Hena Khan’s children’s novel Amina’s Voice is noteworthy for having launched Simon & Schuster’s Salaam Reads imprint, the first dedicated to featuring Muslim characters. The book follows the story of middle schooler Amina as she deals with issues of friendship and identity; it garnered widespread acclaim since its 2017 publication. The upcoming sequel, Amina’s Song, will be published in March. Khan spoke with PW about her process, writing about the struggles of Pakistani American immigrant identity in children’s literature, and what she hopes her books will achieve.
What’s your biggest motivation for creating characters like Amina—a young Pakistani American girl conflicted over her roots and wanting to know where she fits into the world? Is there a specific message you want readers to take away?
I think for me, growing up like her, as someone straddling two cultures and trying to figure out where I fit in, that is something that I relate to very deeply. And I feel like it’s a very common feeling among children of immigrants, whose parents may hold on to the culture they bring with them. You feel a connection to it—you love it, because it’s a piece of you, but you may not always know how to negotiate that connection and how much of it belongs to you or doesn’t belong to you. It gets complicated by things like distance, language, and trying to fit in with your peers. There’s so much that goes into play about how we reconcile these different aspects of our identity and it’s something beyond being a Pakistani American, to anybody who shares in another culture and tries to figure out how that is a piece of them.
I think it’s not so much a message that I’d like for [readers] to take away, than for them to think a little more critically about the world around them, and the messages that they get—specifically about the world, other places, other cultures, and all the things that shape our perceptions.
Growing up as a Pakistani American like Amina, is there anything that you think has changed—for better or worse—over the years? Are there any specific experiences from your own childhood that you’d like to call out?
The main difference to me is that when I was growing up in Maryland, outside of Washington D.C., people had not heard about Pakistan. In many cases, they didn’t know where it was on a map, they didn’t know much about the culture, the customs, the religion.... I’d always have to generalize or relate it to something more familiar. You know, ‘It’s next to India, you may have heard of India!’ It was more that I grew up feeling a bit invisible, or that my culture wasn’t interesting to people around me, which is another thing I have Amina grapple with when she comes back from Pakistan. She wants to share this incredible experience that she’s just had and the impact that it’s had on her. People are polite, and they’re interested to a point, but not to the level that she would like them to be. I think that has something to do with the way I felt when I was growing up—that people were kind and polite about my background and would ask questions, I often heard, “Where are you from?,” but when I answered, I felt like there was a sort of “Oh, okay, that’s nice,” and they didn’t really know—or want to know—much beyond that.
The difference I see now compared to when I was little is that there definitely is more emphasis on appreciating different cultures and embracing things like international days at school, and demonstrating these aspects of who you are through food and clothing and customs. That’s the positive side of things, this general interest in openness and recognizing that people have different things to contribute, and aspects of themselves that are worth exploring and sharing.
Unfortunately, the negative side I’ve seen in this country post 9/11 has been this growth in Islamophobia and—specifically as an American Muslim—targeted backlash against the community. And that’s been a difficult thing to see, which has gone hand-in-hand with this openness and curiosity and acceptance of culture and a focus on tolerance. Then at the same time, this very ugly counter to that is hate speech and really vile actions, to malign and attack something very special to me.
In Amina’s Song, we see Amina struggle with realizing that elements of Pakistan are perceived negatively by her classmates. How do you think the media plays a role in shaping people’s perceptions like this, and how are you working to combat it through your books?
I think it plays a huge role. The role of the media I don’t think can be understated in terms of how we view people, how we view other parts of the world. Unfortunately we’re so often given a single view of a country, or of a people, that sadly we see that negative news gets the headlines and Muslims are often cast in a negative way, or only certain narratives come to the forefront. In Amina’s Song, we see her deal with people’s perceptions of her and Pakistan. At the same time, she grapples with her own perceptions of her home country, the country of her ancestors, and perhaps how she’s been impacted by the things she’s been hearing and her fear in traveling back there.
