In March 2018, a children’s fantasy followed a trio of friends from New York City find themselves trapped inside a mechanical board game that they must dismantle in order to save themselves and generations of other children. Pitched as a steampunk version of Jumanji, this high-stakes adventure brought a lot of fantastical twists and turns in the fascinating world of an evil architect and its magical creatures. Even it’s sequel, which can be read independently, deservedly demanded attention as a Middle Eastern Zathura meets Ready Player One. No wonder readers excitedly cheered when the author announced her upcoming book for 2023: a middle-grade contemporary retelling starring a rebellious girl of Bangladeshi and Pakistani descent who finds herself shipped off to a white family on Long Island after losing her activist parents. Needless to say, it’s a pleasure to feature Karuna Riazi— the author of The Gauntlet & A Bit of Earth— 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 Karuna Riazi on her upcoming contemporary retelling, crafting middle-grade stories, and writing a biracial character.
Starting with the introductions, would you like to help our readers know more about your upcoming novel, A Bit of Earth, yourself, and the weather where you are?
Absolutely! My name is Karuna Riazi, I’m a born and raised New Yorker who is thrilled that it has been sunny the past few days in my neck of the woods (I revel in sunlight and blue skies and balmy sweater weather!), and I predominantly am known for writing middle grade featuring young Muslim heroines having fantastic adventures, learning more about themselves, and claiming their agency and taking pride in who they are.
A Bit of Earth may seem a little off my beaten path, as it is (mostly) a middle grade contemporary, but it is very similar to my previous works in that a) it features a young Muslim heroine of South Asian descent, b) one who is a New Yorker, or well, ends up living in New York as she’s immigrated from overseas, c) comes of age, makes new friendships and finds support and acceptance and love while having an incredible new experience she never could have imagined, and d) is a retelling! (Just as a refresher, The Gauntlet was very heavily inspired by Jumanji, so retellings tend to be My Thing.)
As a contemporary retelling of The Secret Garden, how did you make it yours: through reflections of your cultural heritage, through the found family trope, or through the tween biracial girl?
Such a good question, and I hope you don’t mind that I’m a little all over the place with my response! I made a promise to myself a few years ago that, with my next book, I’d start writing the biracial representation (particularly as a biracial kid of two parents of color!) that I hadn’t had when I was younger. Though I still haven’t entirely written my specific and full biracial background in yet – of course, Bangladesh is, as always, proudly represented, referenced and respected and I think that falls along the lines of reflecting my cultural heritage – I feel that A Bit of Earth is my first step forward with that, and hopefully will have other biracial kids out there excited to read a narrative where the character’s biracial background is one of love and acceptance on both sides, no angst about “which side matters more” and – as it has generally been for me – a proud and vibrant experience on all fronts.
The found family trope is SO deeply a part of The Secret Garden, and it has been a pleasure to craft that journey of healing, a new support system and an embrace of warmth and acceptance around a young brown girl – which feels so right and so long delayed for this narrative. As I’ve mentioned a few times on Twitter, I was moved to act upon my long held desire to retell The Secret Garden upon seeing yet another film adaptation being announced (back in 2019!), that totally overlooked the hidden potential to decolonize it by centering it upon a Desi girl and bringing our rich cultures to the forefront instead of delegated to the background as it – and we – always have.
It’s easy to understand why readers are excited for A Bit of Earth—set to be published in 2023! How excited are you? Any thoughts on what you expect readers to take away from it?
As always, I am super excited but also super nervous. I know that I hope readers will take away from it – a sense of warmth, of being loved and seen, a story that hopefully proves formative and iconic and strengthening for so many kids out there without the racism and ableism that so many of us have grappled with alongside our love for the original – but I always worry and hope that I’ve truly made all that clear. God willing, I have, and it will welcome readers in and embrace them with all the love and pride I have in them and all that they are.
Speaking of The Gauntlet (2017), a steampunk Jumanji with Middle Eastern flair, it’s been five years since it first came to the shelves. Is there something about this debut novel that would’ve been different if you were drafting it today?
