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The Mirror and the Window: An Interview With Saadia Faruqi

SAADIA FARUQI, a Pakistani-American writer and interfaith activist based in Houston, took up her pen to combat negative stereotypes about Muslims after the September 11 attacks. Her first book, Brick Walls: Tales of Hope and Courage From Pakistan (2015), is a collection of short stories detailing the lives of everyday (and some not-so-everyday) folks: Asma, a seamstress; Faisal, an aspiring terrorist; Javed Gul, a Pushto rock singer. Faruqi has a keen eye for creating vivid, authentic characters who seem as real as your corner grocer or mail carrier.

Now she’s applying those talents to Yasmin, a series of children’s books, launched on August 1, about a young girl grappling with mundane challenges: getting lost in the park, grappling with self-doubt during a class project, competing in the school art show. Inspired by Faruqi’s own kids — particularly her nine-year-old daughter — Yasmin nails the struggles and emotions of early grade-school life. Kids of all backgrounds will recognize themselves in this girl, and that’s just what Faruqi is hoping for.

Although Yasmin’s ethnic identity and faith are not major plot points, Saadia weaves them into her stories; they’re there when Yasmin’s mom puts on a hijab to go to the market, and in the way Yasmin calls her dad “Baba” while he calls her “jaan,” an Urdu nickname for a loved one. By telling the story in this way, Faruqi conveys some of what it’s like to be a Pakistani Muslim in the United States: it’s part of life, but often not the most remarkable part. While outsiders might see the hijab and Urdu phrases and immediately focus on issues of difference, Faruqi’s stories concentrate on the ways that human experiences — and foibles — are often universally alike.

I interviewed Faruqi via email. She shared that she’s always looking for ways, both through her journalistic writing and through stories like Brick Walls and Yasmin, to build bridges between her culture and the white-centered West, in order to ease xenophobia and Islamophobia. She hopes the Yasmin books will have a “mirror-and-window” effect, giving Muslim and South Asian kids the chance to see themselves in the text while giving others the chance to view Muslims as normal people. “For a number of Americans, especially those who live in smaller cities with less diversity, that window is essential to learn tolerance, empathy, and citizenship,” she says. 

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BETH WINEGARNER: Your first book, Brick Walls, is a collection of stories for adults. What made you decide to write a book for kids?

SAADIA FARUQI: I see my writing as part of a bigger picture, as part of my overall goal of interfaith and intercultural activism. For the sake of this activism, I sometimes teach, and I sometimes write op-eds, and oftentimes I write fiction. Brick Walls was a reaction to a decade of people asking questions about Pakistan, assuming that things were a certain way because of what they’d heard on cable news. I still write for adults, because I have a passion to create strong, stereotype-breaking characters with all the complexities of our current world, but for now my attention is directed toward children.

How did this happen? My own children started reading books independently, and found a scarcity of characters who looked like them. Here we are in multicultural America, where in many cities, including my own hometown of Houston, brown and black is the majority skin color, and yet an overwhelming percentage of children’s books feature white kids. There were certainly not any Muslim or South Asian main characters in early readers, and that’s the age kids are just learning their own identities and deciding if they love reading or hate it. So, I suppose writing a book or two for children is now also my activism.

Where did the character of Yasmin come from? What inspired her?

Yasmin is based on my daughter, who was in kindergarten when I began writing children’s books. She’s the reason I wrote this series in particular, because I wanted my daughter and her friends, and any other South Asian American girls like her, to see themselves in the books they read.

Many of the Yasmin stories arise from things that have happened to my daughter, or could plausibly happen, based on her personality. When the design team at Capstone Press asked me to send some notes for the illustrator, Hatem Aly, I sent a long email describing my daughter: her features, her hair, her fashion sense, et cetera. Hatem did such a great job — Yasmin looks very much like my daughter did at that age. And, of course, how she solves problems, how she gets frustrated, how she doesn’t give up … all these things are purely my daughter, with a little bit of original Yasmin mixed in!

The predicaments Yasmin gets into are so true to life. How did you capture that combination of childhood adventure, curiosity, and self-doubt?

That was truly my aim in writing this series. I wanted to be very realistic in terms of what children face, without getting political. Yasmin is every little girl, regardless of race, religion, or culture. You can travel anywhere in the world, and you’ll find that children pretty much have the same challenges, the same joys. They’re curious about the world and how things work, but they also have tremendous self-doubt and worry about succeeding. Since the series is for an age group that’s going through these challenges, I wanted to have a character who is also going through them, so that readers can learn a little something and also feel comforted that they’re not alone. I have two children, so it’s not difficult to watch them as they learn those very lessons, and I sometimes steal some of those situations for Yasmin plots!

When you were pitching this book, what kind of reactions did you get from agents or publishers?

