Q&A: Patricia Dunn

We are thrilled to welcome author Patricia Dunn to story and chai, and grateful for the thoughtful answers she provided about her new novel Rebels by Accident, her writing process, and advice to new writers. – Aisha

Aisha:  Please tell us a little bit about the inspiration behind Rebels by Accident.

Patricia: It didn’t start off as a choice. The character of Mariam found me, so-to-speak, but once I committed to her I knew why her story was so important to me. My son Ali, who like Mariam is Egyptian-Muslim-American, was bullied. One day on the school bus he was called “Bin Laden’s son,” hit on the head, and told to go back to where he came from (even though this was the New York suburb where he was born.) Unlike Mariam, Ali, then at the age of ten, had no problem speaking up for himself; he is very strong in his cultural identity. This experience made me see how some kids, including many in my son’s school, struggle, like Mariam, with their cultural identities and often try to hide from the world. In many ways, I myself remember growing up as the only “American” in an all Italian-born neighborhood, with the feeling of not “belonging” and wishing I was something other than I was so that I would feel less like an outsider. All of this inspired me to write a story about how an Egyptian-American teen living in our post 9-11 world, and disconnected from her culture, figures out what it means to be both Egyptian and American.

I was compelled to finish writing Rebels by Accident during the Arab Spring, when the youth of Egypt took to the streets in protest of the thirty years of repression and censorship under the Mubarak regime. However, like I said, my initial inspiration for starting the book was my son. Also, and this is going to sound rather corny, but it’s true—I was inspired by love. Rebels by Accident is a love story. Not just a girl-meets-boy story, but a story that also includes falling in love with a place and a people, and friends and family. And let’s not forget that it’s about Revolution on the outside and on the inside.

Aisha:  While your novel is a fictional story, it is inspired by real events. How was it to write about something that is historically accurate while also creating fiction? Is it a difficult thing to bridge?

Patricia: Yes and no. It’s a process for sure. I think that whatever we write even if it’s not inspired by real events, our job as writers is to create a world that our readers can see and feel. Sometimes having “real events” and/or “a real place” to start with can make the world-building easier and sometimes it can make it harder. Ironically, I think the more we know a place or know about specific events, the harder it is to find the balance of sharing enough for the world to be believable but not too much that the world feels like one you are reading about it in a text book rather than experiencing.

Aisha: What sort of research did you do to write Rebels by Accident?

Patricia: I’ve been to Egypt many times, so I could visualize a lot of the places I was writing about. But to get the events and a feel for a lot of the scenes at Tahrir Square I spent hours looking at YouTube videos and reading posts on Facebook and Twitter, and asking everyone I knew who was there, or who had family there at the time, what it was like for them. I also had many readers looking over the book and helping with fact checking. When it came to some of the Arabic translations, I made sure that these were checked and rechecked. I really tried to make sure that the transliteration was true to the way things are said in Egypt as opposed to other Arabic speaking countries. For example, in Egypt a “th” sound is used in a lot of words whereas it’s not used in other Arabic speaking countries. Oh, and I also spoke to as many teenagers as I could to get a sense of what felt believable. I was constantly reading sections to my son and asking, “Does this sound like something a teen would say?” Or would your friends do this? Or would they do that? Then there was all the research around social media. It was amazing to me how the youth in Egypt were not only using Facebook to share news about fashion or friends but they were using Facebook to organize, to change the world.

Aisha: How important do you think research is when writing fiction?

Patricia: It’s extremely important. As I said earlier, when we are writing fiction, a story, a novel, we are creating a world, and we need to get the details of that world right. I lived in Los Angeles for many years and I can’t tell you how often I’ll be watching a movie and a character will be driving down a street and then make a right turn onto a street that I know is miles away from there. I would be taken right out of the story. I don’t want this to happen to any of my readers. Maybe the majority of my readers wouldn’t know that I had a character make a right turn onto a street that was miles away from there, but I must avoid causing any reader to be pulled out of the story because I was because I wasn’t being careful enough with getting the details right. Also, we have to pick and choose what details matter to the story that we are writing. We want our readers to feel like they have experienced a place and not like they just had a history lesson. In earlier drafts of the book, several of my readers said, “I learned so much about Egypt.” That told me that I needed to revise. Of course, I want my readers who have never been to Cairo to come away feeling like they know a little more about it and/or what it may be like to be there, but if their first response is “I learned so much,” and not “I cried” or I laughed or something about the characters, then I didn’t do my job as a writer. I didn’t show a world. I just told them about it.

I think the potential danger of research for writer is that it’s very easy for to get so caught up in researching that we might never get to the writing of the story. Research is a great way to procrastinate. Of course, I never procrastinate…. I can hear my husband laughing now.

Aisha: How did you decide to write a young-adult novel from a teenager’s perspective as opposed to an adult novel? How does one go about making that decision about what voice to take on when writing fiction?

