Today's guest is all-around bad ass Aisha Saeed. Aisha is an author, mama, lawyer, educator, and drinker of chai. Plus, she is a founding member of the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books™ and the author of WRITTEN IN THE STARS, which was listed as a best book of 2015 by Bank Street Books, a 2016 YALSA Quick Pick For Reluctant Readers, and was named one of the top ten books all Young Georgians Should Read 2016. We're so excited that Aisha agreed to take some time away from her work in progress (spoiler alert: it sounds amazing!) and join us for a quick chat!
James: Hi Aisha! Thanks so much for talking with us today! Your debut novel, Written In The Stars, was recently listed by Paste as one of the thirty best YA novels of all time! Congratulations! What's it like to see people having such a deep connection with your writing?
Aisha: Thanks! It took me over ten years from the time I came up with the idea to write this story to the time it hit shelves. I wrote the story to make sense of situations happening in the lives of my friends, some of whom were forced into marriages against their will. It took me years to get the story down because I wanted to make sure I did the story justice. Now, all these years later, to see others connect with the story is a very meaningful experience for me.
James: What are some of your other favorite books from that list?
Aisha: Where to begin?! Seriously, I am lucky to have read nearly all the books that made the list and I adore each and every one of them. Becky Albertalli's SIMON VERSUS THE HOMO SAPIEN AGENDA is one near and dear to my heart because of how honest and true to life the characters are. BROWN GIRL DREAMING was a memoir about Jacqueline Woodson's childhood and despite how different our lives were at the age of her memoir I related to so much of her personal struggles to make sense of the world. I think what draws me to a book is the universal truths contained within them, the ones that make me say yes! I see myself in this story! And so many of the stories in the Paste roundup capture this very feeling for me.
James: Naila's story is absolutely unforgettable. How did you come up with the idea for Written In The Stars?
Aisha: I definitely drew from real-life experiences while writing WRITTEN IN THE STARS. Growing up, I had childhood friends who were coerced and pressured into marriages they would not have chosen for themselves. While my novel is entirely fictional, those stories always stayed with me and served as the inspiration for my novel.
James: In other interviews, you've talked about the difference between forced marriages and arranged marriages. Why is this distinction an important one for readers to understand?
Aisha: Many people think arranged marriages are the same as forced marriages but the truth is forced marriages are not the same thing at all. Arranged marriages can range from marriages where the couple meets on their wedding day, to where the couple was simply introduced by family members but dated for years before getting married. The defining difference between an arranged and forced marriage is choice. Like in WRITTEN IN THE STARS, a forced marriage is one in which one or both partners in the marriage did not consent to the marriage. Such marriages are condemned by every religion and culture in the world.
James: You are one of the founding members of We Need Diverse Books and have been an outspoken advocated for marginalized voices in the writing community. Why is this an important issue to you?
Aisha: I believe all children deserve to see themselves in books, and I believe all children deserve to understand the world around them. We may not always be able to meet people different than ourselves in our daily lives but through a book we can understand and empathize with people who perhaps we may not have realized were so similar to ourselves were it not for a book.
James: If someone loved your book and wanted to read some other YA books with positive Muslim rep, where would you suggest they start?
Aisha: SHOOTING KABUL by N.H. Senzai and TASTING THE SKY by Ibtisam Barakat are two books I love. The canon of Muslim rep in children's literature is indeed growing and there are a lot of great books coming up around the horizon. I strongly suggest readers interested in reading more check out the new imprint by Simon and Schuster, SALAAM READS, they will be publishing many books about Muslims and by Muslims. The stories will not be limited to religion-centric books. I'm very excited for what books will come!
James: Just one more question: Can you tell us anything about your next project?
Aisha: My next book is going to be a middle grade project, it's about a Pakistani girl who makes a choice to enter into indentured servitude to save her family. In doing so she finds the means to take down the feudal system that has ruled her village for centuries. It's a story highlighting the brave girls of Pakistan, they may not always get a headline but there are many brave girls worthy of praise and admiration.
That's it for today's interview with Aisha. If you have any questions for Aisha or want to let her know how Written In The Stars has impacted you, be sure to reach out to her on Twitter or check out her website. And be sure to come back again next week, when we'll be talking to master-of-all-things-historical-fiction Elizabeth Wein! Plus, we'll be hosting our coolest giveaway yet! Be sure to follow us on Twitter so you don't miss out!