Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Wednesday, March 7, 2018: Maximum Shelf: A Place for Us


SJP for Hogarth: A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza

SJP for Hogarth: A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza

SJP for Hogarth: A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza

SJP for Hogarth: A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza

A Place for Us

by Fatima Farheen Mirza

For the first time in several years, five members of one Muslim American family have gathered in California, to celebrate the wedding of Hadia, the eldest daughter and firstborn of Layla and Rafiq. Rather than accept an arranged marriage brokered by her parents, Hadia has decided to build her life with Tariq, the man she has fallen in love with and--most importantly--someone who represents her ambition, decision and choice.

Hadia has also chosen to invite Amar, her estranged brother, to her wedding. His struggle to find and understand his place within their family has been a difficult, heartbreaking and lifelong journey. Amar's clashes with his parents' expectations and their traditional values have resulted in deep misunderstandings and long-held unspoken secrets. Believing that he will never feel like he belongs within his family or the Muslim American community, Amar travels down a dangerous path away from everything and everyone he knows--including Amira Ali, the woman he has loved for most of his life. Because Amira's family is close with his, she is also a guest at Hadia's wedding. 

Amar and Amira's relationship has its roots in their childhood. It is defined by a devastating betrayal and was borne from the tragic and unexpected loss of Amira's brother Abbas. His death impacts each character within A Place for Us. ("How unlucky that one person has the power to determine the shape of another's life.") For Amar, it is the loss of his best friend and confidant. For his sister Hadia, although she is happy and content on her wedding day, Abbas's loss leaves her with lingering regrets and a missed chance for true love. It is "[a] loss without a name. The loss of a potential version of her life. Of what she never had, and now never will. The realization that, in her own small and sustained way, she had loved someone for years that she had only looked at in glimpses, only spoken to in passing, only thought of in secret, only ever touched when they passed a cup of lassi or a stick of gum between them."

Within the first few pages of A Place for Us, Fatima Farheen Mirza brilliantly and immediately places her reader into the emotionally charged lives of each member of this family. She infuses this resplendent debut novel with exquisite prose reflecting beauty in all forms. From the elegance, vibrant colors and symbolic moments of Hadia's wedding to the luminescence of the stars that remain a mystical, constant presence throughout the novel, A Place for Us holds abundant reminders that we all possess a unique identity and place within the world, as well as the interconnectedness to each other that can be found through culture, faith and love.

Mirza further supports this universality with a narrative offering multiple points of view. She takes her time building this story, gradually revealing this family's history through their assimilations into American life and their fierce hold on traditions and conflicts with expectations. She eschews stereotypes, reserving those as the basis for others' hateful attacks inflicted in the aftermath of 9/11. As readers, we have the benefit of viewing the same event and singular moment from the perspective of each of the four main characters--Hadia, Amar, their mother Layla and their father Rafiq.  The voice of another sister, Huma, provides a reflective and insightful balance to those of her siblings and parents. "How were they to know the moments that would define them?" Huma says. Through this lens emerge broad, universal and multifaceted themes of love and loss, betrayal and honor, tradition and independence--emotions and experiences that will be familiar to and resonate with anyone, regardless of their background, culture or faith.

As the first book selected by award-winning television and film actress, producer and designer Sarah Jessica Parker for her newly launched publishing imprint, SJP for Hogarth, A Place for Us also heralds Mirza's arrival as a distinctive new voice in contemporary literary fiction. At age 26, Mirza has crafted a compelling, sweeping family drama that honors the Muslim American experience while illuminating that we are all on similar journeys of discovering our physical, emotional and spiritual home.  A Place for Us allows the reader to understand that while this quest can be a beautiful one, it is made even more so by our willingness to take the inherent risk of sharing our struggles and triumphs with those on our path. Only then will we find true belonging and personal acceptance. --Melissa Firman

SJP for Hogarth, $27, hardcover, 448p., 9781524763558

SJP for Hogarth: A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza


Fatima Farheen Mirza: Finding Her Place in the Literary World

photo: Gregg Richards

Fatima Farheen Mirza was born and raised in California. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and is a recipient of the Michener-Copernicus Fellowship. A Place for Us (June 12, 2018) is her debut novel and is the first literary work acquired by award-winning actress and producer Sarah Jessica Parker as editorial director of her newly launched imprint, SJP for Hogarth.