Patricia: I was in a writing class with Cassandra Medley, at Sarah Lawrence College. Through a series of writing prompts, the voice of Mariam started to come through. Someone once said it was like I channeled her. And I must have, because I’d never have consciously written in the voice of a teenager. When I started this book it was before the whole YA craze. Besides, teens are tough. Whenever I tried to go back to a more adult narrator, Mariam kept fighting her way through. Eventually she won, and I accepted Mariam as my narrator, and I let her tell her story. And she had many variations to tell. I thought the book was done when the 2011 Egyptian revolution, also known as the January 25th Revolution, took place. I knew that had to be a part of her story. Or she knew it. And like any story I write, revision, revision, and revision, and trial and error, and lots of sharing with trusted readers, and then more revision. The more I worked on this book, the more I learned about my characters and the more the story revealed itself. Whenever I heard a writer say, “I just let my characters tell me their stories,” I used to think this was just something writers say. Then it happened to me, and now I know if I want a story to work, I have to learn about my characters and then trust them to tell their stories. Basically, I have to get out of their way. It’s not easy. For me it’s like being a parent, we need to be there for our children and provide them with an environment where they can flourish, but there comes a point when we need to trust them and let them make their own decisions. Well, let’s say, I’m much better at doing this with my characters than I am with my son, but I try.

Aisha: Given the troubling rise of Islamaphobia in the United States, American Muslim writers [including myself] worry about writing about difficult topics and they fear that what they say could possibly make Muslims look bad. Did you worry about discussing difficult topics? How did you balance the desire to write honestly and yet not further perpetuate stereotypes?

Patricia: This was something that I thought about a lot, and still do At the same time, I think if we are asking this question, and it’s such an important question, we are probably not going to be perpetuating stereotypes. The question implies awareness and sensitivity, which is key to not only writing about Muslims but to writing about anyone, if you want to be a good writer.

I think that as writers it’s important to realize that writing is power. Even the fact that we have the opportunity to write gives us a certain privilege that so many people don’t have. I think we need to be very aware of this and know that with this privilege there comes a lot of responsibility. I don’t mean that we are responsible for the whole Muslim world, just like as a woman writer, I don’t think we are responsible for all women, or all of anything, but we are responsible to writing truth as best as we can. The fact is no matter how hard we try, we may not always get it right, but we better give it all we have. Now, I believe that if are characters are complicated and multifaceted, which for me is essential to good writing, we probably will not be perpetuating stereotypes.

It’s hard not to protect our characters, but if we don’t make them flawed, how can we expect our readers to relate to them. If we are writing Muslim characters but our readers can’t relate to them because we don’t make them real, flawed, human, then aren’t we just creating more distance and misunderstanding? As you know, there is no “one” type of Muslim, as there is no one type of any person. Muslims are a multifaceted, multicultural, multi-socioeconomic, multi-everything people. The key word is people. People are flawed. If we write Muslim characters they will be flawed. There is beauty in our imperfections.

Aisha: You had an interesting journey to publication, could you elaborate a bit on that and what the experience has been like for you? 

Patricia: This is a whole book in itself. I will say that as hard as it is to write, it’s just as hard to get published, but it’s not impossible. You just can’t give up. This doesn’t mean that you won’t have your days when you say, “I’m never writing another word.” You will. But then, there will be a new day, Inshallah, and you’ll start again. If you don’t feel like you must write, if you can take it or leave it, then leave it. There are so many other ways to spend your time that will probably make you happier, but if you have no choice, then stick with it, and I promise you that you will get your work out there. For every writer with a will, there is a way to her audience. Please know that you don’t have to do this, nor should you, alone. Find other writers that get you and your work and support each other through the hard days and nights, and celebrate each other through those days when every word sings. And I find that prayer can help.

Aisha: Do you have any practical writing advice for American Muslims who wish to embark on the writing journey?

Patricia: I think I covered some of that. Find other writers who get not only your writing but get you. I have been working with the same group of writers for almost 20 years and we have been through everything together, marriage, children, divorce, cancer, remission, rejection, publication, rejection, writing, not writing…You get the picture. If it weren’t for these women, who have my back and front and are there for me, I don’t know if I’d still be writing, or if I was, I would be pretty miserable. It’s also important to have a life partner who gets it. If the person who you share your life with doesn’t understand why you write, that can be a real problem. If that person feels your joy and pain and cheers you on, consider yourself blessed. My writing group and my partner are two of the biggest blessings I have as a writer. And if you are blessed like me, your partner loves to read your work and lucky like me they will correct all of your atrocious spelling.

Aisha: What is next for Patricia Dunn?

Patricia: I’m just finishing a book that is more of dystopian/fantasy, but still deals with the harsh realities and the beauty of our world, well that’s the hope…. The story is set within a dystopian world of parallel opposites; a science fiction novel for young adults that can be compared to The Hunger Games, 1984, and Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland where society is divided into two types of people with distinctly opposite motives. It depicts the struggle of good against evil to save an endangered world from total devastation before it’s too late; a story of love, hate, wonder, magic, deception, tenderness, violence, pain, and healing.

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Patricia Dunn

Patricia Dunn’s writing has appeared in Salon.com, Christian Science Monitor, Village Voice, The Nation, LA Weekly, and Love, Inshallah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women, among other publications. Patricia was managing editor of Muslimwakeup.com, America’s most popular Muslim online magazine from 2003-2008. With an MFA in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence College, where she also teaches and is Director of The Writing Institute, the Bronx- raised rebel and former resident of Cairo is now settled in Connecticut, with her husband, teenage son, and toddler dog. Website: Patriciadunnauthor.com Twitter: shewrites Rebels by Accident Book Trailer  Read the Common Core State-Standards Aligned Educators’ Guide for Grades 9, 10, 11 and 12 for Rebels By Accident.

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