In 2021, Unsettled told a stirring immigration story of Nurah and her family, who move from Pakistan to America, and a journey of finding your place. With riveting language, poignant themes, and a genuine heroine that readers will love to root for, this debut novel-in-verse clearly took from the author’s own life but still managed to weave a warm and funny coming-of-age story. No wonder Veera Hiranandani —Newbery Honor author The Night Diary— praised this as an “empowering story [that] will not only resonate with those who have emigrated from South Asia, but with all young people who have struggled to both fit in and stay true to themselves”.
Of course, the author’s next standalone novel-in-verse became one of the most anticipated middle-grade releases of this year! Featuring a young Muslim girl, Aafiyah, who is a flawed, relatable and deeply human character, this sophomore novel charms through an honest portrayal of a protagonist who makes mistakes. Also centred around social injustice, the power of family, and kleptomania, Golden Girl is a compassionate read sprinkled with the joys of a coming-of-age tale. Needless to say, it’s a pleasure to feature Reem Faruqi —the author of Unsettled & Golden Girl— on this blog today! To view more such posts by Muslim authors, make sure to check out this collaboration, Muslim Musings, spanning over Ramadan 2022. This blog post may contain affiliate links. To know more about them, please read my disclaimer.
Q/A with Reem Faruqi on her middle-grade novels-in-verse, compassionate stories about young Muslim girls, and poetic finesse with a focus on family.
Starting with the introductions, would you like to help our readers know more about your recent novel, Golden Girl, yourself, and the weather where you are?
Hi Fanna! Thank you so much for inviting me! I’m Reem. I’m a Pakistani-American children’s book author. I enjoy writing lyrical stories that reflect my own experiences.
Golden Girl is a book about a character Aafiyah Qamar who risks everything to unite her family. It’s a book that covers themes of gold and how it relates to a Pakistani family, social injustice, and what it means to own up to your mistakes and be honest with yourself and others. Currently in Atlanta, it’s 69 degrees Fahrenheit. The weather feels pleasant and warm. The trees are blooming with flowers. Spring is definitely in the air! But unfortunately, there’s also a very high pollen count. I’m allergic to pollen, so that makes it difficult to go outside and when I am outside, I try to wear a mask.
Clearly, this middle grade novel is about truth-telling, hope, and compassion. What inspired you to craft something with these themes, especially while bringing forward a pretty underrepresented topic of kleptomania with such sensitivity?
I chose to write about kleptomania because I hadn’t read about it much in children’s literature. Also, a close friend of mine had it and I remember the surprise, grief, and betrayal of being on the other side and having some of my belongings stolen. I researched kleptomania and found that it’s more common than I thought. I also wanted to explore the conflicting emotions that go with this behavior. I also used themes of hope and compassion because they balanced out the heavier parts of the story. When writing about heavy topics, I have to make sure to balance it with lighter ones.
Golden Girl shows Aafiyah’s journey to include denial, acceptance, and guilt while also being a tween’s coming-of-age story that involves everyday joy and frustrations. What was the secret to balancing all in order to create a multifaceted main character?
Initially I resisted telling Aafiyah’s story. Something that stuck with me while writing, was something my cousin said, “Your character doesn’t need to be perfect, but she should be redeemable.” That could be the secret!
I wrote a story about an imperfect character that has flaws, big ones at that. I wanted to explore Aafiyah’s denial, acceptance, and guilt surrounding her bad habit, but also show that she is much more than a bad habit. She is intelligent, quirky, beautiful, and witty. She loves weird-but-true facts and relies on them to solve her problems, even when they can have disastrous results! I tried my best to infuse the story with humor via weird-but-true facts.
Also, something interesting is when I sent my agent a summary of the book, she was worried it might be too heavy, but I had also sent her the first twenty pages, and when she read that, she said it was perfect. Sometimes the summaries of my books might sound heavy, but when I actually tell the story, each page is different. Each verse from Golden Girl varies between heavy and light, sadness and joy.
Golden Girl by Reem Faruqi
Seventh grader Aafiyah loves playing tennis, reading Weird but True facts, and hanging out with her best friend, Zaina. However, Aafiyah has a bad habit that troubles her–she’s drawn to pretty things and can’t help but occasionally “borrow” them.
But when her father is falsely accused of a crime he hasn’t committed and gets taken in by authorities, Aafiyah knows she needs to do something to help. When she brainstorms a way to bring her father back, she turns to her Weird but True facts and devises the perfect plan.
But what if her plan means giving in to her bad habit, the one she’s been trying to stop? Aafiyah wants to reunite her family but finds that maybe her plan isn’t so perfect after all.
Both your middle grade novels, Unsettled (2021) and Golden Girl (2022), feature Pakistani American Muslim tweens. Why specifically stories of these young girls?
I think because I specifically lived the Pakistani-American teenage experience, I found it easier to tell those stories.
Whether it’s the poetic finesse of your MG novel(s)-in-verse or the simplistic calm of your illustrated children’s books— Lailah’s Lunchbox (2015) and Amira’s Picture Day (2021) —the immigrant experience and focus on family is unmissable. How important was it to highlight these aspects through a lens of culture and religion?
It was pretty important to me to shine a light on a variety of immigrant experiences. I remember reading a review of my book and it said that it was nice to read about an immigrant that didn’t move because of a trauma or war. Sometimes immigrants like me move for better opportunities. Like my character Nurah in Unsettled, my father got a job offer in America and took it. Obviously, my immigrant experience differs from others, but I wanted to share it. For me, family is everything. When I write about family, I’m not actively trying to highlight my culture or religion. I just write about what comes naturally, and it just happens to touch on my cultural and religious experiences.
With five books now published, what have you learned ever since that first step you took towards writing stories or getting them on shelves?
The publishing industry is unpredictable and it requires patience and persistence. It can be draining at times, and joyful at other times. You have to have a lot of self-motivation to keep writing over the years and be your own boss. Also, you are your best advocate! I’ve learned to speak up more over the years.
This was a great chat! But before letting you go, would you like to share what you’ve been working on nowadays; any stories we should be excited for after Golden Girl has won our hearts already? Or maybe something you enjoyed reading recently?
I’m working on a third verse novel with a table-tennis playing boy character that I’m really excited about. I have three brothers and we used to play table tennis together. I’m reading New To Here by Kelly Yang and loving it.
Also, I recently read these two picture books and loved them: One Wish by M.O. Yuksel and Mariam Quraishi & Abdul’s Story by Jamilah Thomkins-Bigelow and Tiffany Rose. Thank you, Fanna! I really enjoyed chatting with you today 😊
She is the award-winning children’s book author of Lailah’s Lunchbox, a book based on her own experiences as a young Muslim girl immigrating to the United States. She’s also the author of “Amira’s Picture Day,” “I Can Help,” and two middle grade novels in verse, “Unsettled” and “Golden Girl,” which all got starred reviews. After surviving Atlanta traffic and the school drop off, Reem spends her days trying to write, but instead gets distracted easily by her camera and buttery sunlight. Reem Faruqi lives in Atlanta with her husband and three daughters. You can find her at reemfaruqi.com or @reemfaruqi on Instagram or @reemfaruqi on Twitter!
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Everything stated in this post is independent of any compensation, and the author’s answers and thoughts are solely their opinion; the formatting was done by the blogger but no changes were made in text.