Beyond The Bio: Karuna Riazi



Welcome to another #BeyondTheBio Sunday here at PickMyYA. Today's guest is Karuna Riazi, whose debut book The Gauntlet comes out on Tuesday. (Find out how to win a free signed copy below!) Karuna is a born and raised New Yorker who is an online diversity advocate and blogger. She's fond of teas, Korean dramas, and baking. Let's dive beyond her bio and get to know Karuna before her book birthday in just two days!

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Hey Karuna! Thanks so much for joining us today! Just a few more days until your debut novel, The Gauntlet, hits the shelves. Can you tell me a little bit about what we should expect?

Well, courtesy of the incredible jacket copy: "A trio of friends from New York City find themselves trapped inside a mechanical board game that they must dismantle in order to save themselves and generations of other children in this action-packed debut that’s a steampunk Jumanji with a Middle Eastern flair." I have also personally described it as an inverse Jumanji: what happens when you go into the game, instead of coming out? Also, from what I'm hearing from pre-readers, you should expect friendship, strong family ties, beautiful architecture, and a big appetite once you finish. (Apparently, the food descriptions in the world of The Gauntlet really makes you hungry!)

James: Jumanji was one of the great movies of my childhood. Were you inspired by the movie at all? Or were there other sources of inspiration for you during the writing process?

Karuna: Jumanji was one of those movies that was incredibly formative for me, so it definitely came to mind again and again as I drafted The Gauntlet - and, though I'm not sure all of them made the cut during copy edits, there were quite a few subtle references! (Hint: one of the book's antagonistic forces is inspired by another character that the incredible Robin Williams, bless his soul, also lent his talent to. You might have to tilt your head to see it, though.)

Part of what is fascinating about The Gauntlet is the fact that I personally think it reflects what we were all curious about: it's amazing and creepy when a board game comes to life outside of its given parameters in the world, but what happens if you go into it instead? I was playing Monopoly with my cousins a few months after the book deal was announced and I couldn't help but try to imagine what it would be like to live inside of Monopoly - and then realized, as my younger cousin asked me for rent, that I'd probably go broke within a few hours.

(Also, I just realized that, like Jumanji, The Gauntlet has giant, threatening spiders, which apparently means that the childhood trauma will be passed on to another generation. Sorry, guys!)

Besides Jumanji, though, I think another subtler inspiration was the also great childhood movie Labyrinth - and it is so weird to realize that both men from those movies are gone from this world now, which is another sad thing about growing up and away from the kid you used to be and the things you used to watch every weekend. From that one, I think, in particular, the themes of rescuing a sibling and facing up against forces you don't quite understand with a brave heart and maybe some foolhardy stubbornness, are the ones that surface in The Gauntlet the most.

James: Farah's awesome. She's adventurous, she's an awesome big sister, she's a great friend. How similar is Farah to you as a twelve-year-old? Aside from the fact that you never got swallowed by a giant Rubik's cube, of course.

Karuna: Well, I personally consider myself to be an awesome big sister, though my brother and sister might tell you otherwise depending on their mood! I also really enjoyed board games, though I was more of a Clue and Monopoly person than someone who would try their luck on a game titled The Gauntlet of Blood and Sand. (I am a very anxious person and I think I would likely track down my aunt and tell her that there was a mistake and find the gift receipt rather than even put my own hands on that. Sorry, Farah.)

James: I'm curious. Can you actually solve a Rubik's cube?

Karuna: Not yet! But I remain optimistic!

James: One of the things I'm most excited about regarding The Gauntlet is its positive representation of Muslim character and culture. Why was this representation important to you?

Karuna: Of course, being Muslim myself and - even in my twenties - never seeing myself with the respect and accuracy and honesty that I've always wanted as both a Muslim girl and a biracial girl, it feels crucial. It feels like giving others a gift I want to receive myself, and knowing while I'm crafting it that it is such an important, weighty responsibility: to keep from inflicting pain on old wounds of erasure and stereotypical representation, to remember my intentions in writing about me and people like me, and at the end, of the day, just hoping that I've done well enough to allow kids like the kid I used to be a chance to see themselves in the mirror, rather than little flickers of light and potential. Particularly right now, when so many Muslim kids are painfully aware of how their presence in the world is degraded, dismissed and despised, we need these homes in fiction for them to be able to turn to and feel welcomed and reassured and know that they are seen and loved and understood.

James: What other books and authors would you recommend to counter-act the Islamophobia that seems so rampant in our world today?

Karuna: I would of course recommend my fellow authors at Salaam Reads. The entire imprint is going to be so wonderful to speak to who Muslims are and how diverse we truly are in our practices and ethnicities. At The Muslim Squad, we recently created a Goodreads list to highlight upcoming book deals for this year and next year, which is surprisingly encouraging because it is in the double digits, and I believe we have another GoodReads list to promote Muslim authors in general. (Two that always seem to surprise are epic NYT bestsellers Sabaa Tahir and Tahereh Mafi.) And of course, if you are a YA reader, definitely pick up Aisha Saeed's debut Written in the Stars, because she is incredible and wonderful and I wouldn't be part of this community without her. Rukhsana Khan is also an another incredible, prolific author who has written across the board in kidlit.

Also, I wrote a guest post (along with my Salaam Reads sister, S.K. Ali) on why Ms. Marvel is such crucial, incredible Muslim representation.

James: And if you could pick one book that you'd like the President to read, what would it be, and why?

Karuna: Perhaps Salaam Reads' upcoming picture book from pop star Harris J, Salam Alaikum, for its message of peace, universal love and unity. Everyone on the cover is so happy, too! That's what we want! We want peace, universal love and unity and big smiles on everyone's faces.

James: What's next for you, Karuna? Any future projects you can tell us about?

Karuna: Well, I cannot speak to my work with Cake at the moment while we focus on The Gauntlet and its release, but I am currently drafting a YA magical realism with a Muslim heroine and a Muslim love interest and I'm excited to see where it goes! I'm also contributing to the upcoming "Toil and Trouble" anthology from marvelous YA authors Jessica Spotswood and Tess Sharpe, will be part of the incredible Habibi anthology (Muslim love stories by Muslim women!) and have another anthology obligations that I cannot speak to yet.

James: Final question, so let's make it a fun one. Earlier, we were talking about our love for Jumanji. What were some of your other favorite movies as a kid?

Karuna: Oh, so many, but besides Jumanji, The Princess Bride was a huge one and remains so quotable. I also grew up on a lot of BBC dramas, so Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre, and black-and-white Japanese films (Akira Kurosawa, particularly), and Chinese martial arts movies - oh, and classic Bangladeshi cinema. It was really an eclectic education, to be honest. Over on the animation front, I watched a ton of Studio Ghibli and from Disney, Mulan and Belle were the two princesses I wanted to grow up to be.

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That's it for today's interview with Karuna. But don't forget to stop by our Twitter page and participate in today's giveaway, which features a pre-order copy of The Gauntlet signed by Karuna herself! (Winner must be in the US.) If you have any questions for Karuna or want to let her know how why you're excited about The Gauntlet, be sure to reach out to her on Twitter. And, whatever you do, be sure to come back again next week, when we'll be talking to Lilliam Rivera, author of The Education Of Margot Sanchez!

#KarunaRiazi

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