Friday, July 7, 2017

Transforming Life Into Art: Aisha Saeed

Aisha Saeed is a founding member of We Need Diverse Books. Her novel Written in the Stars was listed as one of the 30 best YA books of all time by Paste magazine, a best book of 2015 by Bank Street Books, a 2016 YALSA Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers, and was awarded the top ten books all Young Georgians Should Read 2016. Her middle grade novel will be published in summer 2018. Aisha is also a contributing author to the anthologies Love Inshallah, Faithfully Feminist, and Our Stories, Our Voices, forthcoming in Summer 2018. Visit

Aisha Saeed knows what you're thinking. When many readers pick up her debut novel, Written in the Stars, they think it's about her own experience as a teen.

It is. And it decidedly isn't. Like her main character, Nila, Saeed grew up Pakistani-American in the South. But unlike her protagonist, she didn't face a forced marriage herself.

"I write to find the answers to questions I have. That's what I was doing with Written in the Stars," Saeed says. "I went into the topic of forced marriage because I had friends growing up who were forced into marriages. If they said no, their parents would disown them. As I was applying to college, my friends were getting engaged and married. And by the time I graduated, they were getting divorced. What their parents did was wrong, but those parents loved their kids. So how could this be happening?"

Diving into the book — which took her ten years to write — Saeed thought twice. "A lot of people don't like Muslims these days, so it's daunting," Saeed says. "Because I want to write the truth of this story. But am I writing something that is going to make things harder? Ultimately, it was hard, because I knew I took that risk. I had to choose not to be afraid to tell the truth."

Not everyone was thrilled, starting with Aisha's own mother. "I think you always have to tell the truth, literal or emotional. When my mom got the arc for the first time, she hadn't read the beginning of it," Saeed says. "My mom read it and she was like, 'You really don't like me do you?' She thought the parents in the book were based on her and my father. 'We didn't let you date. Or go to prom.' And I said, 'But you didn't force me to get married. So we're good.' I wrote that truth and built on it, and I knew it would be painful to go there. But I had to do it."

The risk paid off — immediately, Saeed began to hear from readers who were touched by her story. And they weren't just Muslim women. "The very first email I got was from a Mormon woman in Utah who ran an organization that helped girls escape from forced marriages here in the United States. I found readers who said, 'I see warning signs in this book — I can see this happening to me."

Writing about such a touchy topic was difficult — especially because the canon of literature about South Asian American kids and teens is small. But Saeed knows that using her voice is helping to change that. 

"Growing up, I never saw myself in books — except as the bad guy, the terrorist, or as the punchline to a joke," she says. "When I first started, I never wrote about my own culture or religious identity because I didn't see it. I thought my story didn't matter. I was in college the first time I saw someone who looked like me on the cover a book — Shabanu by Suzanne Fisher Staples." 

A few years later, she picked up the award-winning Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri. And she wasn't the only one. "I saw people buying it. Lots of people buying it," Saeed says. "People wanted to read our stories. That's when I thought, maybe I can write stories, too."

These days, Saeed sees kids like her reacting with joy (and relief) when they pick up her book. "I didn’t have that. I didn’t even know that I could even want for that," Saeed says, " so it’s incredible to see kids who are like me — South Asian Muslims — who see themselves in my book."

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