The Immigrant Experience & Interfaith Activism, Saadia Faruqi

Saadia Faruqi is a Pakistani American author, essayist and interfaith activist. She writes the children’s early reader series “Yasmin” and other books for children, including middle grade novels “A Place At The Table” co-written with Laura Shovan (a Sydney Taylor Notable 2021), and “A Thousand Questions” (a South Asia Book Award Honor 2021). Her new book “Yusuf Azeem Is Not A Hero” details the experiences of the Muslim American community twenty years after 9/11. Saadia is editor-in-chief of Blue Minaret, a magazine for Muslim art, poetry and prose, and was featured in Oprah Magazine in 2017 as a woman making a difference in her community. She lives in Houston, TX with her husband and children.


We talk to Saadia about how her cultural heritage and faith influences her creativity, her publishing experiences and interfaith activism.


What was it like growing up and how did you become a writer?


I grew up in Pakistan, without much access to books and libraries. My father would take me to the market sometimes to buy used books, and our school had a small library. My love of reading thus developed at an early age despite my surroundings, and that led to my love of writing. I wrote all sorts of stories in notebooks, jotting them down in secret and reading them again and again. As I grew older, my stories grew with me. It was something I did for fun, not to share with others, or with any ideas about making it a career.


How has your cultural heritage influenced your creativity?


I think South Asians and Arabs in general have a big storytelling culture. I grew up on all sorts of stories… my grandmother telling me about her life before and after Partition, my teachers repeating stories of early Islam. It was all very influential in building my imagination and perceiving stories as an important part of life. I was also surrounded by other kinds of creativity… art and music, for example. But the written word was always the first and most important.



You’ve written both early reader books and middle grade books, as well as an adult fiction book. Are there any challenges when writing for such different audiences?


Writing is the same in terms of craft, regardless of who you are writing for. The way you develop characters, build tension, carry the plot… these are all essential to writing. So I don’t really find it impossible to write for a variety of age groups. It can definitely be challenging, but practice and patience make it happen.



Can you share your approach to telling stories about diaspora experiences and how have your own experiences shaped this?


I’m an immigrant to the U.S. I arrived in this country as a new bride, a student, and a heart full of dreams. This was a couple of years before 9/11, and my experiences in the last twenty years living as a Muslim in a post 9/11 America has definitely shaped my entire life. My stories are an extension of that. I write not only about the immigrant experience, but also the experience of first-generation American kids, like mine. They say, write what you know. I’m certainly a big believer in that concept.


Can you tell us more about your early reader series Yasmin, what was the inspiration behind it?


Yasmin is based on my daughter, who is now a teenager. I started writing this series when she was very young, perhaps five or six years old, because I thought she needed to see herself in the books she was starting to read. Early elementary is such an important age for kids. They’re developing their character and sense of self, and to see themselves and their culture and religion reflected back in their books can have a tremendous impact on their psyche. That’s why I decided to write a book about a girl who was like my daughter, with a family like my own family. I’ve been astounded by the success of this series, and how it’s been embraced by families and readers everywhere.



Your novel A Place At The Table, co-written with Laura Shovan, is about two young girls from different backgrounds who find common ground in the kitchen. Where did the inspiration for this story come from, and how did you end up collaborating with Laura?


Laura approached me with the idea to write a book about the first-generation experience. She is a first-generation American, with a mother from England, much like Elizabeth in the book. Since we know that media discussions about immigration tend to revolve more around people of color nowadays, we agreed to write a book that would showcase that through Sara and Elizabeth’s story. I’m grateful for the chance to collaborate with Laura, who is an amazing writer and poet.


Could you speak about your own publishing experiences and what trends you see in the children’s book world at large?


I wrote several manuscripts over the years but never got published traditionally until the Yasmin series. This finally happened during the Trump presidency, when a lot of people were worried about how diversity would be impacted. It makes me very happy to see so many more authors of color, and Muslim authors in particular, being published now. I think there is now more acceptance of our stories, and also an understanding of the need to make diverse stories more available to kids of all backgrounds.


Could you suggest sources for children’s books about the broad range of Muslim life and culture?


Many U.S. authors are writing such books, such as Aya Khalil, Maleeha Siddiqui, Reem Faruqi, Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow, Ashley Franklin, Nadine Jolie Courtney, Syed M. Masood, and so many others. I will also recommend the online literary journal Blue Minaret, where I’m Editor-in-Chief.


You are an interfaith activist, what does this entail?


After 9/11 I began reaching out to people of different faiths to talk about our similarities and answer questions about Muslims. This grew into more formal events like dinner dialogues, book clubs, place of worship tours, and more. I now do much less of such events and more writing related to interfaith issues. I also see my own books as a part of my overall mission to bring people of different cultures and religions together and learn about each other.


How do you bring compassion to your activism? What advice do you have for others who are trying to bridge divides?


Compassion comes from experience. It’s not possible to develop compassion in someone simply by telling them to do so. If one actively meets people and experiences events that move them emotionally, compassion will develop. Anyone who wants to build bridges must be willing to open themselves up. Talk about yourself and your experiences, but also be willing to listen to other people’s stories. Join an interfaith group in your city or online, read articles about someone different from you, or pick up a book about a different culture.



You are editor-in-chief of Blue Minaret, a magazine for Muslim art, poetry and prose. Can you tell us more about the initiative and your role?


Blue Minaret is an online space for Muslim poetry, fiction and art. Anyone who wants to share their work is welcome to submit, but we are pretty selective in what we publish. I started this initiative several years ago because I realized the role of stories and art to changing minds and winning hearts. The works published on our site chronicle the Muslim experience in a diverse array of stories, poetry and art. As the Editor-in-Chief, I select the submissions that will make it on to the site, edit them as needed, and keep the site fresh.


You were featured in Oprah Magazine 2017 as a woman making a difference in her community. How does it feel to get this level of recognition?


It was surreal, but also very validating. As I mention in the article training audiences on various aspects of religion and culture can be extremely overwhelming. I have to be prepared for all sorts of verbal abuse, and rarely do I get any praise or gratitude. To have a major national platform like Oprah showcase my work helped heal some of those wounds that come from interfaith work and went a long way to motivate and encourage me.


What projects are your currently working on?


I’m working almost exclusively on children’s books currently. I have two new series starting this year, Must Love Pets for older elementary readers, and Marya Khan, a new chapter book series for younger readers. I also just published my first nonfiction The Wonders We Seek: Thirty Incredible Muslims Who Helped Shape the World, co-authored with my mother Aneesa Mumtaz and illustrated by Saffa Khan. Next year, I will have my first picture book, as well as my first graphic novel, published.



What does the future of Islamic art, heritage and culture look like to you?


I believe the future is bright for Islamic art of all kinds. The commercial market is becoming more open to our work, and consumers are becoming more knowledgeable and discerning. Social media has led to everything about Islam becoming more mainstream, which holds much promise for artistic endeavors as well. I’m grateful for the opportunity to be a part of this movement.

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