A loaded question! Fun fact: I don’t think I’ve read The Gauntlet in its entirety since 2018. I have favorite passages and moments that I fixate on for readings and retrospective memories, to remind myself that I did that and I can continue to do that – but reading the whole thing and thinking too deeply about what I would change is frankly just not healthy for me! (I know other authors who are able to look back at their works without instantly wanting to reach for a red pen and cringe at the pacing – one day!)
That isn’t to say I don’t love that book. I do. It’s changed my entire life, and Farah is still my pride and joy. But I also know I’m my own worst critic, and I’d prefer to listen to the readers’ ever wonderful and humbling commentary on it over the past five years and revel alongside them in how much fun it was for them than…well, pick it apart. It is written, and done, and I’ve learned from it and continue to keep growing and hoping I’m doing better over time, and that’s exactly the way it should be.
Clearly, your previous works as well as an upcoming release are all middle-grade stories. Why this demographic or category? Also, should we expect a young adult or an adult book soon or in the future?
It’s so amazing to me, still, that I’m a middle grade writer. I’ve always, always loved and admired middle grade. It’s my comfort category, the category that supported me through my own very interesting middle grade years, and one that has always dispensed wisdom and encouragement when I needed it most. But when I was first approached to consider writing middle grade, I was like NOPE. Why? Because I felt I wouldn’t do it justice. The last thing I wanted was to be an author who came across as not knowing how to wield that incredible and hard-to-nail middle grade voice, to come off as condescending to my readership or out of touch. But once I was nudged toward it, it just felt right.
The middle grade community is right: welcoming, supportive, a place where I’ve been blessed to make so many wonderful friends and meet so many bright, kind and loving readers. Truly, the middle grade demographic is an amazing readership to write for, and a receptive, responsive and hungry one. I hope to keep offering them stories that can meet them where they are, offer them the support and encouragement they are looking for at the times they need it most, and keep striving toward their wildest dreams.
As for young adult, that was my original debut dream and I’ve never, ever crossed it out. God willing, one day! In the meantime, I have plenty of young adult short stories in previously released and upcoming anthologies if anyone is curious – for example, in the upcoming The Grimoire of Grave Fates, edited by Hanna Alkaf and Margaret Owen, and All Signs Point to Yes, edited by g. haron davis, Cam Montgomery and Adrianne White!
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 A Bit of Earth will win our hearts? Or maybe something you enjoyed reading recently?
The previously mentioned short stories, as well as the essay I’m honored will be included in the newly announced nonfiction craft book by and for writers of color, Writing in Color (edited by my dear big sis Nafiza Azad and wonderful friend Melody Simpson), are definitely out there to be looked forward to and added to lists, so keep an eye out! The pandemic has been rough on my reading appetite, but I highly recommend my dear Axie Oh’s The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea, which is of course INCREDIBLE, previously mentioned big sis Nafiza Azad’s most recent release The Wild Ones, and her cousin and my other dear big sis Kat Cho’s soon to be released Once Upon a K-Prom, which is just so much fun!
Karuna Riazi is a born and raised New Yorker, with a loving, large extended family and the rather trying experience of being the eldest sibling in her particular clan. She holds a BA in English Literature from Hofstra University and an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Hamline University’s MFAC program. She is an online diversity advocate, blogger, and educator. She is a 2017 honoree on NBC Asian America’s Redefining A-Z list, featuring up and coming talent within the Asian-American and Pacific Islander community, and her work has been featured on Entertainment Weekly, Shondaland, Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, Book Riot and Teen Vogue, among others.
She is also fond of tea, Korean dramas, writing about tough girls forging their own paths toward their destinies, and baking new delectable treats for friends and family to relish. The Gauntlet (S&S/Salaam Reads, March 28, 2017) is her middle grade debut, with a forthcoming companion, The Battle. She has also adapted The Jungle Book for the Apple TV series Ghostwriter (Sourcebooks / Sesame Workshop, 2019). Her next middle grade, A Bit of Earth, will release in 2023 from Greenwillow Books.
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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.