Interview with Indian-American author Fatima Farheen Mirza

"What kind of system are we trying to pass on?"

In her debut novel "A Place for Us" about an Indian-American Muslim family, Fatima Farheen Mirza conveys a universal and unique story, revealing the generation gap between the parents and their three children. In conversation with Schayan Riaz, the author talks about the lack of Muslim characters in fiction and moving out to become a writer

When you started writing "A Place for Us", did you already have a fully-formed story in your mind or were you just exploring themes?

Fatima Farheen Mirza: I remember the first time I wrote down the name "Hadia". I was 18 years old and wanted to write about a woman that could be me, my sister, or one of my cousins. Before that, I had only created culturally ambiguous characters, like Cory, Cody or Charlie. I was mimicking what I was reading at that time. Characters that weren’t Muslim, because I had never read about Muslims in stories and felt as though they didn’t exist in them. Like there was no space for them. That was what prompted me to write this book: not a story or a theme, but a character that I could relate to.

What were some of the concerns you had while writing this story?

Mirza: On the one hand, I really wanted to write about Muslims in America, and on the other hand I was scared, because growing up it was so painful to see how badly they were represented in the media, in film, on TV. Either they weren’t there or they were evil, they were stereotypes, jokes or just accents. My fear was, what if I too did it badly and then contributed to the very thing that was so detrimental to their actual lives? I wanted to protect these characters and decided not to write a story about Muslims that one would expect. I wanted to do justice to their lives and asked the characters what the story was for them individually. I wanted to show what life was like for them, regardless of their country or political context.

You use a lot of Urdu words without explaining them. Was that a conscious decision?

Cover of Mirzaʹs "A Place for Us" (published by SJP for Hogarth)
Probing the funny and the truthful: in her debut novel, Fatima Farheen Mirza set out to write about Muslims in America, determined not to compound the existing stereotypes that are rife across the media. As she says, "I wanted to protect these characters, to do justice to their lives. I wanted to show what life was like for them, regardless of their country or political context"

Mirza: People keep asking me why I didn’t include a glossary or explain certain words. I was pretty stubborn about that, because I thought, why should my characters have to explain themselves? This is what their life is like and I’m not shying away from that. They are not ashamed about it, so why should I be? White characters are constantly given the freedom and flexibility to tell their story, no matter what. They don’t feel the need to explain their existence, even if the reader might be unfamiliar with their culture. That was my approach too, even if it meant perhaps disorienting the reader. I hope that once there is more representation in literature, our ideas about what stories can be will be as expansive as we are as people.

Has your book been reviewed by any Muslim critics?

Mirza: No! Not a single Muslim critic has reviewed it. Which is a shame. I would have loved that engagement, because while I’m so fortunate and glad the book is in the hands of readers, I especially feel a particular gratitude when it’s in the hands of other third culture kids, kids who know what it was like to grow up between two cultures.

There’s a line in the book: "How much more fun it was to throw Urdu terms at one another in jest; how different it felt when the same words were spat from their parent’s mouths." Was that also your experience, growing up with more than one language?

Mirza: I love Urdu, but I didn’t understand the power it had in my life until now, when I was away from home so much and wasn’t speaking it. I wanted to naturally express that for the characters, who are obviously growing up in America, but are maintaining their South-Asian culture at the same time. When Hadia and Amar are young, they speak Urdu in public and that creates a sort-of secret world for them. But then they also use it as a joke, which is the opposite of how their parents use Urdu. I wanted to capture these nuances, because language is another way for us to expand our world.

You not only write in different languages, but you write in different voices too. What was it like to channel all of them into one story?

Mirza: The reason I included multiple perspectives is because I wanted to give a complete picture of what it was like for this Muslim family. I wanted to include characters with different beliefs and see how that plays out for them. What’s the clash that follows when a mother thinks one way about love and her son thinks in another way? I, as Fatima, didn’t have to choose sides; I would approach each voice with the same amount of respect and try to understand his or her motivations. Only when seeing their actions through the eyes of a different character would I be devastated, angry, or hopeless.

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