|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