As a child, my favorite books were those in which I could see myself. As a tomboy and a devoted reader, the titular Harriet from Harriet the Spy, and Gwen and Jill from the series Something Queer is Going On, became characters I could rely on for comfort and understanding. Only later did I realize that, on top of being nerdy tomboys, these girls were also coded as queer, giving me subtle permission to be who I was—who I am.
But what happens when a child doesn’t have models like these? When the books she reads are full of children who look nothing like her, whose families look nothing like hers, whose stories—while they might be otherwise relatable—don’t center on people like her? The writer Saadia Faruqi worried about how this dynamic might shape how her brown, Muslim daughter—growing up in Houston, Texas—understood the world, and her place in it.
Born and raised in Pakistan, Faruqi moved to Houston with her husband shortly after they were married, and has since invested tremendous energy in promoting better understanding between cultures in her adopted country. She has been an interfaith activist since shortly after September 11, 2001, when she began providing cultural sensitivity training for synagogues and churches, police departments, businesses, and teachers, among others. Faruqi is is editor-in-chief of Blue Minaret, a magazine for Muslim art, poetry, and prose. Her essays on faith and parenting have appeared in TheWashington Post, Upworthy, The Islamic Monthly, Catapult, and The Huffington Post, among other publications. Last year, Oprah Magazine featured her as a woman making a difference in her community.
After releasing a book of short stories in 2015, Faruqi recently published her first chapter book series for early readers, Meet Yasmin! Illustrated by Hatem Aly in an energetic style that focuses on the lively protagonist, the four-book series features a Pakistani-American girl who is active, imaginative, and independent. Each book (all were published simultaneously and can be acquired either as one unit, or as four individual stories) features Yasmin running into some kind of problem—like getting lost or struggling to be creative—and figuring out how to fix it, all on her own. Faruqi knew that brown and Muslim children were already having painful conversations, out of necessity, about discrimination and bigotry. So she wrote a book that gave them a break from those weighty subjects. As Faruqi explained in a piece for Nerdy Book Club, “Yasmin is happy and healthy and faces everything that comes her way with determination and courage. She’s someone we all want our kids to be. She’s just an ordinary American girl, and my kids need her so much.”
I spoke to Faruqi via Skype on Yasmin’s publication date. She was charming, with a warm voice and an easy laugh. We talked about the burden of representation and the need for perfection, her sizable work load, and the big challenges and deep emotions that come with writing for children. —Ilana Masad for Guernica
Guernica: You grew up in Karachi and later emigrated to the US. Is there a particularly vivid memory about your childhood or your youth that has stuck with you?
Faruqi: We just spent the summer there, so it’s very jumbled up, because seeing the same place as an adult is so different. But I think about the sights and sounds of my school: It was a Catholic convent school in Karachi, in an area where all the shops were. It was this messy, crowded place. I thrived in it. It was so alive. The school itself had this huge cathedral, and there was a towering statue of Jesus on the cross when you entered. And I liked it. I didn’t have a very good life otherwise; we were poor and we were struggling. But I still have dreams about that place and that time.
Guernica: What was it like going to Catholic school as a Muslim?
Faruqi: All the good schools were convents. If you wanted an education, that’s where you went. Pakistan is a Muslim majority country, so we got treated better than the other minorities. We had a class for Islamic studies, and the Christian kids would go to their religious studies, and it was very seamless. But there was a crucifix in every room, and when we had music classes we learned hymns and Christmas carols, and we used to perform plays at Christmastime. It was very multicultural and interfaith. As a kid, it didn’t occur to me that was strange.
Guernica: You moved to the US when you were in your 20s. What was that process like?
Faruqi: I was 22. My husband is also originally from Pakistan, but he had gone to school at the University of Houston and then had been working there, and so when we got married, I moved. Everything is so different now. I don’t know if you can do it that smoothly. When I came to Houston, I went back to school and got my degree. We just became citizens a couple years ago. It took literally 20 years of our lives to get that done.
Guernica:After years of publishing articles and essays, in 2015 you published the short story collection Brick Walls: Tales of Hope & Courage from Pakistan, and now Meet Yasmin! When did you start writing fiction?
Faruqi: After 9/11, I was constantly writing-writing-writing, trying to bring across messages about tolerance between different faiths and people. It just got to the point where I felt very frustrated. I do trainings where people still ask me the same questions they were asking ten, fifteen years ago. People had a lot of misconceptions. Somebody asked me if I lived in a tree in Pakistan; somebody asked me if we had cars.
It was happening so much that I realized: When I’m presenting a graph or statistic about Muslims, people’s eyes just glaze over. But when I tell a story about what happened to me when I was a kid, or about my kids now, people actually sit up and take notice. I realized that storytelling is a really powerful way of bringing across a message, so that people don’t even realize that they’re learning something. Yasmin itself is really telling—it has a very powerful message, but nobody in their right mind is going to read it and think, “Oh, I learned something today,” you know? It’s fun, and it’s for kids. But in its normality, in Yasmin being just an ordinary child, she’s showing that there are people who might look different, who might speak or practice their faith differently, but they’re just people like you and me.
