A Place for Us, debut novel of author Fatima Farheen Mirza, tells a story of the life of an Indian-American Muslim family and their paths of love, loss, and redemption. In a conversation with The Chicago Monitor, Afreen Mohiuddin and Mirza discuss the background of the novel and the role of her own Hyderabadi upbringing in her life and decisions.
Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview! I actually also come from a Hyderabadi Muslim family, and your book was the first time I’ve ever related to a character in popular media, and it just changed my life.
Fatima Farheen Mirza: Oh, no way! I love meeting fellow Hydros who’ve read the book. Thank you so much.
Just to establish a little background–can you tell me where the novel comes from? You can take that in any way you want.
Mirza: I think the novel comes from a desire to understand something about one’s life or a way of life. This novel in specific was a way to understand how, you know, growing up it was hard to relate to your peers who were not children of immigrants, who were not desi, who were not practicing Muslim, and all these things.There was a very particular way that I was being raised, and my cousins were being raised, and there was no way to navigate [that] or to understand what was happening and why certain things are the way they are. So the novel was a way to understand these forces–what values do my parents have that I don’t necessarily want to uphold? What values do they have that I definitely want to uphold? What is the loss of choosing to not incorporate them? What is the gain? What is it like when you and your siblings are the children of your parents, and you become kind of like parents to each other? All those things that make your life what it is, I wanted to understand in the form of a story.
I can definitely see where you’re coming from there–especially the idea of being both the child of your parents and trying to be your own person. Is that a theme that you made a special effort to include in the novel?
Mirza: Yeah, I wanted it to be a novel that captures fully what it means for this family to be a family. I wanted to have what it’s like to be a sibling in that relationship, what it’s like to be a younger brother or an older sister, you know, the first child of your parents who has all these expectations–and I wanted to capture what it’s like for the mother. What is it like for the father? When they’re trying to pass on some religious rules, but they see their kids not following these rules, how do they react in those instances? What are the moments where that really hurts them, and what are the moments where they think, okay, maybe we can ease up on this? I wanted to understand from all sides.
Coming from all these different perspectives, what was the most difficult scene in the novel for you to write?
Mirza: That’s a great question. I really believe that the most difficult scenes were the ones that were emotionally taxing in some way. [In] the novel, because it’s told in these multiple perspectives, you get access to some of the characters’ motivations, their memories, their scenes that other family members don’t have access to. Like you see what the son was thinking in a moment, but then you see him through the father’s eyes, so you realize how you don’t have a full experience of what’s happening. I think the moments that were really emotional and hard to write were the ones where I knew something about why they were acting the way they were acting but their loved ones didn’t know.
For example, when we’re with Amar, and it’s 9/11 and he’s being bullied in class–the thing that makes him actually get into a fight with his peers is not when they’re teasing him, but when they actually insult his father to him. We know that’s at a point in Amar’s life where he’s feeling really sensitive about his father, and he doesn’t actually get along with his father that well anymore, but he gets into a fight out of defense for his father. And then decades later, you’re with the father when he’s remembering that scene, and he has no idea that the fight was because the son was trying to defend him. And in that moment Amar is so upset that he’s been so physically hurt in this altercation and his father isn’t being emotionally open with him, that he says “I hate you.” And we know that he doesn’t hate his father, that he did all of these things because he was thinking so much, painfully, lovingly, about his father, you know?
Yeah, I see what you mean with the child having one perspective that the parent doesn’t know, and how it can be really difficult to communicate that.
Mirza: And it’s like, if only they knew, you know? I remember when writing the scene where Hadia watches Amar run away. Up until that point, Hadia would always look at the window to see, “Okay, what car is he going in, who’s taking him?” But then I remember, the day he was actually to run away, she has that thought–”I know he’s leaving, and it’s too painful to see who’s taking him, so I’m not going to see who’s taking him.” And pages later when you’re with Amar, remembering that same moment, you realize that he was having second guesses, doubts about leaving, and he had this thought, “Okay, if Hadia comes to the window, I won’t go.” And that’s the only time she didn’t. So things like that would give me chills.
That was such a powerful scene. I remember having to put the book down and just breathe.
