Like her 2019 debut YA novel, The Love & Lies of Rukhsana Ali, Sabina Khan’s new book, Zara Hossain Is Here, features a Muslim teenage girl living a cross-cultural life in the United States. The new novel, however, was inspired by Khan’s family’s own experience as immigrants in the U.S. Khan spoke with PW from British Columbia, where she and her husband and children made a new home when they were forced to leave this country in 1999.
Can you share what happened to you and your family in 1999 and how that experience led you to write Zara Hossain Is Here two decades later?
At that time my husband and I had been living in Corpus Christi, Tex., for nearly eight years; he had a work visa and I had a dependent visa and we had applied for a green card through his job. We had come into the country legally—he from India and I from Bangladesh—as university students, and we had done everything by the book. We knew getting the green card was a very long process, but we were okay being patient, even though everything in our lives was contingent on getting that green card.
It was March 1999 and our visas were going to expire in December, so my husband made a routine call to our lawyer to check on our green card application status. We couldn’t believe it when our lawyer told us that he had missed a deadline for filing one of the documents, so our application wouldn’t be processed, after all.
It didn’t seem possible to us that one small detail couldn’t somehow be rectified. We made lots of calls, but we were told over and over that it couldn’t be and we would have to leave the country. “Go home,” everyone said—but we were home. We had a 10-month-old baby and a four-year-old. They had been born in the United States, so they were American citizens, but obviously we couldn’t leave them. So we had to pack up and leave immediately—uproot ourselves completely. It was terribly sad; we had to leave behind so many little things. I cried when I saw the wall where we had been marking our older child’s growing height over the years. We didn’t know what to do, so we applied for immigration to Canada. We literally just looked at a map and decided to move to British Columbia.
Twenty years later, we have an amazing life here and we feel very lucky to have ended up in British Columbia, but we had no way of knowing that would be the case when we had to leave. And remembering the experience still brings up unpleasant feelings of being unwanted, of feeling that we don’t matter. I know there are many stories that are far worse than ours. But that uncertainty, that fear of the rug being pulled out from under you at any moment, sits in your stomach all of your life. It’s exhausting to live like that. You have absolutely no control and that doesn’t matter to anybody. It is so easy for everything to unravel through no fault of your own.
In the case of Zara’s family, it’s a hate crime that unravels everything for them, while in our case it was merely carelessness. But both experiences reflect a callousness—people can be so dismissive and treat other people with so little regard. When I wrote Zara, I wanted my character to fight back against this callousness and dismissiveness.
The protagonist in both of your novels is a queer Muslim teenage girl. Why did you make that choice in both of your books? And how did the experience of writing each of these two books differ?
I wrote The Love & Lies of Rukhsana Ali because our younger daughter came out to us as gay when she was 17. Even though my husband and I were very open and supportive of her, we talked a lot with her then about kids who had a very rough time coming out to their families or their communities, which is what I wrote about in Rukhsana. For Zara, I wanted to flip the switch, so to speak. My husband’s and my response to our daughter’s coming out was closer to that of Zara’s parents—we just want our kids to be happy.
I had been dreaming about writing for many years before I ever knew people would want to read stories about South Asian, Muslim girls and their experiences. So when I wrote Rukhsana, I had the urge to cram as much as possible into one story. I wasn’t sure if I would ever get a chance to have more of my books published, and so I included quite a few of the things I’d been wanting to write about for years. Now I feel I have more opportunities to write stories about people like me and my daughters—immigrants and children of immigrants—so in writing Zara Hossain Is Here, I was able to calm down and focus on one strong storyline. And it’s such a big story—so personal—that I didn’t want to dilute it with other plot complications. Also, I was writing it while America was under a different administration, and I had a lot of anger about how people of color were being treated. I wanted to write about the daily microaggressions that are never catastrophic in themselves, but that build up and start affecting how you see yourself.
In both books, though, I wanted to show that in every community, every culture, there is a wide spectrum of responses: that of Rukhsana’s family, that of Zara’s, and everything in between. There aren’t that many YA books—yet!—about the Muslim community, so I wanted to write about the range of responses within that culture. I incorporate all the South Asian immigrants I meet here into my characters. I’m so happy to see many Muslim authors and other authors of color now writing stories that reflect their experiences, because it’s so important for readers to have access to all the variations. I mean, it seems like a lot now compared to just a few years ago, but it is still a very small percentage of books.
What kind of response did The Love & Lies of Rukhsana Ali bring from the Muslim community?
Very positive! I was worried about backlash but there was none. I was very heartened by the support, especially from all the Muslim readers reaching out to say that they felt seen by reading my books. I haven’t had anybody lash out yet to say, “Why are you writing these kinds of things?”
But lots of non-Muslims said that The Love & Lies of Rukhsana Ali is unrealistic or unbelievable. The most common critique is that the way Rukhsana’s parents and family treat her is unrealistic. I wish it were unrealistic. But it’s not just in Muslim cultures that teenagers get kicked out of their homes for their sexual identity. For example, Chloe in Zara Hossain Is Here is a white Catholic girl whose parents won’t abide her being gay. I made this contrast on purpose: the Muslim family defends their gay daughter and the Catholic family tears their daughter down.
Non-Muslims also tell me that the way the characters talk to each other isn’t believable—even though the characters speak English fluently, they speak with a somewhat different grammar or emphasis. People who have different first languages often speak English slightly differently. People whose first language is English sometimes think they know everything about how English is spoken. I’ve even had people tell me, “You speak funny.” When you read about characters from different cultures, you need to have an open mind.
What inspired you to start writing for teens? Can we expect more YA novels from you?
I started writing seriously because of my children. They were both big readers and I would go to bookstores with them and not see any books about kids who looked like them. When my daughters started reading YA, I started reading a lot of it, too, because I wanted to talk with them about the books they were reading. I found the YA voices so refreshing and wished I’d had books like that to read when I was growing up—but back then there were only children’s books or adult books. And then I began wishing that my kids could read YA books about brown kids, about South Asian teens.
So in 2011, I started writing seriously and joined some local writers’ groups. While we live in an ethnically diverse community, the writers’ groups were made up entirely of white people. Most—though not all—of the people suggested I try to publish my book in India, or for the Indian community here. They were kind, but a little patronizing. But I believed them when they said there was no market for the books I wanted to write.
And it’s true that until about 2014, I couldn’t find many books by authors of color. When We Need Diverse Books was founded in 2014, I was inspired to hope that there could be some movement in that direction. And now there is.
Around that time, I began to find a lot of support online. There were voices on social media [platforms] like Twitter that were supportive and inspiring. In April 2016, I pitched my novel [as part of] the Twitter competition #DVpit, which is for marginalized and underrepresented voices. It was an amazing experience, but my manuscript wasn’t quite ready. So I worked on it some more and then that summer I participated in #PitchWars and was paired with writer Natasha Neagle as my mentor. We worked together for about two months and then I participated in the #PitchWars agent showcase. I got quite a few requests for my manuscript and a few offers of representation, and I signed on with Hillary Jacobson at ICM Partners. It all happened pretty fast. Hillary and I revised a little more—she’s an editorial agent, which I love—and then Scholastic made us an offer.
And to answer the second part of that question: I do have a new YA novel coming from Scholastic next year. It plays with time and point-of-view—and that’s all I’m allowed to say about it at this point!
Zara Hossain Is Here by Sabina Khan. Scholastic Press, $18.99 Apr. 6 ISBN 978-1-338-58087-7