Atia Abawi’s desire to be both a journalist and a novelist had early roots. Born in West Germany after her parents escaped from Afghanistan, she was raised in the United States. As a child, Abawi frequented the library, where she loved escaping into fictional worlds (Roald Dahl’s Matilda was a favorite). “My dream had always been to write a novel,” she says. Watching the evening news with her parents, she longed to see for herself what was actually happening in those faraway places.
A career in journalism took Abawi to Afghanistan, where she worked for nearly five years, first for CNN and then NBC News. Years of reporting difficult truths took a toll: Abawi felt her imagination drying up. She relinquished her dream of writing fiction.
She then learned from a friend that Jill Santopolo, an editor at Philomel, was looking for someone to write a love story set in Afghanistan. Abawi, who was accustomed to writing short pieces, saw an opportunity to provide a nuanced, in-depth portrayal of a misunderstood culture, where people were caught in a tug-of-war between the kind of Islam she practices and the militant Islamic fundamentalism that has spread through the countries she covered. She wanted to offer insight into why Afghanistan has been the setting for the United States’ longest-running war, which to date has lasted more than 13 years.
Abawi submitted sample chapters, Santopolo offered her a contract, and the story of The Secret Sky (Philomel, Sept.) began to unfold. However, liberating her imagination remained a challenge, since she could only find time to work on the novel during vacations. She determined to use her words to “paint everything I have seen.” Every mountain and stream described in her novel is based on a place she has been herself.
In addition, Abawi put to use her journalistic skills: careful research, community engagement, and accurate reporting. As shocking as some of the book’s scenes of violence and abuse are, Abawi says she actually scaled back the brutality. “To be honest, it’s worse,” she says, noting that there is a reason Afghanistan is considered by many to be “the most dangerous place in the world to be a woman and a terrible place to be a child.”
She wrote the story from the points of view of three main characters primarily because she wanted to get inside the character of Rashid, a boy who betrays his childhood friends (who are now lovers) to the Taliban. Having interviewed boys who were recruited to be suicide bombers, Abawi has seen firsthand how easily they can be manipulated to hate and kill (“They were not born to kill; they were taught it by individuals seeking power”)—and also how their lives can be reclaimed. “I left with a broken heart, but also in awe of so many Afghan men, women and children.”
After years of reporting difficult stories from troubled places in a medium where “if it bleeds, it leads,” the world of publishing has provided a welcome contrast. In particular, Abawi found working with Santopolo a remarkable experience. “Jill was fantastic. She trusted my story and I trusted her input. She gave me the eye of the reader, and guided me where to fill in the missing pieces.”
Initial feedback from Afghan-Americans has been positive, yet Abawi feels some trepidation about potentially negative reactions to the novel, which is understandable given that, as a journalist, she has received death threats for writing articles about abused women.
Abawi currently lives in California but will soon move to Jerusalem, where her husband, also a journalist, is stationed. They are expecting their first child, and their lives are already changing as a result: “As a journalist my first instinct has always been to run toward the fire, into conflict zones. I’m choosing not to do that now.” In recent months she has been working as a freelance reporter. She remains passionate about the importance of cultural diversity in books. And ideas for another work of fiction, perhaps one set in Jerusalem, are percolating.