Since the publication of her debut novel, Love, Hate & Other Filters, in 2018, Samira Ahmed has become known for her YA fiction featuring strong, smart, and passionate Muslim American teenage girls. Her newest book, Amira & Hamza: The War to Save the Worlds (Little, Brown, Sept.), though, is a middle grade fantasy. While it may seem like a change, she says the book “is not really a departure for me. Fantasy tells a truth about the world we live in.”
Amira & Hamza follows the story of contemporary 12-year-old Amira and her younger brother, who suddenly find themselves in the mystical land of Qaf, tasked with stopping the moon from breaking apart and evil creatures from swarming throughout the world, bent on its destruction. “Amira is a revolutionary girl, like my teenage protagonists,” Ahmed says. “She’s smart, she’s a skeptic, and she’s not willing to take what adults say at face value, even when she’s in a difficult position. She wants proof.”
Ahmed’s first teenage protagonist, Maya Aziz in Love, Hate & Other Filters, is American born, unlike the author, who was born in Bombay and brought to the United States as a toddler. Maya’s Indian Muslim parents expect her to adhere to their traditions when it comes to education and marriage—something Maya is battling against. As she struggles with parental relations, a crush, and her passion for filmmaking, a second third-person narrative—which will profoundly affect Maya’s life—is also unfolding. “I thought an intercalary voice was a good way to build in suspense outside of the main narrative,” Ahmed explains. “I was inspired to structure the book [in that way] by The Grapes of Wrath.”
Her interest in the structure of novels reflects her background as a high school English teacher, after which she spent several years working in educational nonprofits. Though Ahmed always enjoyed writing, becoming a professional writer wasn’t an ambition. “I have my journals all the way back to fifth grade,” she recalls, “and I wrote a lot of angst poetry as a teenager. As an adult, I wrote on the side—poetry, short memoir-type pieces, short stories. Writing was a creative outlet for me. I wrote the way some people knit or paint.”
Ahmed says she also read a lot of YA literature: “partially because I love that age—these were the students I taught—but also because I like the way YA books push boundaries, how they blend and cross genres.” The idea that was the germ of Love, Hate & Other Filters originally came to her as a short story that she couldn’t stop thinking about. “It stayed with me the way the words to a song get stuck in your head. The only way to get it out of my mind was to start writing it.”
Eventually Ahmed realized the short story was becoming a book. “Now,” she says, “I always begin a book by writing it as a short story. It’s my way of discovering if this is a character I love—if this is a world I want to live in for a long time.” Usually, the short story ends up as a scene in the book itself.
After completing that first manuscript, Ahmed put it in a metaphorical drawer—a file on her computer—and tinkered with it occasionally. “You have all the time in the world to work on your first book and revise it,” she muses. “It’s how you learn about yourself as a writer.” Eventually she began querying agents and connected with Eric Smith of P.S. Literary on Twitter’s #PitMatch in 2016. Soon thereafter they sold her manuscript to Daniel Ehrenhaft at Soho Teen.
Even before signing with Smith, Ahmed had started working on what became her second book, Internment. The hard-hitting novel, described by the publisher as “set in an America about 15 minutes into the future,” when Islamophobia is rampant and American Muslims are imprisoned in former Japanese American camps, was published halfway through the Trump presidency. Author Kacen Callender, then an associate editor at Little, Brown, who acquired and edited the book, says, “The concept of Internment drew me in immediately. It was a scary time with Trump having been elected, and Samira’s story felt like it could become reality, as it has in the past. With the Muslim ban and the uncovering of the ICE detention centers, Samira’s voice unfortunately became particularly timely.”
Ahmed recalls, “I actually started that book before the 2016 election. I was reading about the Syrian refugees who were being put into internment camps and I was looking at photos of the Japanese Americans who were illegally incarcerated in this country in the 1940s. After 9/11 I saw that fearmongering and scapegoating were on the rise. Librarians were being asked to disclose circulation records as to who was checking out what books. So many Americans seemed willing to forgo civil liberties, as long as it didn’t affect them personally. These were the threads of inspiration that I wove together to write that book.”