This series actually started out as a standalone picture book. It was about a little Muslim girl who gets lost in the park and has to find her way home using a map she’s made of her neighborhood. I was fortunate that I got an amazing response from the Capstone editorial team, who thought this would work better as a series for slightly older kids. I’m grateful that they saw the vision for this character and were willing to give her the space she needed to expand and grow, including adding a wonderful supporting cast of Mama, Baba, Nana, and Nani, plus Yasmin’s friends and teachers. I’ve written other manuscripts in the past with similar ideas of Muslim children doing happy, normal things, and even though they didn’t get as far as Yasmin did, the publishing environment for me has always been very supportive and encouraging. 

I feel like children’s literature is slowly getting better at representing a diversity of voices and cultures. What are you seeing out there? 

Absolutely! I’ve found the literary landscape — both children’s and adults’ — to be at the forefront of reflecting the demographic changes we see around us. Why not? Books need readers to be successful, and there are many stakeholders in children’s literature who are in tune with this body of readership. I see teachers and librarians who are very much a part of the publishing machine, in that they advise publishers and promote books, and they’re the ones who care most about the children who will read those books. It’s no coincidence that we’re seeing movements like #ownvoices and #diversity in children’s books, and a ton of POC writers coming up. It’s very exciting!

Are there other children’s books out now, or in the pipeline, that depict Pakistani-American kids? Or is Yasmin a first?

I like to say that Yasmin is the first early reader series put out by a mainstream publishing house with a Muslim/Pakistani-American main character. There are definitely other children’s books with both types of characters, but they are either for younger or older age groups. For instance, there are a few picture books here and there, and there are several Middle Grade [ages eight through 12] novels in contemporary and fantasy genres. But the early reader market is one that’s been neglected for so long, and it’s an age group I feel strongly about addressing, because it’s an age when children are starting to read independently, and often they stop reading altogether if they don’t find a book they love. That’s what almost happened to my daughter, and I see it happening to other children as well. So Yasmin is a pioneer in some respects, but I’m going to be so happy if she can lead the way to many more books by many more authors in the early reader and chapter-book market.

Have your kids read the book? What do they think about it?

My children have not only read the books, but they’re also an integral part of the creation process. When I have to write a new Yasmin story, I ask them for ideas, and they have come up with many excellent ones! My son, who’s in middle school now, helps me a lot with editing. He’s got a great eye, and he gives excellent suggestions about improving the plot and dialogue. Both my children are thrilled with the Yasmin books, for the most part, but they won’t hesitate to let me know if something doesn’t feel right or doesn’t make sense from a young child’s perspective. I like to say it’s a team effort among the three of us!

Do you have a sense of who will read Yasmin? Do you hope to provide kids like Yasmin with a chance to see themselves represented, or do you want to offer other kids a chance to learn more about someone who isn’t like themselves? Or both?

Definitely both! My teacher friends call this the “mirror-and-window effect.” My foremost hope is that this series will be a mirror to children who are Muslim or South Asian, or even just first-generation. There is so much overlap between cultural traditions for many POC — for instance, speaking a different language at home than at school — that millions of young readers should be able to identify with Yasmin. I also hope the books will be a window for others to see Muslims as normal, everyday people. For a number of Americans, especially those who live in smaller cities with less diversity, that window is essential to learn tolerance, empathy, and citizenship. That’s why I hope that teachers and parents will see Yasmin for what the series is: fun and entertaining, but also essential in raising a new generation of young people who value diversity.

You write regularly about Muslim and Pakistani issues. What do you see that’s changing in American culture, for better or worse? 

Some things change and some things remain the same. What’s changed is that more people are vocally supportive of me and my writings. Whenever a new article of mine is published, whether it be about Trump’s travel ban or about my mother’s cooking, I receive so much positive response that it warms my heart. There are people who seem to be going out of their way to support diverse voices, which is fantastic. But at the same time, I also hear the same objections and the same negativity that I’ve been facing since I started my activism after 9/11. “Go back home”; “Islam teaches violence”; “Pakistanis are terrorists, and so on” — the same litany of ignorant statements. That’s disappointing some days, heartbreaking other days, but mostly it just energizes me to keep writing.

This book is coming out at a time when anti-Muslim and anti–Middle Eastern sentiment remains pervasive. After all, the president’s Muslim travel ban has just been upheld by the Supreme Court. Do you feel like the book could be an antidote to some of those feelings?

I certainly hope so. Fiction is a form of relaxation for a lot of people, a way of escaping reality. For Muslims and immigrants, however, storytelling can be a powerful way of responding to the status quo. During a period of widespread anti-refugee sentiments, for instance, books about war and refugee struggles can help many Americans empathize better. The same is true of the current anti-Muslim sentiment in our political rhetoric. If we see Muslims as the “other,” or as stereotypically inaccurate caricatures, then we’ll be more likely to buy into and support political decisions like the travel ban. If, on the other hand, we can see Muslims as our friends and neighbors, as our children’s classmates, we can learn to see them as human beings. If Yasmin, with her adorable face and her feisty attitude, can be an antidote to a nation that’s hurting and stressed out, I’ll feel as if I’ve achieved some of the goals of my activism.

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Beth Winegarner is an American author and journalist. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Wired, Mother Jones, the Guardian, and USA Today.

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