’s possible for very conservative segments of the Muslim community to evolve on this issue?

Aisha: Certainly there must be people who think Islam allows this and that misconception must be debunked for people who believe this. The truth is Islam has set mandates on marriage and requires consent. There is no ambiguity on this matter in Islam. The issue is a cultural problem and requires a deep conversation on the cultural level without using religion as an excuse because Islam unequivocally condemns the practice.  I hope that anyone who thinks otherwise will overtime evolve on this issue.

It has been heartening to see the conversation on forced marriage gain traction in the United States. There are a few organizations dedicated to fighting for the cause:

Tahiri Justice Center
Website: http://www.tahirih.org
E-mail: justice@tahirih.org

Unchained At Last
Website: http://unchainedatlast.org
E-mail: http://www.unchainedatlast.org/contact/

Jennifer: How do you think writing about Muslim characters helped or hindered your path to publication?

Aisha: I think that writing diverse characters creates a bit of an uphill walk when it comes to getting published. I don’t like it but it seems to be the reality. I hope that things are changing and it does seem that way but only time will tell if it will truly take. That being said when I began writing I just wrote the story of my heart and hoped that it would find a home. I am very lucky because my agent Taylor Martindale is a champion of diverse literature and always has been. Nancy Paulsen, who is both my editor and my publisher, is also a longtime champion of diverse literature. When my book found its home with her it only made sense that someone who valued and highlighted diversity as she did would pick it up.

Jennifer: What advice do you have for writers of any commonly stereotyped community who want to write about tough issues that might play into those stereotypes?

Aisha: When my book sold I felt exhilarated and terrified. While I felt it was an important story to share I also worried about the stereotypes that could be furthered. Ultimately I spoke to many people and I realized a few things: (1) Writing the truth is important. It is the only way to affect change. If we don’t talk about the difficult things they will not change. (2) There are so many books about Muslims and very few written by Muslims. As a practicing Muslim who loves her culture and faith I wanted to be the one to tackle this difficult subject. To give it light but also to weave it with the good as well.

My advice would be to write your truth with as much honesty as you can. If you are nervous about the potential stereotypes that may arise, have your book vetted by people you trust to give you critical and honest feedback and then go back and revise and add more complexity and nuance to your story. Writing about tough issues in a marginalized group is a big responsibility and it may not be easy to do and it may take longer than you might want, but it’s worth it to do everything you can to get it right.

Jennifer: What is next for Aisha Saeed?

Aisha: More young adult novels I hope! I’ve completed two rough drafts that I’m going back to revise and outlining another one, a story that just kept tugging away and wouldn’t let go so I’ll see where that one leads! I also have an essay in the anthology Faithfully Feminist [edited by Story and Chai’s very own Jennifer Zobair] that will be coming out later this year!

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Aisha Saeed is the author of Written in the Stars [Nancy Paulsen/Penguin]. She is also an attorney, educator, and one of the founding members of the We Need Diverse Books campaign. Aisha lives in Atlanta with her husband and two sons. Visit her online at www.aishasaeed.com or follow along on twitter at @aishacs!

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