“As an Asian American author, I’ve mostly written stories set in the U.S. After all, my children – now 11 and 14 years old – were born here, and this is the only world they know. So without really thinking about it, I’ve always gravitated towards writing for kids like mine. First generation. Muslim American. Asian American. South Asian American. American.
Don’t get me wrong, that’s a good thing. My kids – and all kids growing up in the U.S. today – need books that center BIPOC characters. They should be reading books that showcase cultural and religious differences yet take nothing away from the story itself. My Yasmin series for beginning readers is a perfect example of this: Yasmin and her family and proud Pakistani Americans and Muslim, but it’s not really mentioned in the books. You see that from the art (by the fabulous Hatem Aly) and from small clues like the words they use or the foods they eat. Yasmin is an ordinary second grader just like every American kid in elementary school, and that’s her appeal.
Somewhere in the last few years, however, I started thinking about why culture is so important in books for kids. I began to wonder why most children’s books in the U.S. are set in the U.S., even though a significant portion of young readers today are immigrants or first generation. I saw my own kids slowly losing their connection to their heritage, especially since we stopped visiting Pakistan as often as we used to. All of this has had a deep impact on me. More and more, I began to consider setting a middle grade novel somewhere else. Somewhere outside America.
And so, A Thousand Questions was born. I’ve set this novel in my birth place of Karachi, Pakistan. It’s the story of a first generation American girl Mimi who visits her grandparents from the first time, and finds everything awful. The heat, the language, the spicy food… everything is foreign. But slowly, these things grow on her, and she becomes close to her new family. She also meets a new friend, Pakistani native Sakina. The contrast between the two girls, their lifestyles, their hopes and dreams… this is what storytelling is all about.
A Thousand Questions isn’t just a friendship story, but one where setting plays a huge part. I could have set the story anywhere on earth, but I chose to place Mimi and Sakina in a land that may seem foreign to some readers. But hopefully they will see the benefit and enchantment of that land, and discover the similarities with their own home. At the end of the day, place is an important part of ourselves… our culture, heritage, memories, perspectives. The non-American settings of our books may be the most important part of the stories we tell, if we allow ourselves to do so.
I choose to allow myself.”
Saadia Faruqi is the author of the Yasmin series by Capstone, and A Place at the Table (co-written with Laura Shovan) by HMH/Clarion. Her new novel A Thousand Questions released in the U.S. on October 6 and will publish in the U.K. on Nov 12. Follow Saadia on Twitter and Instagram @saadiafaruqi.