Tuesday, June 23, 2009

A Conversation with Shaila Abdullah

 
Having just read and reviewed the novel Saffron Dreams, I am now honored to present this interview with award-winning writer Shaila Abdullah.

1) Shaila, you are so gracious to do this interview.  Please tell us a bit about your background, such as where you grew up in Pakistan, where you attended school, and when you came to the United States.


SA: I am a Pakistani-American author and designer and currently based in Austin, Texas. I grew up in a city called Karachi in Pakistan that is all too familiar for Americans nowadays. I came to the U.S. in 1995 after having an arranged marriage. I have been writing on and off since 1993. My new novel Saffron Dreams explores the tragedy of 9/11 from the perspective of a Muslim widow. My 2005 debut book, Beyond the Cayenne Wall is a collection of stories about Pakistani women struggling to find their individualities despite the barriers imposed by society. I also work for a nonprofit as a media designer.


2) I loved Saffron Dreams and already want to reread it.  Although Saffron Dreams reads like a memoir, it is not autobiographical. Tell us about the inspiration behind this book.

SA: Thanks, Susan, I am glad you enjoyed the book. Writing it was a true labor of love. I am sure there is hardly a person in the U.S. who was not affected by the events of September 11 in some way. For me, the event was double-daggered: grief at the loss of innocent lives and horror at the distortion of our own identities as Muslim-Americans that followed. Saffron Dreams evolved on the basic premise that the preservation of cultural and religious identity of any group is the cornerstone of a civil society. In Saffron Dreams, the protagonist Arissa Illahi, a veil-wearing Muslim woman, loses her husband in the tragedy of 9/11. You are right, the novel is not autobiographical, although there are some similarities between the character of Arissa and myself.


3) I see Saffron Dreams first and foremost as a love story. Of course, there's love-making. The love scenes between Arissa and her husband, Faizan, are notable and beautiful, fit well into the story, and make his death even more poignant. Was it easy and natural to write about this part of their relationship, of the intimate encounters between them?


SA: Not at all. In fact, they were the toughest to write. I grew up in a society where couples don’t normally show their affection for each other publicly. As such, I had to work really hard on those scenes and scribe them in a way that was palatable for all readers.
(You did a beautiful job. The love scenes flow well and are exquisite.)


4) The little details in Saffron Dreams have a lot of impact and helped draw me in. For instance, Arissa, the protagonist, says that she does not like to sip her Starbucks coffee through the tiny slit on the top of the lid.  I identified with her, and I feel the same way (although I drink tea, not coffee) and lift off the lid when I drink.  Does this detail also apply to you?  Again, although the book is not autobiographical, how much of you is in Arissa?
 
SA: You got me. Yes, I do that. Some details of the character’s life do match mine. For instance, we are both writers and artists and had arranged marriages. Both the character and I have flawed sense of directions. But that is where the resemblance ends; the character’s challenges are many and far, far greater. Certain characters in the novel were modeled after members of my family, though. A cousin who died after three years of marriage, leaving a pregnant wife behind drove the character of Arissa’s husband, Faizan. The cousin’s compassionate and loving parents inspired the characters of Faizan’s parents, who step in to help Arissa get back on her feet.


5) One of the important messages of Saffron Dreams is that all Muslims should not be held responsible for the actions of a few terrorists.  With the passing of time since 9/11, do you think the attitude of Americans has improved?
 
SA: America is a very resilient and educated society. We are moving in the right direction where people’s perceptions are concerned. But there are still questions that need to be answered without fear of a backlash and those have to come from the right sources. Where the media instilled fear in the heart of the nation about Muslims after 9/11, lately they have also attempted to learn the true meaning of Islam by bringing in renowned and respected scholars and researchers to interview. There still needs to be more dialog with positive role models of Islam. There is a great need in the U.S. for various religious entities to come together and build bridges of understanding and tolerance to find common ground.


6) Can you recommend other Muslim-American authors?  Do you think there is a need for more books written by Muslim-American women?
 
SA: Khaled Hosseini and Mohsin Hamid (although he now lives in London) come to mind right away. Mohja Kahf is another great addition to the mix. She is a breath of fresh air because she provides a lighter spin on being a Muslim and take on tough issues. Of course, there is always room for more writers. If nothing else, to provide opportunities for dialog, understanding, integration, and occasionally, even a few laughs.


