Saadia Faruqi (l.) is a Pakistani American author, essayist, interfaith activist, and creator of the Yasmin early reader series. She is also the editor-in-chief of Blue Minaret, a magazine for Muslim art, poetry, and prose. Laura Shovan is the author of the middle grade novels The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary and Takedown, as well as a longtime poet-in-the-schools for the Maryland State Arts Council. Faruqi and Shovan have teamed up for a new novel, A Place at the Table, in which 11-year-olds Elizabeth and Sara meet in an after-school South Asian cooking class. In spite of their different backgrounds they bond over a shared appreciation for international culture and cuisine. We asked the co-authors to interview each other about their book, a celebration of food and friendship.
Saadia Faruqi: So let’s talk about our upcoming novel, A Place at the Table, which we’re both so excited about! I remember you approached me a few years ago about writing a book together. Tell me more about your thought process. What made you decide there was a story that you couldn’t tell on your own?
Laura Shovan: Yes, that was at the end of 2017! I had been doing school visits for The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary and was surprised to find that so many readers identified with the bicultural, first-generation characters in that book. The children I met reminded me of how I grew up, so firmly connected to my mother’s British family that I didn’t feel fully American. I wanted to write a middle grade story about that experience, about a girl who desperately wants her immigrant mother to become a U.S. citizen. It was going to be called Citizen Mom, a title that my own daughter quickly nixed. It wasn’t only the title that wasn’t working, though. Being first-generation isn’t one person’s story. It belongs to many people. After talking with my agent, Stephen Barbara, the idea to co-author the book started taking shape. You were the first person I thought of, Saadia. Not only do I admire your writing, but you had shared with me that you’re a recent citizen.
When I first called you about the book that became A Place at the Table, what attracted you to the idea?
Faruqi: I’d been thinking deeply about writing a first-generation story for a long time. I’d written other manuscripts before with those themes, but they’d never gone anywhere. So when you asked me to join you in writing about that very special first-generation experience, something I’d been watching my own kids grapple with for years, I jumped at the chance.
It’s very interesting being a part of a family that is similar in terms of culture but different in terms of belonging. As immigrants who came to America in adulthood, my husband and I have so many memories of Pakistan intertwined into our psyches that my children don’t have. At the same time, my kids have a sense of identity and belonging to the U.S. that’s hard for us to wrap our minds around. I really wanted to explore that dichotomy, to discuss these issues, which I’m sure so many immigrant families face.
Shovan: I love how you express this dichotomy when Sara describes her parents speaking to her in Urdu and her answering in English. She says it’s almost like a game that they play, one that she always wins. But I also think of my dad, whose father was an immigrant from France, and his regret that he didn’t learn French at home. This push and pull between languages and cultures is something that immigrant families are still navigating, generations later.
Elizabeth and Sara get to have the friendship I wish I’d had as a middle schooler—someone who understands what it means to be an American when your parent is not one. Why was it important to you to show that these girls have to work hard at establishing trust?
Faruqi: I feel that the main theme of our book is friendship. More than the other themes, equally important though they may be… racism, Islamophobia, food… everything is a sub-set of the friendship theme. There’s the burgeoning friendship between Sara and Elizabeth as they struggle to learn about each other and accept each other. There’s also the dying friendship between Elizabeth and Maddie, and the ugly connotations that raise their heads in past and present conversations. Sara and Rabia’s friendship is on rocky grounds as they lose each other physically but then try to use technology to keep in touch. And of course the two mothers, Mrs. Hameed and Mrs. Shainmark, who are thrown together because of their daughters and realize they may have more in common than they think. All these relationships are reflective of reality in their messy, uncertain, selves. I hope that readers, both young and adult, can gain something out of watching these relationships unfold. How to be a good friend. How to struggle and stand up for your friends, even when you don’t understand them. How to work together for common goals.
Come to think of it, that’s kind of like the two of us, as well. How do you think our friendship has grown and evolved over the course of writing this book?
Shovan: I’m laughing because I remember that you were initially concerned about how we would make the writing process work. We had not met in person yet. I live in Maryland and you’re in Texas. But collaborating long distance was the easy part. We had to negotiate the basic narrative, pin down which plotting method would work best for both of us, and balance our two very different writing styles: I’m a pantser who loves to revise, you’re a plotter who works to perfect early drafts. As we began to talk over each individual scene and how the moments of the story impact Sara and Elizabeth, we connected through our own family stories. Elizabeth’s character is semi-autobiographical and I was worried about how my parents would receive that. How honest was I willing to be about the depression and social anxiety my mom experienced as a new immigrant? You encouraged me through that process. I really miss those times when we were on the phone with each other several times a week!
Another major difference in our writing styles ended up being something we bonded over. I am a hands-on researcher. Were you surprised when I asked you to send me recipes, so I could make all of the dishes Mrs. Hameed teaches in the cooking club?
Faruqi: I love how you actually cooked all the Pakistani foods that are included in the book. I have to be honest—in the beginning I was a bit taken aback that anyone would want to do that. The sense of inferiority is so ingrained in me, in all marginalized groups, probably. Why would anyone want to learn about my culture, my cuisine? I put a lot of these insecurities in Sara’s character, and how she reacts when her mother is the teacher of a South Asian cooking club. I myself rarely cook desi food, so it was an eye-opening experience for me to look through YouTube videos and find easy recipes for you to emulate. By the end of the first draft, I was totally smitten by many of these housewives-turned-YouTube stars who were showcasing their skills online. We decided to put Salma Aunty’s Desi Kitchen into the book as a little tribute to all those ladies [who are] unashamed of their cuisine. It definitely helped me see my own foods in a different light: something delicious, something worthy of being learned, and copied, and enjoyed.
We also touch upon British and Jewish foods in the book, and how food can be such a powerful connection for immigrants and first generations with their culture. Did you feel this personally as well?
Shovan: My mother was a much better cook than Mrs. Shainmark, though she did resort to instant mashed potatoes and Hot Pockets. It was fascinating to learn Pakistani cooking from YouTube videos. I was able to reproduce the recipe—and even sent you pictures of the samosas and Tahari rice—but I was missing all of the cultural context. When families, especially immigrant families, are in the kitchen together, that’s when the stories come out. I used to cook with my husband’s grandmother, whose parents were from Italy. She’d tell me about her mother making homemade pasta and laying a sheet out on the roof for the pasta to sun-dry. When we cook with children, we’re teaching them more than a family recipe. They are receiving history, oral traditions, and cultural pride.
I remember our editor, Jennifer Greene, saying that food is often a person’s first experience with a culture that’s new to them. In A Place at the Table, Elizabeth is so hungry to connect with her family, friends, and later with Sara and Mrs. Hammed through food. By contrast, it takes Sara time to believe that anyone is interested in what her family eats, let alone in her as a person. As you said, friendship is at the heart of the story. Sara and Elizabeth mirror the openness with which you and I shared our cultures and our personal stories in writing this book.
Faruqi: I’m really looking forward to A Place at the Table releasing soon. I’m sure there are going to be some very important discussions around food and culture, and coming together around the table—both physically and virtually—that will help our society and our readers in so many ways.
A Place at the Table by Saadia Faruqi and Laura Shovan. Clarion, $16.99 Aug. 11 ISBN 978-0-358-11668-4