In Saadia Faruqi’s timely third novel for middle grade readers, which follows her 2020 novels A Place at the Table, co-written with Laura Shovan, and A Thousand Questions, readers meet 11-year-old Texan Yusuf Azeem as he and his Muslim American community experience intensifying Islamophobia, xenophobia, and racism during the lead-up to the 20th anniversary of September 11. Faruqi spoke with PW about realistically depicting a story grounded in true events, writing as activism, and the need for accurate and candid Muslim American representation.
The publication date for Yusuf Azeem Is Not a Hero aligns perfectly with the opening of the story, set in 2021 as the 20th anniversary of 9/11 approaches. Did you set out to write a book that specifically took place during the 20th anniversary of the attack? Did the pandemic impact the story or your process?
I’ve been thinking for several years that there was a very important perspective missing in middle grade regarding 9/11: authentic Muslim American representation. Finally, I decided that instead of complaining, I should fix it by writing about Muslim American experiences during the past 20 years. I’ve lived in the U.S. for 23 years, arriving as an immigrant just before 9/11. I was in college when it happened, have raised kids who have experienced a lot of bullying, and have seen family and community members go through the same. I kept wondering why no one ever talked about [Islamophobia] in relation to 9/11, as a repercussion of the tragedy. I wanted to put everything out there.
I wrote this book before Covid happened, but the publishing process takes so long that we were in the copyediting phase when the pandemic hit. I told my editor that, because this is realistic fiction, I can’t leave the pandemic out. I had concerns that maybe kids wouldn’t want to read about it, being so immediate and traumatic, but at the end of the day we decided it should be present in some way. Yusuf’s grandfather has died of Covid before the book starts and there’s some mention of finally being able to eat out again. Of course, things continue to change.
While this book explores bullying and harassment, prejudice and racism, and the trauma of 9/11 and its lasting impact, these themes are woven into the story to create a fully realized depiction of life as a young Pakistani American middle schooler living in Texas. How did you achieve balance while confronting such big, emotional topics? Does your work as an interfaith activist and cultural sensitivity trainer inform your writing and approach?
That’s the challenge of writing, right? Figuring out how to bring across these big ideas and write about it in a way that is authentic and speaks to the urgency and emotion in a way that kids will read and understand but not be traumatized by. There were a lot of scenes in this book that were very hard to write. There were scenes I had to rewrite because they were full of anger and, when I went back, I realized I needed to tone it down. But then it would be too nice. It takes time and a lot of revision to find the balance.
Writing is part of my activism and the overall work that I’m passionate about. I’ve been [working as an interfaith activist] since the day after 9/11. When it happened, I was both a new immigrant and a new bride having just come to the U.S. where everything was supposed to be awesome, then this big thing happened. It was horrible for everyone, but, for Muslim Americans, it meant we were seen as the enemy and treated with suspicion. I remember in the early days [after the attack], people would shout at you on the street. A few days after 9/11 my husband had to travel by plane and people wouldn’t let him board and then, when he finally got on, men stood by his seat the whole time. It was difficult to live in that environment and I had no skills to counter it, but I wanted to. That’s when my interfaith work began. It took years, but I began writing about my faith and culture, myself, and my family. I eventually came to understand that writing stories can sometimes be a better way to share ideas than by standing up and giving a lecture, especially for kids, who are more open and understanding and willing to give someone a chance.
What type of research did you do to bring the experiences of Yusuf and his uncle, who was a middle schooler in 2001, to life?
This book started out the same as my other fiction books, but the more I worked, the more I realized that I couldn’t approach it the same as my other work because the accuracy was so important. I was probably halfway through the book when I realized that I needed to talk to people. Thankfully, I have a big social media reach, so I contacted people, who were primarily Muslim, to see what their experiences were that day, and did 20 or so in-depth interviews. Most of those stories end up in Yusuf’s uncle’s journals. I also talked to people about what their experiences are like now. The subplot, which follows the efforts to obstruct the construction of the new mosque, is very much based in real life. In fact, the ACLU monitors these incidences because they’re so pervasive, especially in small towns. It’s just one of the ways that 20-plus years of prejudice manifests.
A couple of interviewees told me that having these conversations was very therapeutic for them. It was something that they had buried. So many didn’t talk about what they were going through because there was so much happening in the world, but they still internalized it. I learned a lot and I hope my readers do, as well.
What do you most hope readers find within the pages of this book and take with them into the world?
I always discuss writing with my daughter, who’s in middle school and a writer, too. She asked if I was sure I wanted to write about things like this, instead of fantasy and dragons. But this is what I want to do because we need stories like this to heal as a nation. I often second-guessed myself as I put in so many difficult scenes—a girl having her hijab ripped off, the pushback about the mosque, characters being called terrorists, the anniversary of 9/11—but then I thought, this is how it is. You wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve told my kids over the years that they need to behave when we go out because, if they don’t, people will think Muslims are bad. I don’t want to have to say that, but it is the reality. It’s a lot, but I want people to know that there is a community that is overwhelmed by all the hatred and misunderstanding that is directed at them.
I hope this book also reminds people that, when we are studying historical events, we shouldn’t rely only on nonfiction. Historical fiction can help us paint a fuller picture in our minds of how people and situations truly were. As Yusuf’s uncle Rahman says: “History informs the present and so it affects the future.”
Yusuf Azeem Is Not a Hero by Saadia Faruqi. Quill Tree, $16.99 Sept. 7 ISBN 978-0-06-294325-5