Guernica: How did you decide to go from the adult narratives of Brick Walls to children’s books?
Faruqi: I’m still not switching—I still have a couple of adult manuscripts that I’m working on! I’m adding. My kids growing up was a big part of that. I have an older son, and my daughter is a little bit younger. She was struggling when she started reading independently. If you’re not into fantasy or action or Harry Potter, you have very limited options. My daughter would say, “I don’t like any of these girls. They always have blond hair. They’re not like me. I’m not like them.” I decided she can’t be the only one feeling that way. When you’re younger, you’re also more open to different ideas. You haven’t decided that certain people or ideas are bad.
Guernica: So what was the process of making this idea for the book into a reality?
Faruqi: This is not my first children’s book: I wrote another one and it got a whole bunch of rejections. I had several failed manuscripts and several years of being disappointed. Yasmin started out as a picture book; it was just a standalone story about a little girl who gets lost and she makes a little map and she tries to find her way home. Capstone Publishing was interested, and they said, how about we make this into a series for older kids? They’re the ones who found the illustrator.
I was very cognizant of the fact that this would be kind of a milestone series. It’s the first and only early-reader chapter-book series for kids of that age—kindergarten through second grade—by a mainstream publisher that features a Muslim main character. Not a side character, not just a one-off picture book, but a full series written by a Muslim author. I really hope it’s not going to be the only one. When I signed the contract, I told my publisher I would like to have a Muslim background artist, too.
Guernica: Did you work closely with your illustrator, Hatem Aly?
Faruqi: I work with my editor and then my editor works with the design editor, and then the design editor works with the illustrator. Hatem is Egyptian-Canadian, and he’s pretty cool. He’s done art for a lot of really awesome books that have won awards, and I was very happy to have him. But he is also special because he has the same background as me—well, you know, Arab versus South Asian. But still, enough of a similar background where I don’t have to explain things. He’s just been fabulous at picking up what I’m trying to bring across. We’re doing a blog tour together, so we’ve become friends because of social media.
Guernica: When you were writing the book, how did you choose what scenarios you wanted to feature Yasmin in?
Faruqi: I sit my kids down and I say, give me stories! A lot of them are things that have happened to my daughter, though Yasmin has a different character and personality. But there have been times when my son goes, “You’re just copying her!” And I’m like, “Well, let’s not tell anyone!”
Kids’ lives are very predictable. There’s a story where Yasmin gets lost—kids will often get lost. There’s a story where she’s sneaking into her mom’s closet and trying on her clothing. What kid hasn’t done that? We decided early on to have every Yasmin story be related to a profession or a job. So that kids who are reading could think, Yasmin’s a painter, maybe I can be a painter when I grow up.
Guernica: There’s still a lot of stigma and misunderstanding around women who cover their hair. In the first story of Meet Yasmin! we’re introduced to Yasmin’s family, and when we first see her mother, the illustration shows her hair in a long braid, uncovered, because she’s home. And then, when she and Yasmin head to the market, you write, “Yasmin can hardly wait as Mama gets her hijab and purse.” You positioned the hijab right next to the purse, showing that it’s just a thing you put on when you go out, just like you’d take your purse, which is an accessory that American kids of any faith or nationality or culture will be familiar with. How did you figure out this brilliant normalizing move?
Faruqi: That is all Hatem Aly. And that is why I felt that I needed an illustrator who understood my background. People who’ve read the advance copies always mention this scene. When I looked at it I was like, Oh my gosh, nobody had to tell this guy, he figured it out himself! I mean, everybody’s family is different. In my family, I’m the only one who wears a hijab; my sisters don’t, my mom doesn’t, my sisters-in-law and mother-in-law don’t. But if I was wearing my scarf, my kids would be like, “Where are we going?” It’s the signal that we’re going out somewhere.
A lot of people here don’t realize that Muslim women don’t wear a hijab all the time. I’ve had questions like, “Do you shower in it?” Why would anyone think that? But people just don’t know. If you search “Muslims in the media,” you’ll see that the hijab, the burka, any kind of veil becomes synonymous with Muslims. It’s not only oversimplified, but really misunderstood. And then we have countries in Europe that are banning head-coverings.
And how do you remove those politics if you’re trying to tell a child about it? For me, it was as simple as showing Yasmin’s mom without a hijab in one picture, and in the other showing her putting it on. It’s very normal. No words needed. When you have to explain something, it adds importance to that thing. But any child is going to look at that little piece of art and figure out exactly what this thing is. And Hatem did that all by himself. When I looked at it, I was like, this is perfect.
Guernica: In the second story, Yasmin the Artist, Yasmin learns that it’s okay for art to be messy. That’s a really good message for children, and also for adults. Was that also a realization for you as a writer?