So apart from addressing it directly through storylines like this, in my books I really try to highlight the diversity of Muslims in terms of practice, in terms of attitude, racially, in any way I can—in my picture books through the artwork, and through my novels, where I present families that may contradict what people’s expectations are in some ways, in the fact that they’re just ordinary, perhaps very relatable families with very typical challenges of life. I try to make my characters’ struggles in my novels not be related to their identity, in the sense that their identity is not the issue they’re trying to battle or overcome. I feel like that too normalizes the experience of being an American Muslim of whatever background. You aren’t struggling with who you are, or wishing you weren’t who you are.
I wanted to show a family of means, which is educated, and isn’t struggling with the things that people might assume about a family living in Pakistan. Showing that diversity within the country was important to me too.
We also see Amina conflicted over the knowledge that she doesn’t feel wholly comfortable in Pakistan, and can’t understand the language very well. How do you strike the right balance in your writing between her dual identities?
For me, it’s trying to balance that discomfort, and those feelings of embarrassment and pride and confusion and longing with love. I think that’s what I write from—especially when I write families, it comes from a place of love. The love that Amina gives and receives to and from her relatives, her love for this place she’s just getting to know and experience, and of course, the love she still has for her home and her friends back in the U.S. It is something overwhelming, the intensity of the connection that you can develop with somebody that lives far away. The whole idea of trying to reconcile that idea that ‘I have a piece of my heart that lives somewhere else and even if that piece is missing it makes me feel a bit out of sorts when I’m back home... how do I deal with that, and make sure that piece stays important in my life and is not forgotten?’ I think that’s a big part of how I feel when I came back from visiting my family in Pakistan as a teen, and wanting to make sure that they stayed just as important as I felt that they were.
Given that this book is a sequel, are you planning to return to Amina’s world in the future?
I’m not sure yet. I’d always thought that this book was a possibility—when I sold Amina’s Voice, I mentioned to my publisher that there could be a sequel where Amina visits her uncle in Pakistan, so this is the seed of a story I planted a long time ago. Then I got so many questions from readers on certain details of the story they wanted to know more about, or requests for a sequel, that it slowly became a reality.
I think that it will depend on whether I get a really strong idea on something that should continue her journey. I wouldn’t want to write it just for the sake of writing it unless there was a compelling reason to—and of course, it helps if there’s lots of demand! I gain so much from talking to readers who share their thoughts with me.
What draws you to writing books for young readers?
I get asked a lot if I’m planning to write for adults, or if I want to write for adults, and I always tell people that for me, writing for kids is such an honor. What I love about it so much is that kids are just so open and accepting and curious, and ready to learn what you’re sharing. They don’t judge and they find the most interesting details to connect with. They’re just amazing. For me, when I was a child myself is when I felt most connected to books. I read them over and over again, and I still remember some of the passages and characters from the books I read as a child, and think about them from time to time. So the idea that something I write might stay with a child and help shape them in some way, or help them consider something they might not have thought of, or to feel seen or included... all of those are reasons why I write for kids.
How do you choose what elements of your background to include to make sure you resonate with young readers?
I think it’s a matter of trying to find what’s relatable. Somebody once told me that the universality is in the details, and I love that idea—that even though I’m writing about a specific outfit, for example a salwar kameez, that idea of fretting over what to wear, or what you’re allowed to do, or what your friends are doing, or sibling rivalry, is one of those types of universal thoughts we all have. Then I sprinkle in specific details, like what food Amina is eating, being at a party at an auntie’s house vs. somewhere else—that adds the flavor to what I’m sharing.
I find that so often, it’s the little details that people really connect with. I had a reader once reach out to me from Canada. She was a Somali Canadian woman and she said that she couldn’t believe it when I wrote about Amina’s auntie in Amina’s Voice sending home leftovers in a yogurt container, because that was her childhood. So many people would come to me and say things like that. It’s a small thing, but so many people can see their own experience. It’s a balance of things people would be able to identify with and relate to, and then adding my own twist to it.
Amina’s Song by Hena Khan. S&S/Salaam Reads, $17.99 Mar. 9 ISBN 978-1-5344-5988-5