Ahmed was also inspired by youth movements of the past, such as the White Rose resistance in Nazi Germany. “Often young people are thrust into situations because of terrible decisions adults make, and so they’re forced to find the courage to confront oppressions,” she says. Her determined heroine, 17-year-old Layla Amin, imprisoned along with her cautious, passive parents, leads the resistance within the camp and spreads news of it to the outside world, which ultimately rallies to their cause.
Ahmed’s current agent, Joanna Volpe of New Leaf Literary, began to represent her in January 2019, when Internment was published. Volpe describes being moved by their first conversation: “I remember getting off that first call with her and wanting to take on the world! Her enthusiasm for empowering young people is infectious. She wants to reach kids in a meaningful way—for her stories to inspire kids, especially young girls and women, to find their voice and not be afraid to use it with purpose.”
After two books that dealt with Islamophobia in America, Ahmed took on the theme of women’s hidden stories. Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know grew partially out of her undergraduate thesis on romantic orientalism, which examined the influence of Napoleonic conquest on Byron’s writing. Focused on a little-known 18th-century woman named Leila, who may have served as muse for painters and writers of the era, and structured as a dual narrative, Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know is told both by 21st-century Khayyam, a budding art historian, and by Leila. Ahmed originally wrote Leila’s entire narrative as an extended short story for an anthology, later creating what she calls the “frame story” of Khayyam, who is outraged by how women’s stories have been overshadowed throughout history by men’s—or told only through the eyes of men—and is seeking to uncover and tell Leila’s.
In addition to her realistic YA, Ahmed’s oeuvre includes anthology contributions in a variety of genres. Her science fiction story “The Coldest Spot in the Universe” appears in the 2020 We Need Diverse Books collection A Universe of Wishes, and she contributed a poem to 2019’s Take the Mic; her writing is also included in Vampires Never Get Old and Color Outside the Lines (both published last year).
Why the move to middle grade? For Ahmed, this book was another opportunity to weave together threads of inspiration: the fantasy games she played as a child and the stories she would tell her middle grade children on walks to school about two siblings fighting to save the world. “It became a kind of collaborative storytelling with my kids,” she says.
At the same time, Ahmed realized she was replicating the oral traditions of both her culture and her family. “My great-grandmother used to tell my mother bedtime stories from the Islamic epic tales of the Hamzanama,” she says, “which, during the time of the Mughals, were handed down through the storytellers known in Urdu as dastans.”
Other influences were also important in the creation of this book. Like many fantasy writers, Ahmed owns a well-worn copy of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. “A lot of us saw ourselves as Meg Murry, always asking questions,” she reflects. She is grateful to South Asian American women writers like Roshani Chokshi, Sayantani DasGupta, and Karuna Riazi, who “paved the way and did the heavy lifting” in creating young South Asian female protagonists in middle grade fantasy. “I’m thankful there are writers pushing into this space of fantasy and science fiction, as well as in historical fiction, like Stacey Lee. I want to see books with protagonists of color in every genre that celebrate joy, not just showcase pain. Our shelves should represent our world. Publishing has done a lot of work, but still has a long way to go.”
Alvina Ling, who acquired and edited Amira & Hamza, agrees, saying, “I think there’s especially a gap in the market for characters of color, as well as Muslim characters, in middle grade fantasy.” So she was excited to receive Ahmed’s manuscript in October 2019. “Samira is such a strong storyteller, whatever category she’s writing in. I also love how much humor she infused into this book, and how she has said that joy is a form of resistance.”
On the heels of Amira & Hamza is another new venture for Ahmed: she’s the third writer—and the first South Asian woman—to take on the comic-book miniseries Miss Marvel, due out in September. Miss Marvel is a longtime favorite character of hers—a regular teen with an incredible job: being a Muslim superhero. “I love challenging myself in new genres and learning new skills,” she says.
Volpe sees Miss Marvel as fitting perfectly into Ahmed’s mission: “writing about Muslim revolutionary girls of color who are navigating the world and making an impact.”
Ahmed’s latest YA novel, Hollow Fires, about another revolutionary Muslim teenage girl, is scheduled to be published by Little, Brown in summer 2022. She says she has several other projects, but they’re still under wraps. If 2021 is any indication, though, readers can probably expect a few more surprises.
Krystyna Poray Goddu is the author of numerous nonfiction books for children and a frequent contributor to PW.