"What kind of system are we trying to pass on?"
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?
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.
Your observations on how Muslim brides should behave at their weddings are razor-sharp. What was it like writing those scenes?
Mirza: One thing which was so fun about this novel was that it really allowed me to pay attention to the world I come from. And to pick up on some ridiculous things. For years your parents want you to get married and the minute you do they say: why are you smiling? It’s just bizarre. On the surface, we think it’s funny and that’s how our parents are, but on another level, what does it say about a woman’s agency? What kind of system are we trying to pass on where marriage is an obligation and we as women shouldn’t be happy about it.
The great thing about art is that you can touch on these layers, both the funny and the truthful ones. And question why we are teaching this message to our daughters? Don’t we want them to be happy about getting married? It draws attention to the ways we’re failing each other. How we’re failing to live our best lives. Hopefully someone reading this thinks: why do I think that? Should I even? The next generation should have the freedom to interrogate itself.
A big part of the book is about family. You yourself have three younger brothers. Did you draw on a lot of your own experiences?
Mirza: When you grow up in an immigrant household, where your parents are from somewhere else and you’re from the country that you’re growing up in, your siblings become your allies. And they become your mini-parents in a way. I parent my brothers on topics that my parents wouldn’t know about, like when it comes to girls or school. And honestly, even my brothers parent me sometimes. They are very supportive and there’s this crazy bond that has formed between us. I wanted to honour that relationship and show that it’s such a fun thing, because we used to play together, but it’s also such a tough thing, because we fought fiercely too. And they were allowed to do things that I wasn’t. That made me mad, because they were being raised as boys and I was being raised as a girl.
As a result, was it difficult for you to convince your parents that you were going to move out and become a writer?
Mirza: My parents were definitely the first hurdle. When they came around and accepted me, they protected me from my greater family. They said things like, Fatima is doing her own thing now. I’m so fortunate that I have such parents. The wider community actually felt bad for them. "Oh, Mohammed and Shereen’s daughter, she turned out like that", that’s the attitude they had. Because it wasn’t the norm for girls to move away. One time I overheard my dad speaking to someone on the phone and this person was asking him how he could have let me move away so far. My dad said: "I trust Fatima, she’s my daughter. She’s going to be fine."
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