Aisha Saeed, the author of Written in the Stars (2015), a YA novel about a Pakistani-American girl whose conservative immigrant parents try to force her into an arranged marriage, has once again reached into her Pakistani background for her second novel, Amal Unbound. The middle grade novel tells the story of a Pakistani girl desiring an education who is forced into indentured servitude to pay off her family’s debt to the village’s cruel overlord. Saeed spoke with PW about the real-life Pakistani girl who jumpstarted the writing of Amal Bound, the heroism of so many young people that too often goes unrecognized, and how the Florida-born author’s research connected her with her relatives who still live in their ancestral village in Pakistan.
What inspired you to write Amal Unbound?
I had the idea for the character in 2011. I knew I wanted to focus on a village in Pakistan in the Punjab region, where my ancestors are from. I knew I wanted to tell this character’s story, but I wasn’t sure what her story would be. I just knew I wanted to write about her. In 2012, the shooting happened with Malala Yousafzai and it was making headlines everywhere. Like everyone else I was paying attention and reading about what was happening. When people talked about Malala, it was, “Wow, she’s so amazing, this is so unusual, so exceptional.” Yes, Malala is exceptional, no doubt. But I thought of all the other young people who do things that are brave and don’t get their names ever in the headlines. But they still do what they need to do.
It’s important for us to think about the people who perform brave acts who will never see their names in a headline. From that premise, I started writing about Amal. I wanted her to do something brave, something people wouldn’t know about, but that would be equally important [to Malala’s real-life advocacy of education for girls].
Why are some regimes so afraid of females becoming educated?
There are some tribal regions like where Malala is from, where education for females is tamped down and girls are told to not actively pursue an education – but this book is set in the Punjab, which is a very different area than the outer lands [northwest Pakistan near the Afghanistan border]. In this novel, Amal’s family and the other villagers don’t object to education for girls, they just don’t prioritize it. They let her go to school until there were more pressing needs at home that took over. There was too much to do at home. It’s definitely devaluing her education and minimizing it.
What kind of research did you do for Amal Unbound?
The village is a fictionalized version of my family’s ancestral village. Growing up in the United States, writing about Pakistan is a way to connect with my heritage, where I come from. A lot of the research began with my interviewing family members, relatives who have lived [in the same village] their entire lives. As for the topic of indentured servitude, I read a lot of books and articles about it, trying to understand it and how it works.
It was important to me to take this difficult topic and make it accessible to young people without watering down the harshness of it. Unfortunately, most people who enter into indentured servitude do not get a happy ending. Also, I knew this was a middle grade book. So, I wanted to make it as honest as possible, but I also wanted to portray it in a way that was accessible to children. That’s why I wrote an author’s note at the end, to underscore that Amal’s story is unfortunately a best-case-scenario and the reality is much harder than [Amal’s experience]. I wanted readers to understand that. It’s an awful practice that happens everywhere. It happens in the United States.
Your last novel, Written in the Stars, was a YA novel. This is a middle grade story—despite this being a novel about a topic that’s just as unsettling as arranged marriages. Why did you decide to write Amal Unbound for middle graders?
Initially, I started writing this as a YA novel. As I was writing it, though, I noticed this young voice coming out and I thought to myself, “But I’m writing a YA novel.” I kept trying to push it back into being a YA novel, until eventually, I gave a version of it to my editor [Nancy Paulsen] and she read it and said, “This is a middle grade novel.” I was like, “Yeah, that’s what it is.” You can start out trying to tell a certain story for a certain age group, but then, sometimes, the story tells you what it wants to be. That’s what happened with Amal.
There’s one scene in the library in the home of Jawad Sahib, the wealthy landowner who coerced Amal’s father into sending her to him, where the two converse about a beloved book from his childhood. This is the one scene where the two bond over their shared love of books— and he drops briefly his evil façade.
That was a tough one. I kept trying to find more instances and ways [to make Jawad more likeable], but sometimes, people are so awful that you have to just call it what it is. So, yeah, there was one moment in the library. And it’s ironic, because Amal’s ability to read is what causes Jawad’s downfall.
The book has received a fair amount of pre-pub buzz. Why do you think Amal Unbound resonates with readers?
It’s been amazing to see all the support that Amal Unbound is getting. I began this novel in 2011. I had no way of knowing that by the time publication day would come, a story about a Pakistani girl in the Punjab and her struggles would seem so relevant and would connect so much with people today. But that’s what I am hearing time and again.
I think these teens who are speaking up after the shootings in Parkland are inspiring so many others. All these young people are standing up and saying enough is enough. The timing of a story like Amal Unbound, that’s what’s helping it resonate with people. There’s injustice in the United States too, and kids are taking a stand and trying to lead the way. This book is about resistance and about not giving up. That’s a message that a lot of people are connecting to as well.
Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed. Penguin/Paulsen, $17.99, May ISBN 978-0-399-54468-2