Hitting the Road with Sheba Karim: The YA Author Talks Islamophobia, Identity, & Family

Sheba Karim discusses her riotously funny novel Mariam Sharma Hits the Road and what it's like to write a road trip book from the perspective of a marginalized character.

Photo by Christine Rogers

There's nothing like a road trip when it comes to finding yourself. "By abandoning your routines, your surroundings, your work in favor of new and shifting environments and unpredictable and surprising situations, you are forced to see and engage with the world in different ways," says Sheba Karim, author of Mariam Sharma Hits the Road (HarperCollins, Jun 2018; Gr 9 Up). Her riotously funny, zany, yet deeply perceptive novel (an SLJ star and a popular pick) sees three South Asian teenagers deal with a host of issues, from strained family relationships to Islamophobia, as they leave their suburban New Jersey town and head for New Orleans. Karim spoke to SLJ about what it was like to write about traveling the United States from the point of view of a character from a marginalized community, her own favorite road trip books, and more. You offer a different perspective on the road trip novel, as your characters have to think about their safety and identity in ways that white protagonists usually don’t. I spent most of my adult life living in Philadelphia, New Delhi, and New York. When I moved to Nashville, I would walk into a new “hip” restaurant and be the only person of color in the room, or attend a crowded art crawl and see only a few other people of color. I went to a local children’s writing conference in which every panelist and moderator was white. In these situations, you become keenly aware of your difference, of the color of your skin. Similarly, coming from the suburbs of New York City, Mariam, Ghazala, and Umar can’t help but be aware of how much they stand out as they travel through the South. As Muslims, they are very attuned to Islamophobia (which, as anyone who follows state and local politics can tell you, is thriving in Tennessee), and Umar as a gay man is conscious of the prevalence of homophobia throughout the South. Even within the city limits of more liberal Nashville, you’ll see Confederate flags and hear anti-Muslim and antigay rhetoric. I know a biracial lesbian couple who are reluctant to visit rural Tennessee because of the antagonism they’ve faced. When you enter an environment that has been traditionally hostile to integral aspects of your identity, it’s as though your hair is proverbially standing on end; you’re waiting for something to happen, fearing something might happen, hoping nothing will happen. You wonder what you can do to ingratiate yourself—smile more, be especially polite in your interactions, not do anything overtly “other.” Both this and your earlier novel, That Thing We Call a Heart, offer nuanced looks at South Asian and Muslim identities. Is that something you consciously think about as you’re writing? Listen, on one level, it’s not about me being conscious—if you are writing characters who exist as brown-skinned Muslims in the contemporary United States, they will be conscious of their identity. They don’t have a choice, or the ability to pretend. In the role of writer, you must consciously think about it because your characters are thinking about it. They’re struggling with the questions of what does it mean to be a brown Muslim in this current political climate? What does to mean for them, personally, to be a Muslim, or second-generation South Asian? What does it mean to be gay and Muslim? Both books also focus on the father/daughter relationship.  When I speak to my friends who’ve done therapy, a lot of us had similar stories—we went in thinking we’d talk about x, y, z and spent a helluva lot of time talking about our parents. The American holy grail of following your dreams and being true to yourself can often be in conflict with the South Asian/Islamic emphasis on obeying and respecting your parents. An often cited hadith (saying of Prophet Muhammad) is “Paradise lies at the feet of your mother.” But what if your mother doesn’t want you to be gay? On the one hand, I think we look at the teenage years as the time when we are truly separating from our parents, and on the other, our relationship with our parents/parental figures will remain one of the most powerful influences in our lives, both in how we view ourselves and how we define who we’d like to be. In questions of identity and self-actualization, parents inevitably loom large, particularly when it comes to our romantic relationships. In Mariam Sharma Hits the Road, Mariam ponders what it means for her, as someone wanting to love and be loved, that her father abandoned her. In That Thing We Call a Heart, Shabnam forges a new bond with her awkward father that helps her discover new ways to talk and think about love. Which were your favorite locations to write? New Orleans, as it’s one of my favorite cities and has its own unique rhythm and magic. And Nashville, of course, because for every gripe I have about the city, I’ve also found something to appreciate, including its wonderful creative energy. What are some of your own favorite road trip books? Mosquitoland by David Arnold, An Abundance of Katherines by John Green, Reservation Blues by Sherman Alexie, The Wangs vs. the World by Jade Chang, and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe.
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