7) Shaila, I understand that in addition to being a writer, you are also a designer--you designed the gorgeous cover for Saffron Dreams--and a mother.  It must be hard to find the time to write. What advice do you have for time-pressed aspiring writers, especially for women?
 
SA: If you think there is a no room in your life to pursue your dream, then you are doing a grave injustice to yourself. Most of Saffron Dreams was written during nighttime because my own days are packed with a full time job as a designer, family, my own freelance business, and various voluntary activities. My advice to aspiring writers is to focus on perfecting your writing and not get deterred by rejection. Set time aside to write and be regular about it. Pour your heart on paper and work your magic. We all have it in us. Some of us are simply more disciplined and serious about it than others.


8) In the book, Arissa is a planner, although her plans for the future are shattered. Are you also a planner, and if so, to what extent do you plan out your books and stories?
 
SA: I can be a planner in some things in life and in some other things, not so much. If I have to do a presentation, I will plan early, work hard and show up fifteen minutes early. My first book was not planned and evolved out of journaling and writing short stories. The second one was incredibly planned; it had charts, timelines, two groups of beta readers with their own tasks and timelines.


9) I read that there will not be a sequel to Saffron Dreams (although I still harbor a shred of hope that there will be) but that you have other books in the works.  Please tell us a bit about them.
 
SA: Sorry Susan, there will not be a sequel to Saffron Dreams although my next book is the one the character is shown working on in the novel. It is about the street children of Karachi.


10) I am anxious to get my hands on a copy of Beyond the Cayenne Wall, your collection of short stories about Pakistani women.  Do you have a favorite story in this book?
 
SA: Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust is my favorite story in Beyond the Cayenne Wall. It is also the more tragic one. In it, a woman ragpicker, tired of putting up with her parasitic spouse, decides to kick him out of her life. That decision comes at a hefty price.
 

Shaila, thank you very much for doing this interview. Your work is absolutely brilliant and I can't wait to read more of it!

SA: Thank you and thanks to the readers of Suko’s Notebook. You can find a wealth of information on my website including a reading guide, excerpt, reviews, and buying information. Readers who sign up for updates on my website will get a free excerpt of my 2005 book, Beyond the Cayenne Wall.


Friday, June 19, 2009

Saffron Dreams: A Unique Love Story

Like many others, the unexpected, horrific events and images of September 11, 2001 are forever etched in my mind. I grew up in NY and still have relatives there, and had walked, for the last time, through the bottom of the World Trade Center Towers about a month before they burst into flames and collapsed. I approached this book with a touch of apprehension, although I was at the same time optimistic, having read positive reviews for Saffron Dreams beforehand. You'd think that a book about a young woman who loses her husband in that tragedy would be morose and depressing, but instead this story is engrossing and life-affirming. Once I picked it up I couldn't stop reading it.

Written by Pakistani-American author Shaila Abdullah, Saffron Dreams is a novel about a Muslim woman, Arissa Illahi, told in the first person narrative, and is part of the Reflections of America Series by Modern History Press, which explores multiculturalism in written form. Published in 2009, it reads like a memoir, but is a fictional story about a woman who's both a painter and a writer. Arissa leaves her native Pakistan to live in NY with her husband Faizan, who's a writer but waits tables to make ends meet. Expecting their first child, they are happy and hopeful about their dreams for the future, a future that is altered drastically on the morning of September 11, 2001, when Faizan goes to work at his job as a waiter in the World Trade Center but never returns home. Arissa's dreams are shattered.

Pregnant and alone, but supported by her in-laws and other family members, Arissa moves to Texas and attempts to get on with her life. Along with her grief, she's haunted by the way she's held responsible for the attacks of 9-11, simply because she's Muslim. This book deals sensitively with the issue of being Muslim at a time when all Muslims are blamed for the actions of a few terrorists. Another issue Arissa must contend with is having a child with multiple disabilities. This is handled well by the author, and we get a sense of Arissa's deep love for and dedication to her child.

Another strength of this novel is the relationship between Arissa and Faizan, which is depicted with skill and artistry. We feel Arissa's profound loss and equally deep love for her late husband. In addition to working as a writer and caring for her child, Arissa decides to complete the manuscript she's discovered, Faizan's unfinished book, his legacy, at the urging of her mother-in-law. More than anything else, Saffron Dreams is a beautiful love story, a love which endures and lives on, and grows even stronger as time passes.