I wanted to get a little bit more into the background that we come from, because Hyderabadi Muslim families are–you know, it’s so rare to see us represented in media. And I think it gives you a really unique perspective. I noticed that, at least for me, personally, Hadia sort of represents in a lot of ways the daughter my parents wanted me to be–quiet, studious, proper, in a guaranteed medical program. Is that something you can relate to? Did you consciously write her as the daughter that every Hyderabadi parent wants their eldest daughter to be?
Mirza: I think that, honestly, when I look back on my own life, I’m the Hyderabadi daughter that other parents say to their kids, “Don’t be like Fatima.” You know what I mean? I was the bad example of that for a long time because I was not doing anything that I was supposed to do, because I was so focused on writing this novel. I almost didn’t care what anyone had to say. So aunties would be like, “Oh my god, poor Shereen and Mohammed, look at their beti, who knows what she’s doing.”
So in a way, I do think that through these characters I was able to explore these alternate lives. Like, what would happen if I said, “Okay, I’m going to do the right thing, I’m going to be the best daughter, I’m going to do all of these things to an extreme degree?” And what happens is Hadia has all these resentments for her brother, because he does act on what he wants. And not only does she have all these resentments, but also she’s not fulfilled–at the end she realizes she didn’t really want these things. And then with Amar, it’s like the more extreme version, like, “Okay, what if I were to be so selfishly focused on what I wanted to the point that I was really hurting myself and hurting other people?” That’s what Amar’s trajectory is. So in fiction you kind of get to play with these concepts in an extreme way to help you tell a story.
But we’re all of them. There are moments when I’m like, “Okay, I’m going to be the daughter my parents want.” And then you’re like, that doesn’t feel right for me. And then you say “Okay, I’m going to do what I want.” and then you feel like, now I’m filled with guilt.
Yeah, it’s a difficult line to walk, I think.
Mirza: And that’s why it’s so important to walk these lines and have these things play out in story, so that you can be like, “Wow, look what happened when she didn’t express what she desired,” She regretted that until her adulthood. And then in your own life you get to be a little bit braver. But also a little bit more sensitive, because you can see, “Look at how devastated people are when this happens.”
I know that you started out in college as a pre-med major and then you switched to creative writing. I’m putting myself in your shoes in that situation and I cannot imagine how difficult that must have been.
Mirza: Honestly, it was so, so hard. I remember trying my best to study chemistry–I got crazy amounts of tutoring. It was like the opposite of what my brain was meant to do, you know, science and math. And I just felt stupid all the time, and I was so depressed, and I felt like, ugh, I have to do this thing and I have to do this to make my parents proud–it was like I had made this deal that I would go to college and do this thing, and so much was riding on it. And then I convinced my parents that I would take creative writing classes, because I so miserable, quite frankly, doing what other people wanted me to do.
So I was like, “Let me just do something that I love to do, and I can do it three hours a week, and then I can continue studying for biology, which is killing me.” And then it was in that class that I started writing this novel. And I felt so strongly that the novel is what I had been put on the planet to do, that it made it a little bit easier to say, “Okay, I’m going to turn against everything was expected of me and complete this mission.” But that was a really painful time before I actually committed. It was like months and months of me thinking, what am I going to do?
How did your parents and community react?
Mirza: I would overhear other people saying to my parents, “How are you letting your daughter do all these things?” And my dad was like, “Well, it’s not a matter of letting her. I trust her. She’s going to figure it out.” But that did take a while. That was a long time of me saying to them, “Trust me. Trust me.” And then eventually they did.
When you wrote A Place for Us, did you have an end goal in mind? Did you approach the novel knowing you wanted to spur a specific kind of change, or that there was a specific message you wanted to get out there?
Mirza: No, there was zero message that I was aware of. I just wanted to tell a story for this family. My mission every day was to do justice to these characters’ lives, to capture what it meant to them to be a family, and tell a moving and honest story. Everything else that the novel was able to do was just from focusing on those characters’ stories.
Do you think you would consider that in itself the message–that there doesn’t have to be a message in order for you to write about unconventional characters?
Mirza: Yeah, they don’t have to justify their existence to any reader. They don’t have to say, well, this is a Muslim story about whatever. They just happen to be brown, they happen to be Muslim, they happen to be Hyderabadi, they happen to be Urdu-speaking, in this story that they’re trying to tell, and the story is one about brothers and sisters and families. Do you ever look at a story about a white family and ask, “Well, what is the message here?” You know what I mean? It’s just a story.
