Fatima Farheen Mirza: ‘I’d just stepped out of the subway when Sarah Jessica Parker called…’ | Books

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Fatima Farheen Mirza, 27, was born and raised in California. Her father grew up in Hyderabad, her mother in a British-Indian family in Birmingham. After starting pre-med classes, Mirza switched to creative writing and later gained a place at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, whose alumni include Ann Patchett and Curtis Sittenfeld. Her debut novel, A Place for Us, is the first book published by Sarah Jessica Parker’s new imprint for Hogarth – the Pulitzer-prizewinning novelist Paul Harding called it “a work of extraordinary and enthralling beauty”. The novel explores tensions within a devout Muslim family in California around the turn of the 21st century.

How did the novel come about?
The first image came to me when I was 18. It was of a family gathered at the wedding of their eldest daughter and, as they’re about to take the family photograph, their son, Amar, cannot be found. The entire novel was written as a way for me to understand this moment. What were the dynamics in this family? What caused this fracturing [with Amar]? I began writing it in one of my creative writing classes and on my own at weekends.

How did you react when you heard that Sarah Jessica Parker was publishing the book?
I had just landed in NYC and stepped out of the subway the first time she called. The first thing I remember saying was: “Oh my God, I recognise your voice going back years.” I ducked into a McDonalds to escape the noise, and while we spoke, people kept asking to share the table with me. Such a surreal moment. I was stunned during our conversation, because she spoke so thoughtfully about the very scenes that meant the most to me in the book and I felt so comforted that she understood what those scenes meant to the characters, to me.

We don’t see many novels exploring lives of Muslims in the west. Was that part of your motivation for writing it: to promote a better understanding of the Muslim community?
No, not at all. In fact, when I first realised that the family was Muslim, I hesitated, because I was aware that this was an under-represented voice and I didn’t want to take advantage of it. But I couldn’t stop thinking about the characters. Once I began writing about them, they became human to me, they were not capital-letter Muslims, capital-letter post-9/11. To me it was always a story about brothers and sisters, mothers and daughters, fathers and sons – they just happened to be Muslim.

When Hadia is about to get married, aged 27, you write that “She deeply respected hijab but did not wear it for herself”. Do you share her view?
I wore hijab from when I was nine until I was about 22. It wasn’t out of a lack of respect or care that I took it off. It was the opposite of that. It was because I have so much respect for hijab and for the women in my life who are devoted to it, that I realised my own personal relationship with it was not for the same reasons. It has made me who I am and it will always be a part of me, even if it is not visible to the outside world.

You decided to practise your faith in your own way?
Yes. I get quite emotional talking about it. I think that people reduce the hijab. One thing that really frustrated me when I first took it off, is that many people, including some of my friends, reacted by saying: “Now you’re liberated.” But to me that’s a simplification. For me, my mother is liberated when she chooses to wear it, and all the years that I wore it, that was my decision.

It struck me that the social limitations within the community in the novel are useful in storytelling terms. Even the most innocent-seeming romantic encounters become freighted with risk and suspense.
Yes, absolutely. As a fiction writer that was really exciting territory for me, because the details can be so small, and they hum in a way that is indicative of the secret inner life of these characters. From the outside perspective, a stick of gum being offered to somebody is just a stick of gum, yet to Hadia at 13, it’s so private and cherished. That’s where I feel fiction is offering the most – when it says to its reader, this is the private, secret life of this character and you have the privilege of accessing their thoughts.

Do I detect a West Side Story reference in the title [the song Somewhere has the line “There’s a place for us”]?
I’m unfamiliar with West Side Story, I know that sounds crazy to say.

Is that a reflection on your relationship with pop culture?
I grew up with a TV but I didn’t start listening to music until I was 13. We just weren’t allowed to listen to music growing up. Until I realised that my dad listening to Bollywood songs is still music, and I told him: “If you can listen to Bollywood music, I can listen to my music.” He thought about it for a moment and said “You’re right”, so I started listening to music. But I feel like, because of that, I’m discovering stuff that people have always known. I was maybe 22 when I heard the Rolling Stones for the first time. And my reaction was: “What. Is. This?”

What did your family make of your desire to become a writer?
When I first moved to pursue my undergraduate degree, I was in agreement with my dad that I would become a doctor. But I was miserable in my pre-med courses, so I switched to creative writing. Saying that I needed to write this novel was jarring for us at first, but, in the end, no one has been more supportive than my family. My brothers have been my readers, they have believed in the novel when I have doubted it. It was my brothers who were, like: “No, it works.”

My grandmother in England – she recently passed away – what she wanted was for me to settle down and get married to somebody from the community. Every time I’d call her with news of my book, her response was always: “Yes but when are you going to get married?” The last time I saw her before she died, she said: “Write your book with your whole heart, and finish it, and enjoy that… And then will you get married?” I was so moved because it was her first time acknowledging that this was what I wanted.

What do you get up to when you’re not working?
I’m learning how to box. As a kid my brothers played soccer, and every year we’d go buy them cleats for the new season, and I would see these pink boxing gloves and I would want them and I never got them. And so now, not only is boxing a really fun way to exercise, it also feels like I’m allowing a younger version of myself to have what she wanted then.

What’s next?
I guess I’ll always write, but I want to wait until I feel as compelled as I did with this story. [A Place For Us] is like a long love letter to the life that was mine right until I started writing it. It was a way to go back. Through the characters I could ask the questions that I had been asking myself my whole life.

What kind of questions?
What does it mean when asserting yourself as an individual can be seen as a betrayal to the home, or culture, or faith that you’ve come from? How do you navigate those instances? What do you owe to your loved ones? And what do you owe to yourself if there’s a conflict there?

So the questions faced by the characters in the novel are also questions you have had to confront?
Those moments arose in small or large ways throughout my life. It’s always been my goal with my family to try to be as respectful and thoughtful to them as I can, while not compromising my inner voice.

In a beautiful way, it’s through the novel that I can understand that dynamic between the individual and their greater community with so much more complexity than when I was in it. It’s helped me understand where I’ve come from and who I am and what is important to me.

A Place for Us is published by SJP for Hogarth (£12.99). To order a copy for £11.04 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Fatima Farheen Mirza: ‘I’d just stepped out of the subway when Sarah Jessica Parker called…’ | Books

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