A Conversation with Saadia Faruqi
Saadia Faruqi is a Pakistani-American author, essayist, and interfaith activist. She writes the children’s early reader series, Meet Yasmin!, which focuses on how a young Pakistani girl navigates life’s small dilemmas. She has also written Brick Walls: Tales of Hope & Courage from Pakistan, a short story collection for adults and teens. As part of her activism, Faruqi trains various audiences, including faith groups and law enforcement, on topics pertaining to Islam. She was featured in O, The Oprah Magazine in 2017 as a woman making a difference in her community and is editor-in-chief of Blue Minaret, a magazine for Muslim art, poetry, and prose. Faruqi resides in Houston, TX, with her husband and children. Literary Mama blog editor Rudri Bhatt Patel had the pleasure of speaking to her about Meet Yasmin!, her work as an interfaith activist, and navigating writing and motherhood.
Rudri Bhatt Patel: What do you hope people learn from reading Meet Yasmin!?
Saadia Faruqi: I hope the Yasmin series will be a sort of permission for South Asian kids to be themselves. Kids like mine often feel torn between two cultures. Their heritage and background are different from where they find themselves now as first-generation kids, and there is a tension that’s so burdensome and unfair. My hope is that by seeing Yasmin in her natural environment, straddling these two cultures well, with all the hopes and dreams and fears of all children everywhere, South Asian immigrant children are going to fit in better, more comfortably. I get hundreds of emails and video messages from parents who are so grateful, saying their kids are unable to put down these books, saying Yasmin is just like me, and Yasmin’s family is just like my family. If I can give the gift of normalcy to our children, I’ll have achieved my purpose with this series.
RBP: At the end of Meet Yasmin! you offer facts and recipes from Pakistan. What are ways parents can educate their children about different cultures?
SF: Food is definitely an easy way to introduce your entire family to a different culture. Eating at an authentic restaurant from a different cuisine sometimes really helps open up our minds and hearts. But other ways could be visiting cultural places, programs, events, or festivals that may be available in your city. Another great way is to read fiction from different countries. Nonfiction is dry and less attractive to a lot of children, but fiction can and does give us very important and entertaining perspectives of culture.
RBP: Are there specific challenges to writing a middle grade book compared to your other work, in particular your short story collection, Brick Walls: Tales of Hope & Courage from Pakistan?
SF: I found it difficult to switch gears at first, but since I write more children’s books now than books for adults, I’m really getting into the groove. I’ve found that I still focus on the same themes and ideas that I considered important with adult writing—culture clash, diaspora obstacles, tradition, food, faith—but for a different audience. The craft of writing for children versus adults is very similar, and I find myself enjoying the challenge of bringing tough but essential ideas to a younger readership.
RBP: How do you think the literary community has advanced diverse and people of color writers in publishing? Can you talk about how you secured representation for your work?
SF: The publishing world is becoming more and more open to diverse stories, which is really wonderful. There is definitely still much to be done, more stories to be told, and more diversity within each tradition to be explored. I think online contests and Twitter parties have really made publishing more accessible to writers around the country and around the globe.
I found my agent through one of these twitter events, #DVpit or #PitMad I believe. I’d been participating for several years, and my third or fourth manuscript caught the eye of a few agents, and I got multiple offers for representation. I also found other opportunities for writing online, such as meeting my co-author Laura Shovan during another Twitter contest called PitchWars. Laura and I are writing a middle grade book together that we just sold to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on auction, so that’s very exciting and affirming.
RBP: As an interfaith activist, what do you think all of us can do to raise awareness of different religions/culture in our respective communities?
SF: I truly believe that each of us has the power to make change! I started by reaching out to my local public library and asking about a book exhibit. After that, I went back to the library and asked about an interfaith book club. We can all take small steps like these. Join a book club or start one in your house or library. Offer to help your children’s school organize an international night. Read books set in different countries aloud to a bunch of kids. If you’re part of a worship group, start open houses or invite tours to bring in the public. Start a conversation in the grocery store or the bookstore. Be open to answering questions. Be open to receiving other people’s curiosity in a positive way. The list goes on and on.
RBP: What does a writing day look like for you?
SF: I drop the kids at school and get back home around 8:30. That’s when my writing day begins. I typically work on several projects at a time, so I switch between tasks and manuscripts quite a lot. A typical day might include some writing, but also some editing, perhaps a Skype call with a classroom who’s read some Yasmin books and want to meet the author, and maybe recording a segment for the podcast I co-host. Then back to writing until lunch time, which is usually noon or 1 pm. I try to get a bit more work done after lunch, but it doesn’t happen every day.
RBP: How do you balance the intersection between writing and motherhood?
SF: It’s very difficult, but it’s gotten much better now that my kids are older. When they were babies, I would be quite frustrated at my need to work without noise and interruption. I would be working in the middle of the night, sometimes hiding in closets, or timing my work to coincide with naps and then stressing out if the naps didn’t actually happen. But it’s all history now and both my kids are in school—elementary and middle—and my work day revolves around the school day. I work while the kids are in school and I guard that time judiciously. Of course, school vacations are a big drain on my productivity, but I’m usually able to manage writing quite well with a combination of summer camps, etc. I’m the mom who brings her laptop to everything and many a chapter has been written while sitting in the pickup line outside a child’s school.
RBP: What are you reading right now?
SF: I just started Let Her Fly, the memoir of Ziauddin Yusufzai who is the father of Malala. It’s really very emotional and inspiring. I’m also reading God of Love by Mirabai Starr as part of my interfaith book club read.
RBP: What is next for you in your writing life?
SF: Yasmin is a series, so I’m writing new stories for that. We have four new titles coming in January 2019. I’m also working on my middle grade novel A Place at the Table, which I’m co-authoring, plus a couple of other middle grade manuscripts that are works in progress. Connected to my writing is my podcast, Lifelines: Books that Bridge the Divide, which needs a lot of regular attention. My editing duties for Blue Minaret, a literary magazine for Muslim art, poetry and fiction, keep me busy too. Busy is good, I think.