Faruqi: Yeah, I think I learned that a long time ago. The overall message of this story is that you don’t have to be perfect, as little girls often feel that they have to be. My little girl is an artist, and she loves painting. She often goes on YouTube and copies Bob Ross, and it’s fantastic, it looks like a grown-up has done it. And then she’ll make this little cartoon figure on it, and my husband is like, “Oh my god, you ruined the whole thing!” And I’m like, “That’s the only part of it that’s hers. That’s the part that she came up with!” So for me, that Yasmin story was more about how you don’t have to be perfect. You can be messy. Art doesn’t have to make sense to anybody else.
But for me, this is a hard lesson. Especially if you’re not a white writer among the millions of other white writers. It’s a burden, honestly, to be part of this emerging group of South Asian American writers. There’s so much fanfare around that. Publishers Weekly just put out an article about Muslim girls writing books, which they’re apparently doing for the first time ever in the history of mankind?
Having those kinds of expectations, where people are looking at you, makes it difficult. And you’re trying so hard, and sometimes it does get very frustrating. I just want to write a good story! I realize that this kind of publicity is good for the book, and I love it most days, but then being less-than-perfect is sometimes not an option. But what you create doesn’t have to be perfect. It’s your creation.
Guernica: In the third story, Yasmin becomes a bridge-builder, connecting all the buildings and structures that the other kids make. I love this as a metaphor, and it makes me think of you, because you’ve built both your writing career and your activism around this idea of building bridges between faiths and cultures. Can you tell me about your activist work?
Faruqi: That’s what it is: bridge-building. And I see writing as part of my activism. Anyone can do this kind of interfaith or intercultural activism. You just need to go and say hi to another person. It’s that simple. And that’s how I started. I went to the librarian at my local library, and I said, “We have copies of the Quran in 50 different languages and they’re all different colors; I think it would be really cool if we did an exhibition.” I totally expected her to say no—but she said, “Okay, fine.” So we did that, and then she said, “I was thinking maybe could do a book club.” So we started an interfaith book club, and now we’ve been doing that for six or seven years, and it’s a big thing in the community.
If you look at it as “activism,” it becomes this huge thing, and you think, Oh, well, I’m not that kind of person, I’m not an activist, I can’t do this. But it’s really just about building some kind of friendship with another person. Sometimes, if you spend enough time, it snowballs into big things. But it doesn’t have to. You can simply be friendly with your neighbor, who is of a different faith.
So that’s what my work has been. It started with an interfaith book club, and then I started writing for my local weekly newspaper in Houston. Last year Oprah Magazine featured me. I tell everyone about it, because if something cool happens, you should be proud of it! But also I’ve had a lot of people who don’t know why I do what I do, including in my own family. And it takes a lot of time away from my family. My kids know.
People might think what I’m doing won’t change people’s minds. But I think it does. I get letters and emails from people who tell me they’ve been able to go to their families and say, “I know a Muslim and she’s not a terrorist, so maybe what we’re seeing on the news is wrong.” So people often think it’s kind of futile, but there is a snowball effect. That’s why it’s important to celebrate the Oprah thing, or anything else. First of all, I need that. But then other people also need to see that what I’m doing has value.
Guernica: These stories explicitly don’t address the racism and discrimination that a lot of Muslim people face in the United States and Europe. Why did you decide to keep the Yasmin series the happy, innocent, wonderfully child-centered space that it is?
Faruqi: Yasmin is never going to be about being Muslim. It’s not the point of the series. This series is for kids like my daughter. She knows who she is and understands her place. She doesn’t need to read a book about the problems, because every Muslim family is having those conversations at home. Books are an escape. This book is to make any brown child, any child of an immigrant, any child who’s different from the majority, feel that they have a place in society. That’s all it is.
Guernica: How do you feel about your book being out in the world now?
Faruqi: It’s not my first pub day, but this is emotional. Maybe because Yasmin is also my child in a way. I should show you—we actually have her in the house! [Faruqi pulls out a child-sized cardboard cutout of Yasmin and laughs.] They sent me a cardboard cutout for my book event.
I could not have predicted how much this series would be welcomed. There is such a huge difference between the kid-lit community and the adult-lit community. Children’s authors are so welcoming and friendly. There are also teachers and librarians in that mix, and I have been getting a steady stream of excited messages from them about how much their students or their kids need this series.
I have to tell you one story. A fifth grade ESL teacher has a student who has just come from Yemen, where there’s a war. He’s still learning English. The teacher had an early copy of Yasmin, and when they got to the first story and they turned the page to where Yasmin’s mom puts on her hijab, the student got so excited. He was like, “My mom wears this! My mom wears this!” And he took the book home and showed it to his whole family. The teacher was almost crying when she told me, and then I started crying. It’s a totally different feeling when you know that your book is not just a good book, it’s a book that’s needed by so many kids. I mean, how cool is that?