Aisha Saeed is the author of 13 books for young readers across all ages, including Amal Unbound, Written in the Stars, Yes No Maybe So (with Becky Albertalli), and Omar Rising. In addition to being a writer, teacher, and attorney, Saeed, who is Pakistani American, is a founding member of We Need Diverse Books. Here, Saeed reflects on the process of blending fantasy and everyday experiences in her new YA novel, Forty Words for Love (Kokila), and paying homage to South Asian storytelling in all its richness and complexity.
As a child, I was raised on the fantastical. Aunties and Uncles shared stories from South Asia about magical undertakings presented as utterly ordinary. Tales of star-crossed lovers like Layla and Majnun, the besotted prince who traveled the world to meet a fairy who some say can still be glimpsed glittering along the shores of an ancient glacier lake in Pakistan. It was not uncommon to hear about someone having a vision in a dream and awakening to hair gone completely white, or warnings to not walk beneath certain trees at night, lest one risk a curse befalling them. The ordinary and magical exist side-by-side within the stories passed down in my culture. Indeed, storytellers like Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid have brought such tales to Western readers with novels such as Exit West, where portals appear and vanish without rhyme or reason, transporting people to various destinations. Some have explained this tradition as a way of coping—a means of processing trauma for people from lands that have seen much of it, colonialism and Partition to name a few, with a touch of necessary narrative distance.
With my new novel Forty Words for Love, I sought to honor this tradition of storytelling. Forty Words for Love follows two star-crossed teens. Yas was born and raised in Moonlight Bay; Raf’s people are refugees whose community fled the inhospitably icy lands of Golub, taking shelter within Moonlight Bay’s forest. Though they lived side by side in harmony for years, their peaceful coexistence unravels in the aftermath of a tragedy that brings their town to the brink of economic collapse. In the wake of rising hostilities, both teens grapple with loss and explore the meaning of home, community, and what we owe each other and ourselves.
Within the pages of this novel, among fantastical pink and lavender seas, and leaves that glow upon the wrists of the Golub people, I explore my very real upbringing as a first-generation Pakistani American who knows no other home than this country, but who, like Raf, is often asked to justify her existence on its soil. With Yas, I examined my own teenage years grappling with crises such as my father’s job loss, the prospect of losing our home, and how these moments affected my faith and relationship to my family and community. As I wrote this story about uncertainty in difficult moments, I lived through the uncertain times of a global pandemic. I also watched my ancestral lands experience simultaneous climate tragedies of severe drought and heat, as well as unprecedented flooding. These were all difficult moments, which through the pages of this novel I could explore with a touch of necessary distance. Exploring human truths through a fantastical lens, I felt a deep connection with all who came before me.
Forty Words for Love is my 13th book. It is unlike anything I’ve written before. And once I finished writing it, I realized this story, inspired by South Asian storytelling, does not neatly fit into any particular category. It is not truly fantasy as conceived of in the West, nor contemporary realism. And though it has hints of magical realism like the tales of Anna-Marie McLemore, it isn’t fully that either. So what box does this book belong in? All these years later, I do not have an answer. What I do know is I chose this storytelling medium to serve as a love letter to my ancestral traditions, merging mythology, folklore, magic, and reality to get to the heart of the complicated and messy truths of our contemporary world, many of which do not have neat answers.
It’s a free-falling feeling to write outside of one’s wheelhouse. It is also liberating. This story is an homage to my heritage, and to the ever-present themes within South Asian tales of love and longing. It is also a love letter to all of us who exist outside of easy categorization. It bears mentioning that I was afforded the opportunity to write this out of the box story thanks to my brilliant editor, Zareen Jaffery, who is Pakistani American like myself, and who intimately understood what I was trying to do. This in and of itself is a testament to the importance not only of diverse authors from traditionally marginalized backgrounds, but to the critical importance of diversity within the publishing industry, without which a story like this, honoring a storytelling tradition that is not yet neatly categorized by Western readers, would not exist. I am incredibly grateful it does exist though, and that I was able to craft this tale to honor those who came before me, but also to tell the story burning inside me, the one that I needed to tell.