May 28, 2017

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Friendship, Family, and Food: Hena Khan and Karuna Riazi on Writing for Salaam Reads

Hena Khan, author of several books about Muslim culture, including Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns: A Muslim Book of Colors (2012) and Night of the Moon: A Muslim Holiday Story (2008, both Chronicle), recently expanded into middle grade literature with Amina’s Voice (S. & S., Mar. 2017), a powerful and universal story, which garnered an SLJ star.

Karuna Riazi is a lifelong New Yorker and an undergraduate at Hostra University studying English literature. The Gauntlet is her first published novel.

Both authors are part of Salaam Reads, a new imprint of Simon and Schuster that aims to “introduce readers of all faiths and backgrounds to a wide variety of Muslim children and families and offer Muslim kids an opportunity to see themselves reflected positively in published works.” The two women recently met up to chat about Salaam Reads, writing for young readers, and their shared experiences as Muslim authors working to bring diverse and authentic voices to the mostly white world of middle grade fiction. [Their conversation has been edited lightly for clarity and length.]

Karuna Riazi: It is an honor and a pleasure to be speaking with you, Hena. You’re such an inspiration!

Hena Khan: Thank you! It’s wonderful to talk with you too, my fellow Salaam Reads author.

Karuna Riazi. Photo courtesy of the author.

KR: First of all, can I just say how much Amina’s Voice felt like home to me? I’m a different South Asian—or, well, half South Asian—than Amina and her family, but so much of it rang true to me in such a warm, soothing way. Her uncle’s suitcases full of gifts from the relatives back in Pakistan, for instance, and her struggling to pronounce her Arabic letters really just took me back to middle school and the girl I was back then. It’s beautiful and just the type of contemporary [novel] that I want to see more of on shelves: heartfelt, diverse, and evocative to its core.

HK: Thank you, that makes me so happy. And congratulations to you on the recent release of The Gauntlet! It’s awesome to see how excited everyone is about this book, and how much people are enjoying reading it. You did a great job creating a fast-paced, high-stakes adventure filled with lovely details that build a fantastic world for your characters to navigate. I especially appreciated the way you wove in cultural elements and sensory details so seamlessly. As a huge fan of board games as a kid, I would have devoured this book, and it makes me happy to know kids of all backgrounds can now root for a character like Farah.

KR: It’s wonderful to have characters like Farah and Amina out there. Amina’s Voice is a realistic, character-driven contemporary. Why did you choose this genre to tell her story?

Hena Khan. Photo courtesy of the author.

HK: That genre is what I loved to read most as a child myself. I read everything I got my hands on, but the stories I connected with the most, and the ones I reread over and over again all featured girls and their lives. As a young reader, I adored everything by Beverly Clearly, especially her “Ramona Quimby” books, the “Little House” series, and Little Women. And those stories, and little things that happened in them, are lodged in my memory all these years later. I would love for kids to read Amina’s Voice and feel like they got to know her and her family—and for them to think of her as they go through life. How about you? What drew you to writing a fantasy?

KR: Fantasy has always been my first love and has always been the primary genre I write within. It’s also what I grew up on—particularly the plethora of marvelous girl-power centered narratives that cropped up in the 90s: Ella Enchanted, Diana Wynne Jones’s body of work. I’ve always wanted to be part of that tradition, and more than that, have me—or someone like me—actually have a position on the shelves along with all the formative titles.

HK: Wow. You’re a lot younger than me! And it’s impressive that you already have your debut novel with Salaam Reads. How did you react to the book deal?

KR: Honestly, I was in shock. I’ve told this story a few times, but before I got “the Call,” I was expecting it to be a gentle let-down and that I would be told that Zareen Jaffery [executive editor at Salaam Reads] passed on the manuscript. I was walking around the house, giving myself a pep talk about how Farah and The Gauntlet would find the right home and how this wouldn’t be a personal judgment on my words or my writing. So when I answered the phone and [my agent] Dhonielle Clayton let me know that Zareen had acquired The Gauntlet, and I had a book deal, I had to sit down! And then, I made her repeat, “You have a book deal,” probably like five or six times. It still hasn’t sunk in! I’m so humbled and thankful and grateful.

HK: That’s awesome. I think that feeling never goes away!

KR: I noticed that both of our stories focus on friendship and family. Why did you choose to center your story around them?

HK: Friendship and family are the two things that matter to me most in my life. Even as a kid, there was nothing that mattered to me more, and I wanted Amina to share that characteristic. Plus, I think it’s something that so many kids can identify with, even as they have other passions and interests. A lot of the feelings Amina has are what I experienced growing up, and elements of the book are pulled from my own life—like her friendship with Soojin and her visiting uncle. It’s been surprising for me to hear people comment on how nice is to read about a loving and supportive family, but I’m so glad to hear it. Amina’s family is a composite of so many wonderful ones I know. And I wanted her friends to be positive forces in her life, as mine have been, even if they cause anxiety at times. What about you? How much of your story is derived from your own experience?

