Q&A: Marina Budhos

Marina Budhos is the author of Ask Me No Questions, a YA novel following the life of  fourteen-year-old Nadira and her family who came years ago from Bangladesh and have been living in New York City on expired visas, hoping to realize their dream of becoming legal U.S. citizens. But after 9/11, everything changes. Suddenly being Muslim means you are dangerous — a suspected terrorist. When Nadira’s father is arrested and detained at the U.S.-Canadian border, Nadira and her older sister, Aisha, are told to carry on as if everything is the same. The teachers at Flushing High don’t ask any questions, but Aisha falls apart. Nothing matters to her anymore — not even college. It’s up to Nadira to be the strong one and bring her family back together again.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Marina Budhos about her novel, switching genres as an author, and her thoughts on writing below. ~ Aisha

AS: As an author of primarily adult-focused novels like The Professor of Light and House of Waiting, this novel, Ask Me No Questions, was your first young-adult novel. Can you share what made you decide to write this particular story from a young-adult perspective instead of through the lens of her mother or father?

MB: I always wanted to write in the young adult field.  I had loved young adult novels myself—had eaten them up as a teenager, along with reading adult works.  I loved their immediacy and yet the best of them were not simple—they were just focused on how a young person would see and process a complex situation.

Also, after I published The Professor of Light, which is a coming of age story, I realized there were other coming of age stories I wanted to tell that were not necessarily drawing from my own personal experience.

Once AMNQ was published and I got response from readers, I realized that I actually had a role to play in the YA field—I am interested in cultural stories and perspectives that are not often told.  And I often am able to blend my journalistic interests with the immediacy of writing fictionally for young adults.  I see myself as bringing the world to young readers and also letting the world know about stories they wouldn’t ordinarily know.

 

AS: Was it challenging to switch from an adult voice to writing a young-adult novel?

MB: Not for Ask Me No Questions.  Perhaps because it was my first YA, it came incredibly naturally.  I was in the voice and situation from the get go.  In fact, the way I wrote the work was I was appearing on a panel at the Asian American Writers Workshop and I had to give a reading.  I wanted to do something new.  This gave me a deadline, and this story had been brewing in me for a while, so I just sat down and wrote the first two chapters.  After, you couldn’t hear a pin drop in the room.  That’s when I knew I was on to something.

I will say writing my next YA, Tell Us We’re Home, was a little harder. I gave myself a literary challenge: I decided to do it in third person, from three different characters’ point of view.  The novel is about three immigrant girls—one from Trinidad, another from Mexico, and the third from Slovakia, living in a suburban town where they are all daughters of maids and nannies.  Once again I wanted to show what it was like to be on the outside, pressing in, with this unusual dynamic of them going to school with kids from the very families their mothers worked for.

I also wanted to make the town and atmosphere a kind of active character in the book.  At times, in the drafting, because of the ambition of this palate, more of the adult author in me slipped in. I had to work harder in that book to make sure I stayed close to the girls.

AS: There are many negative stereotypes and assumptions surrounding Muslims. Did you experience resistance or pushback from agents, publishers, or readers about portraying a Muslim family in this book?

MB:  Not at all.  I was really pleased.  I had a lot of interest in this book and no one asked me to change anything around the Muslim characters.  The only push back or question I got was whether such things were true—for instance, did the INS and FBI really bang on people’s doors in the middle of the night?  I think most people were very surprised at how drastic the situation had become.

AS: In Ask Me No Questions, you describe high school for undocumented kids. The way they try to appear invisible and hope, as the title suggests, that people ask them no questions. They are afraid to be questioned and inspected because there is a risk the truth of their undocumented status will be revealed. And yet, despite this, they also wish they could be looked at, that they could be questioned. Did you witness this painful dichotomy among undocumented children in your research for these characters?

MB: Yes, exactly.  I did a prior book, a nonfiction book, Remix: Conversations with Immigrant Teenagers.  I went into the project simply curious about the stories and lives of immigrant teenagers.  I stumbled upon two experiences: one was a boy who was anxious and squirming when I talked to him and I realized he was undocumented; the other were Muslim girls who had very specific experiences that I had never seen written about, particularly about what it was like during the Gulf War.  So both of those experiences resonated with me as I began to craft and think about AMNQ. 

AS: What advice do you have for writers of non-majority narratives?

MB: The most important thing is to tell a good story, with characters that are full-bodied and make sense to the reader.  A novel is not a lesson—it is a fictional world.  For me, in writing AMNQ, the most important thing I wanted to convey was the two sisters—they could be any two sisters who didn’t get along and that, in part, drove the story of this book.  By making them sympathetic and flawed and recognizable, I could then bring my readers—of all backgrounds—into this particular cultural world and this political moment.

While it is true that sometimes there’s a bit of a barrier to getting American readers to come over to non-majority narratives, I believe awareness is growing.  And teachers especially are eager for stories and books that they can bring into the classroom.

AS: What’s next for Marina Budhos?

MB: I’m glad you asked that!  For several years, I’ve been asked whether I would write a sequel to AMNQ.  I resisted this, as I like the fact that the book opens out at the end and you are not quite sure what happens to the characters.  I want them to remain in the imaginative ‘what if’ of the reader.

But I did want to return to that world.  So I am now working on a new ya novel called ‘Watched.’  It is about surveillance in a post-9/11 world, particularly of Muslim communities.  That is, if AMNQ is all about being invisible and coming forward to be visible, ‘Watched’ is about being too seen and tracked.  Thus, it tells the story of a young Muslim boy—also Bangladeshi—who is something of a mess-up in school.  When he gets in trouble with the law, he is offered a chance to have his charges dropped and to become a ‘watcher’ or a ‘crawler’ in the community.  Thus, he goes from being watched to being a watcher.  I’m interested in exploring all the conflicts—and temptations—of this choice.  Some of the secondary characters from AMNQ will make their way into this book.

I am also writing, with my husband, a non-fiction ya book about the photographers Robert Capa and Gerda Taro and their friend Chim, all great photographers who originated the Magnum Photo Agency.  They were young exiles in Paris in the thirties who discovered the camera, and went off to photograph the Spanish Civil War, and thus invented modern war photography—the very idea of bearing witness to war through images.  So it’s all about war, love, propaganda and idealism—but for teenagers.

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Marina Budhos is an award-winning author of fiction and non-fiction works. She has published the adult novels The Professor of Light, House of Waiting, and a nonfiction book, Remix: Conversations with Immigrant Teenagers. Her books have been published in Germany, Taiwan, Korea, Germany, and India and her short stories, articles, essays, and book reviews have appeared in publications such as The Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, The Antigonish Review, The Literary Review, The Nation, Dissent, Marie Claire, Redbook, Travel & Leisure, Ms., Los Angeles Times, and in numerous anthologies.

Ms. Budhos has received an EMMA (Exceptional Merit Media Award), a Rona Jaffe Award for Women Writers, and has twice received a Fellowship from the New Jersey Council on the Arts. She has been a Fulbright Scholar to India, given talks throughout the country and abroad, and is currently an associate professor of English at William Paterson University.

She is married to the author Marc Aronson and lives in Maplewood, New Jersey, with their two sons, Sasha and Rafi.

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