Author Rukhsanna Guidroz’s first middle-grade novel, Samira Surfs, was inspired by the real-life stories of surfer girls in southern Bangladesh who make waves and go against the cultural tide. This illustrated novel-in-verse follows the journey of Samira, a Muslim Rohingya refugee, as she flees isolation and persecution to find sisterhood and power in the water. In Samira Surfs, Guidroz continues to explore feminist themes: her picture books, Leila in Saffron and Mina vs. the Monsoon, also touch on identity, self-worth, and community. PW spoke with Guidroz about her research, the joys of writing in verse, and her own experiences as a surfer.
The real-life stories that inspired this book seem tailormade for a novel. Were there particular events or characters that prompted you to pursue this project?
I’d read about the surfer girls in The Surfer's Journal in 2016. I was struck by their bravery. They’re defying cultural norms, gender expectations, societal constraints. [The article] focused on a particular girl, Nasima Akter. As I researched her, I learned she is Rohingya. That started a journey of discovering more about the Rohingya story, who they are as a people, their history, their culture—to know what they’d been through and what it would mean for someone to live in Myanmar, and then lose their home, and then travel across a border under treacherous conditions with very few possessions, and then to start living and rebuilding a life in a new place, and then to surf. I was curious to know and understand what those steps would be. How could someone do this? How do you go about stabilizing yourself, and your life, and your family, and getting the lay of the land. How could a young person do that?
What kind of research did you do to prepare for writing about Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh?
I gathered information by reading news articles and academic journals. They formed a large part of my research. I also got in touch with some Rohingya refugees, and we talked about how it feels and what it means to be a refugee and they shared their stories with me. [In addition, I contacted] a Bengali lifeguard and surf coach. I read history books to learn more about the history of the Rohingya and their persecution. I spoke with an aid worker and with someone who is an expert on refugee issues worldwide. I wanted to know all the details. Because of my journalistic background, I check and cross-reference and recheck to get a full understanding of what a story is about.
How did you arrive at a form that’s both prose and poetry, and what were the challenges and discoveries of writing in this hybrid genre?
Writing a novel in verse is new to me. I’m attracted to that style of writing, because I tend to be brief and succinct. I like to crystalize thoughts and emotions into impactful words. That speaks to me as a writer, so I wanted to try and write it in this way. It allowed me to create an intimate space for the story. The language of emotion and self-reflection invites the reader to feel the story in their body as they’re reading each line. The rhythm and beat highlights the reader’s experiences as the narrative unfolds. It’s challenging to sum up a feeling or a scene in a few words that capture and convey the meaning, or the atmosphere, or the mood. It’s fun at the same time, because it makes you be a very intentional writer.
Water is a metaphoric motif throughout the novel. Can you speak to Samira’s relationship with water and how that changes over the course of the story?
Samira has a relationship with water from her childhood. When she crosses the river, [that relationship] suddenly becomes different, in that she has fear and a distrust of water. [The river] goes from being a place of fun, playfulness, and trust, to a place that is threatening and life-changing. When she gets to Bangladesh, she is nervous about the sea there, but she has memories of her childhood and being comfortable with water. She has to reacquaint herself and find her confidence in the water. Her brother helps her become more comfortable in the water, and he’s a very caring person in her life and so she trusts him. She takes baby steps to rekindling that love and passion for water—literally testing the temperature with [her] toes and just feeling it out. Once she is comfortable again, she’s able to take it to another level and compete in a surf contest.
How did your interest and skills in surfing inform the story?
I grew up in Manchester [England]. I had always been a good swimmer; I used to go to the public swimming pools. I moved to Hong Kong and there I was a paddler in the [annual] Dragon Boat festival. I’d always had a connection of being playful in water. I learned to windsurf in Hong Kong as well. When I moved to Hawaii, it was natural for me to want to try surfing. I got a long board and I just started to paddle out and to learn—to look for waves as they come, to read the water, to understand where to sit and catch a wave. I’ve been through that whole learning curve. It was easy to write about the challenges of learning to surf, as well as the fun part: the joys of catching a wave, of being in rhythm with the ocean, of understanding where to sit to not get hurt or where to sit to take a break.
What do you hope young readers take away from reading Samira’s story?
I wanted to have reflected in my story the full experience of a child living in this world. Kids go to school, they have friends, they do homework, they have their things on the weekend—that’s one child’s experience. There are children out in the world who are lucky to go to school and to have books. There are kids who are lucky to have a home. There are kids who are upset and hungry or have painful experiences. I don’t want to teach or preach in any of my writing. I want kids to know that the human spirit is extremely resilient and has no bounds. There are a myriad of experiences that are equally valuable, and it’s okay to be sad or upset about something. Sadness is always part of your life. Things happen, sad things happen, devastating things happen, but you can get through them. You can find a way to balance your day, while having sadness in your heart.
Samira Surfs by Rukhsanna Guidroz, illus. by Fahmida Azim. Kokila, $17.99 June 29 ISBN 978-1-984816-19-1