Were you worried about your audience? Did you ever write something, about Islam or a cultural reference, and feel like you needed to change or delete it for fear of it being misconstrued by an unfamiliar audience?
Mirza: No, because I was constantly working in service of my characters. I didn’t want them to explain their lives to anyone. In my mind, they were explaining their lives to themselves. Hadia was trying to understand, how could I have been a better sister? Amar was trying to understand, why do I struggle with Islam? And Layla was trying to understand, why do I believe in it? And through all of these different voices, all of these different perspectives are justified and able to be there.
But people will often ask me, you know, why did you not include a glossary? These things are in Urdu. But for me I was working in service of these characters, and so often we have been reading stories of families that are not like ours, and those stories don’t stop to explain to us. It’s just a part of their life. We’re so used to that being normal that something in Urdu or from Indian culture seems to many people abnormal. My belief and goal for fiction, once we do have art that is more representative and reflective of an actual population, is that this will be normal too. It won’t have to explain or justify itself, it just is. It’s just one more story.
As a side note, I really loved that you didn’t include a glossary, because I could understand all the Urdu words and it felt almost like a secret little thing. Like, this is for us to understand.
Mirza: Yeah, exactly, this is for us. And if you don’t understand, that’s okay, because it’s not for you. And so often things are not for us.
I feel like I’ve read so many books where they include little French phrases or Spanish phrases or whatever language and don’t clarify them and then I have to go look it up–so it was so refreshing to be on the other end of that, where I knew other people might have to go look this up, but not me.
Mirza: And the funny thing about being Hyderabadi is that the Urdu is also Hyderabadi. It’s like kheema with a kh and not keema. A lot of people who are Pakistani might say, “No, no, it’s not spelled like that “ but I’m like, well, it sounds like that.
A lot of little things in the book stood out to me. There was one specific scene where Layla is making lunch for her kids, and she fries bhendi and puts it in roti and wraps it in foil and gives it to them for lunch. I cried for like 20 minutes–because my mom used to give me that for lunch, and it never even crossed my mind that that would be something I would see in the media that I consumed.
Mirza: It is so powerful when we see these tiny, tiny parts of our lives that we don’t even realize are worthy of story or recognition or worthy of even pausing on, you know, because we’re so used to not seeing ourselves. We’re so used to being invisible that this just seems like a strange, unremarkable aspect of our lives. But when you do see that, these tiny parts of our lives, reflected back at you, like the fact that your parents come home and change into a white kurta and take walks, when you do see these things, it feels like, actually my life does matter, and actually this is how we love each other, and this is how we are.
As a person and as an author, I think that you have done such a fantastic job of breaking the mold that you were expected to live in for your whole life and making a place for yourself in a field that maybe wasn’t so welcoming to people like you. What advice do you have for people hoping to blaze a similar path, in any field?
Mirza: I would say that develop a relationship with yourself before you try to advocate for yourself in any way. Know truly what your intentions are, what your goals are, and why you want to do this thing that you want to do–whether it is in fiction, acting, music, law, human rights, whatever it may be that you feel compelled to dedicate your life to, that is in some level out of the norm or you don’t see an expected path. Nurture that relationship with yourself, that belief in yourself, that belief in why you want to do what you want to do, and examine your intentions.
I don’t think I could have written this book if I thought, “I want to write this book because I want to see it on a bookshelf one day.” That was maybe a part of it, but there’s no way I could have done it if I began from that place. For me my intention is that I want to tell a story that’s honest, and moving, and true, and respectful of these characters, and then things start to fall into place and people start to realize, okay, these are the intentions. Once you do know that, once you know your intentions and know yourself, then I would say dedicate yourself relentlessly to that goal. Become the person that you need to be in order to actualize it. Parts of you are going to have to change, and it’s okay if it’s lonely, and it’s okay if you encounter pushback from the aunties, or pushback from your own family, your brothers and your cousins or whoever it may be, because you know your truth, and you know your intentions, and that will always win out.
A Place for Us is published under SJP for Hogarth, and available for purchase at all major retailers.