Aisha Saeed is one of the founding members of We Need Diverse Books, a grassroots organization created to address the lack of diverse narratives in children’s literature. With the publication of Written in the Stars, Saeed is now also a YA author.
This is the heartbreaking tale of clever, college-bound Naila, whose conservative immigrant parents forbid her to date boys. When Naila falls in love with Saif, her parents respond by whisking the family to Pakistan. But what starts as a family vacation appears to have secret motives: Naila's parents plan to force her to marry a man of their choosing.
Saeed was raised in a traditional Pakistani-American family and took a "leap of faith" when she married a man chosen by her parents. While Saeed's semiarranged marriage is a happy one, Written in the Stars exposes the dark realities of forced marriages, when young women are pressured or coerced into unions they would never have chosen for themselves. As eye-opening as it is touching, Written in the Stars is a story readers won't soon forget.
BookPage contacted Saeed to talk about the story behind Written in the Stars and, perhaps most importantly, to check in on We Need Diverse Books.
We’re closing in on the one-year anniversary of We Need Diverse Books. Where do you think we are now? What have we done right or wrong, and what’s the next step?
It’s hard to believe it is almost a year since We Need Diverse Books made its way into the world! No longer just a hashtag, we are now an organization with many exciting initiatives launching this year, including our first ever Walter Dean Myers Award and Grants for diverse authors and works. I believe the success of WNDB is due to how important diversity in literature is to so many people and as one of its founding members I am grateful that this conversation is ongoing and leading to what I hope will be tangible change. While the statistics are still dire for diverse representation, I am optimistic about where we are now, and there are things that give me hope. For example, I was heartened to see how many diverse books were recognized at the ALA Youth Media Awards earlier this year.
Diversity is being talked about in all realms of the art and entertainment world, from Marvel comics to television shows and the book publishing industry. This is very promising, but the work has just begun. Our next steps as an organization are to continue our initiatives and to keep on working towards making a better and more diverse literary world.
What inspired you to write this book?
While Written in the Stars is a work of fiction, the inspiration stemmed from the experiences of some people I knew growing up as a child who went through the unfortunate reality of being pressured into marriages they didn’t want. Those stories have stayed with me throughout my life, and knowing how important this topic was because of my personal connection with it inspired me to keep on writing even when it was emotionally difficult.
What do you wish more people understood about arranged marriages?
I’ve found that people often lump forced marriages and arranged marriages together when they are actually two separate entities. In an arranged marriage, while parents are involved in the marriage of the groom and bride, there is always choice. Forced marriages, on the other hand, have no consent and are therefore completely unacceptable. I hope through reading Written in the Stars people can see that there is a difference between the two practices.
"As a Muslim and a Pakistani American, it was a balancing act for me to not only differentiate faith from culture, but to also be sure I highlighted an issue in Pakistan without vilifying the entire culture."
Naila finds comfort and strength in her culture (one of my favorite moments from the book is when she is in Pakistan and hears the call to prayer, and she suddenly feels a sense of home), but it’s that same culture that pressures her. How do you, as a Muslim woman, manage that balance?
There is a big distinction between Naila’s Pakistani culture and her Muslim faith. I appreciate you pointing out Naila found comfort in the prayer call, because while her culture is certainly complicit in what happens to her, her religion is not. Forced marriages are not legitimate marriages in Islam. As a Muslim and Pakistani American woman it was important for me to highlight the problem of forced marriages while being clear it is a cultural issue, not religiously motivated. The truth is forced marriages aren’t a cultural practice limited to Pakistan; the issue spans the globe and happens among people who practice other religions as well.
As a Muslim and a Pakistani American, it was a balancing act for me to not only differentiate faith from culture, but to also be sure I highlighted an issue in Pakistan without vilifying the entire culture. All cultures have problematic aspects within them that need addressing, but this does not eliminate the goodness, beauty, and warmth that is also present within them. I hope I achieved the balance of calling out an abominable practice without reducing the entire culture to one negative aspect.
What has been your favorite part about publishing your first book?
My favorite part of publishing my debut is the journey along the way. It is completely new and unchartered territory for me and there is no one set roadmap because the journey is unique to each author. It’s been incredible to learn as I go!
What other books would you recommend for readers interested in Muslim, Pakistani-American or Middle Eastern stories?
There are quite a few I would recommend! For starters I suggest the anthology Love Insh’Allah: Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women with collected essays from Muslim women in the United States and their journey towards finding love. (My own story of how I met my husband is also in it.) I would also recommend Painted Hands by Jennifer Zobair, which highlights modern Muslim-American women working and balancing identity and family.
What’s next for you?
With my book just out I’m busy with getting ready to do events and travel a bit, and I am also eager to dive into new projects that I’m working on. They are all in various stages of creation, but I’m very excited. Stay tuned!