A Place for Us is set within a Muslim American family and their community, and explores many universal themes defining those important relationships: love and loss, familial and cultural expectations, honor and betrayal, faith and tradition. There's so much emotion within these pages. Did all of those elements evolve naturally for you as your writing progressed? 

While writing, I never explicitly thought about the characters in relation to these themes, only asked myself--what do the characters want in this moment? How are their needs and hopes in conflict with one another? But I believe that the universal themes you mentioned--love and loss, familial and cultural expectations, honor and betrayal, etc.--are found in every life, in every story to different degrees, even if the particulars of the plot change.

The novel is divided into four parts, with perspectives and voices from several main characters in this family: Layla, the mother; Hadia, the oldest daughter; Amar, the son; and Rafiq, the father. As this story unfolds, we get to see each character's point of view of the same situation, often a small yet pivotal moment in time. Was that a difficult balance for you as an author? Did one character's voice or experience resonate more strongly for you?

Trying to understand what these shared moments meant to each character was one of the most challenging and exciting parts of writing--those were the scenes that stretched my imagination, motivated me to discover what I had not been paying attention to and often surprised me, as they revealed my own assumptions about the characters. I don't want to give any important plot points away, but at one point, after I wrote the same moment through three different perspectives, I realized that each character remembers, or pays attention to, what they feel most guilty about in the moment, rather than what was done to them.

Sometimes, when following Layla's or Rafiq's perspective, I was aware that I personally disagreed with their logic in the moment. Those were difficult moments to navigate but maybe the most important ones for me to sit with, as I had to articulate their experience as they would, and in doing so I had to imagine a thought process that was so unlike my own. But the novel depends on the way different points of view are in conflict with one another, and to understand that conflict I had to figure out each character's relationship to their inner voice, faith, community and even how they defined love. That was a heartbreaking moment: to realize that these characters did not even agree on what love is, what role love plays in their life. Once I understood their individuality, it was easier to explore how these pivotal moments affected each of them.

Writing Rafiq's voice was by far the most powerful experience. It is the only voice in first person and it arrived all at once, as if fully formed.

A Place for Us is the first novel published under SJP for Hogarth. How involved was Sarah Jessica Parker in this process and what was it like working with her? What does it mean for you to have your first novel be her inaugural title?

Working with Sarah Jessica and everyone at SJP for Hogarth has been such a moving and exciting experience. For years, I'd been so focused on the writing process that I had not pictured what it would be like to publish, but everything--from my conversations with Sarah Jessica about the book or working closely with my brilliant editors in revising it--has exceeded my highest hopes for the novel. Every time I've spoken with Sarah Jessica about the novel, I've had the thought that she is the ideal reader a writer might want for their book, as she is thoughtful and insightful, generous with her heart and precise in her observations, and her responses reflect how genuinely she feels for characters and how much time she spends thinking about them. All of this has made this experience a lot more meaningful and personal than I could have imagined, and I feel fortunate that it all aligned in a way that SJP for Hogarth will be publishing it.

Tell us about your writing process. You started this novel during your freshman year of college--was it challenging to balance academics and novel writing? How long did it take you to write A Place for Us?

Soon after I started writing the novel, I switched my studies from pre-med courses to creative writing, so most of my classes did not take away from my novel but began to feed it: they exposed me to literature, helped me learn how to read as a writer, and often allowed me to workshop early sections. So many of my memories in undergrad are from writing in cafés between classes and on weekends. I remember I'd stick a ton of Post-its on the table I was working on, and would rewrite the writing lessons I had learned onto the Post-its, so that I could glance up at them any time I looked away from the page. I was 18, almost 19, when I started the novel, and I often feel as though I have grown into who I am with the novel, or that I've been working on it for as long as I've known who I am.

What can readers expect next from you, writing-wise? Are you working on anything new?

It was out of love for this family that I pushed myself to do right by their story, and I poured my entire energy into capturing their lives. I am always writing, but a part of me doesn’t want to allow myself to commit to writing another novel until I feel the same care for the characters that I did for Amar and Hadia and Layla and Rafiq, and that urgency to understand their lives. --Melissa Firman


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