As always, your comments are welcomed. Have you read Saffron Dreams or Beyond the Cayenne Wall, Shaila Abdullah's collection of short stories (which is now on my TBR list)? What other love stories do you recommend?

Special thanks to Kristina for sending me a copy of Saffron Dreams to review.

Friday, June 12, 2009

My Sister's Keeper

Any Jodi Picoult fans out there? Of course, I ask this in jest. There must be legions, because she's written sixteen books. This was my first book by Jodi Picoult, so I didn't know what to expect when I picked up a copy of My Sister's Keeper. This bestselling author paints a powerful and sometimes painful picture of a family in turmoil. Even though I had a general sense of the book from the back cover, I didn't expect to be so touched by this book, or to have my eyes fill up with tears so frequently.

Published in 2004, My Sister's Keeper is the story of a family, the Fitzgeralds, whose daughter, Kate, has been diagnosed with acute promyelocytic leukemia, called APL, at the age of 2. Her parents, Sara and Brian, attempt to keep Kate alive by having a third child through in vitro fertilization, one who will be a perfect genetic match for Kate. Soon after Anna is born, she donates her cord blood, which is rich in stem cells, to Kate. When the leukemia returns Anna donates blood and bone marrow. This is just the beginning of a series of medical procedures which Anna endures for years to help prolong her sister's life. But Kate's chronic, life-threatening illness takes a heavy toll on the entire family, including her destructive brother, Jesse, who is having a particularly hard time coping. When Kate's kidneys fail at the age of 16, Anna, who is 13, is expected to donate one of her kidneys--this is Kate's only chance for survival. But instead Anna hires a lawyer, Campbell (who works for her pro bono), to help her become medically emancipated from her parents in order that she may gain the right to make her own medical decisions. Let me stop here, because I don't want to give away too much of the plot of this book, which is beautiful, heartbreaking, and honest, and also surprising at times. It asks us to consider important questions, to which there are no simple or easy answers, such as how much we are willing to do and sacrifice for those we love.

Each chapter in this book is told by the point of view of the various main characters--Anna, Kate, Jesse, Sara, Brian, Campbell, and Julia. I don't always like shifting perspectives in books, but it works well here and tells the story from many points of view, giving readers a broader understanding of the characters and issues involved.

You've probably seen the billboards for My Sister's Keeper, which will be released as a movie starring Cameron Diaz, Abigail Breslin, and Joan Cusack, on June 26, 2009. I'll bring tissues to the movie theater when I go see it. If you go, I advise you to do the same.

View the movie trailer for My Sister's Keeper.

Please feel free to leave your thoughts on My Sister's Keeper or recommend other books by Jodi Picoult in the comments. (Read comments for the main differences between the book and the movie.)

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Summer Reading: Dandelion Wine

What a perfect start to the summer! Technically the season begins on June 21, 2009, with the summer solstice, but unofficially it starts on Memorial Day weekend. To kick-off my summer reading, I read Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine, published in 1957. Like many of you, most likely, I've read some popular works by Ray Bradbury, namely Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles. This book is different in that it's a semi-autobiographical novel about the summer of 1928, in Green Town, Illinois (the fictitious name Bradbury gives to his hometown, Waukegan, Illinois). The novel developed from the short story Dandelion Wine which first appeared in Gourmet magazine in June of 1953. This book will put you in the mood for summer. The writing is beautiful, lyrical, and evokes the magic and mystery of summer, mostly from the point of view of the story's protagonist, Douglas Spaulding, a 12-year-old boy based on the author. That summer, Douglas is feeling very much alive and at the same time developing a greater awareness of immortality and death. He feels everything very intensely, including friendship, the desire for new sneakers, the quest for happiness, and his own "aliveness".

The title refers to a wine made with dandelion petals and other ingredients, such as citrus fruit. (I found numerous recipes for dandelion wine on the internet.) In the story the dandelion wine made by Douglas's grandfather serves as a metaphor for capturing the fleeting joys of summer. The bottles of homemade dandelion wine brewed during the summer allow the season to be savored and remembered for a longer period of time.
"Hold summer in your hand, pour summer in a glass, a tiny glass of course, the smallest tingling sip for children; change the season in your veins by raising glass to lip and tilting summer in."
~Dandelion Wine, Ray Bradbury

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