KR: I think my family and experiences growing up have diffused into every word and moment of The Gauntlet. A lot of the sweets mentioned are my favorites or ones I ate as a child. The flickering lights in Bangladesh Farah remembers, playing with her cousins and waiting for the generator to kick back in, even the fond memories of the old apartment she had to leave behind in Queens, NY, are little vignettes of my own childhood.

HK: And we both have aunts and uncles in our books. Why did you choose the auntie to be a major character?

KR: I have a lot of aunts in my family, and plenty outside the family as well, if you count family friends and other dear acquaintances. They feature so strongly in my childhood memories and a lot of times, if you ask me for a particular anecdote, one or two of them will crop up. Just the other day, I was remembering my Turkish auntie (my mom’s good friend), who doesn’t look it at times, but is incredibly strong. One day, when I was very sick, she carried me up and down several flights of stairs with ease. I think some of her, for instance, made up Aunt Zohra. Really, I feel like Aunt Zohra is the unsung jewel of The Gauntlet’s world: dedicated, haunted, and determined to keep others from suffering the way she did. Apart from family, food plays a big role in my book, and it seems to be in yours as well.

HK: Yes, I’m a bit food obsessed, and it comes through. I didn’t realize it until some reviewers said that reading the book made them hungry. But food is also such a huge part of Pakistani American culture, as are dinner parties and social gatherings of all types that involve massive quantities of delicious food. I think food connects us, and is a part of a culture that everyone can appreciate. I noticed there are so many sweets mentioned in The Gauntlet. Do you have a big sweet tooth?

KR: I grew up on all these Bengali sweets and goodies, and it doesn’t help that we have awesome cooks in the extended family. My uncle, in particular, makes incredible gulab jamun and rasmalai when he can spare the time, and it’s probably just as well that he’s been too busy recently to make a batch or two! My own father has a habit of bringing home sweets from his favorite Bangladeshi restaurant near work. It’s definitely part of our family and I think my aunts would be horrified and wonder if we were feeling well if any of us turned our nose up when the sweets came out!

In that same vein of authors reflected in their work, I was actually wondering if you took singing lessons like Amina.

HK: Nope! Although I’m sure my family would say I could probably use some. I’m not musical at all, can’t read a note, and can barely carry a tune. I always wished for piano lessons as a kid, but we didn’t have a piano and my parents weren’t about to buy one. Amina’s musical abilities were inspired by my older son, who was born with a passion for music that [is] so fun to see. He heard music in everything as a baby, even the clanging of the dishwasher. And now as a teen, he loves to play music, but he doesn’t sing either.

KR: You’ve written other books about Muslims and have an incredible reputation for beautiful and important stories. Does this particular novel feel different in light of the timing and relevance of stories about Muslims today?

HK: Absolutely. I started to write this book over four years ago, when the world felt like a different place. Even back then, growing Islamophobia was a big concern of mine, which is why I included the mosque vandalism incident in the book. But I never could have imagined that American Muslims would be facing the incredible challenges we are today, or that the events that I describe in the book would be so unfortunately timely or relevant. It’s absolutely heartbreaking to hear about tragic events taking place almost every day around the country. But at the same time, the response to the book, and the fact that people see it as a tool to build empathy and understanding, and to create dialogue and support for people experiencing similar challenges, is encouraging.

KR: I never could have imagined it, either, so I know how you feel.

HK: Tell me a little bit about your experience working with We Need Diverse Books. What does it mean to have this book out, in terms of inclusion?

KR: I worked with We Need Diverse Books back when it was a hashtag in 2014. At that point, it was just incredible to me that Aisha Saeed had a book deal, and Sabaa Tahir shortly afterward. There was such a lack of Muslim authors to look up to in mainstream YA fiction—and the numbers are still disheartening, but at least now I know people—and just a lack of appreciation or space for marginalized authors in general, even though the conversation over diverse books and their importance predates me and my participation in it by years.

It’s incredible to look back now and realize that I am actually an author, just like the other women of color authors (including you, Hena!) I always looked up to and dreamed about emulating with my words. I definitely wouldn’t have imagined it being with a book that represents the never-heard voice of Bangladeshi Americans, either.

How do you craft an inclusive message in a book, like Amina’s Voice which is about a Pakistani American family, that appeals across cultures?

HK: I think the key is to create characters that are relatable and multidimensional. At her core, Amina is a little girl confronting common issues that transcend culture, like changes in her social circle and family, and finding confidence. To me, it was important that even as Amina deals with familiar challenges of balancing two cultures that she remains comfortable in her identity and proud of who she is, which I hope comes through. But I think the fact that the immigrant experience in America is shared by so many cultures helps people from all types of backgrounds see themselves and aspects of their families and communities in this book.

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Kiera Parrott About Kiera Parrott

Kiera Parrott is the reviews director for School Library Journal and Library Journal and a former children's librarian. Her favorite books are ones that make her cry—or snort—on public transportation.

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