By Alaina Leary
Today we’re pleased to welcome Reem Faruqi to the WNDB blog to discuss her MG novel Unsettled, out May 11, 2021!
When her family moves from Pakistan to Peachtree City, all Nurah wants is to blend in, yet she stands out for all the wrong reasons. Nurah’s accent, floral-print kurtas, and tea-colored skin make her feel excluded, until she meets Stahr at swimming tryouts.
And in the water Nurah doesn’t want to blend in. She wants to win medals like her star athlete brother, Owais—who is going through struggles of his own in the U.S. Yet when sibling rivalry gets in the way, she makes a split-second decision of betrayal that changes their fates.
Ultimately Nurah slowly gains confidence in the form of strong swimming arms, and also gains the courage to stand up to bullies, fight for what she believes in, and find her place.
Unsettled is about Nurah’s specific experience moving from Karachi, Pakistan to Peachtree City, Georgia, but it’s also about the universal experience of moving when you’re young and figuring out your place in the world. Why did you want to explore this?
Since this experience was similar to mine, it felt natural to write what I knew. I also feel that this age was one full of emotion so I wanted to share a glimpse of Nurah’s life. I also wished I had the voice Nurah had when I was thirteen years old. Writing this story felt cathartic.
You’ve said in other interviews that you swam laps to get into Nurah’s headspace. How did swimming help you connect with who Nurah is?
Yes, I’ve been working on my swimming technique and I recently relearned to do a flip turn in the water so that was exciting for me. When I’m in the water, I feel a sense of calm. Similarly, in the water, Nurah finds peace and to her, it’s a safe, blue cocoon.
Similarly, when I swim, I love that it’s just the water and me. I am not browsing through a phone or checking email, but just enjoying the peace the water offers. I love going underwater and floating in a quiet blue world.
Why did you choose to write a novel-in-verse for Nurah’s story? What do you think is unique about the experience of a novel-in-verse that works for the journey and themes in Unsettled?
Initially, my story was in prose, and my first agent Ilse Craane said that it read like a novel in verse, and was that what I was thinking? I wasn’t. I didn’t even know that was an option for me. I didn’t click that I could write a novel in verse. I eagerly rediscovered novels in verse and loved how they covered so much with so few words.
I was a picture book author first so I got used to trying to tell a story in fewer words. Writing a middle-grade novel felt intimidating for me, so a novel in verse felt much more doable to me.
I took the clunky prose and chopped it up into verse and I loved how the words breathed and the story shone more.
Also when you reluctantly move continents, you feel a little broken at first (or for a while!), sort of like how Nurah felt when she first moved. So to me, the broken nature of the lines in the novel of verse reflects Nurah’s experience. To me, novels in verse are bits of broken lines that come together beautifully.
This book touches on Islamophobia and how it impacts Muslim communities in both small ways and big ones, but it’s also about community and standing up against injustice. What do you hope young readers take away from this?
To use their voice for good no matter what.
In my book, I refer to this prophetic saying: If you see evil, change it with your hand. If you’re not able to do so, then change it with your tongue. If you’re not able to do so, then with your heart—and that’s the weakest of faith.
Through challenging situations, Nurah learns to use her voice the hard way, but I hope readers can learn to use their voice for good the easy way too.
If you could design your dream panel for Unsettled, what would it be about? What other authors would you like to have on it with you?
I would love other MG verse novel authors! So Nikki Grimes, Sharon Creech, Rajani La Rocca, Chris Baron, Padma Venkatraman, K.A. Holt, Jacqueline Woodson, Elizabeth Acevedo, and these three 2021 debut authors whose books are all novels in verse: Joanne Rossmassler Fritz , Megan E. Freeman, Lisa Fipps.
If the characters from Unsettled show up on your doorstep, who do you think you’d get along with really well? Who do you think would grate on your nerves?
Nurah feels most like me, but I’d love to see the grandparents and chat with them—Dadi, Nana, and Nana Abu.
Cal and Jay would grate on my nerves.
What other books do you see Unsettled as being in conversation with?
Other Words for Home
Inside Out and Back Again
Red, White, and Whole
Do you have any recommendations for forthcoming or published kidlit?
PB: a recent release: In My Mosque, I enjoyed for the lyrical words and gorgeous art!
Upcoming PB: Halal Hotdogs by Susannah Aziz; it looks delicious and inviting!
MG: Amina’s Song by Hena Khan—her voice was beautiful and I love the sense of family in Hena Khan’s books.
Upcoming MG: Barakah Beats by Maleeha Siddiqui—the cover looks so joyful.
YA: Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo, a novel in verse with two alternating points of view between two sisters. The audiobook is also fabulous.
There are so many more, please check out my Twitter feed @ReemFaruqi for book recommendations.
What’s one question you wish you were asked more often (and the answer)?
On my blog in my About Me section, I talk about how I like to eat apples upside down creating a flower-shaped pattern. One fourth grade class asked how I did that and it was fun to demonstrate on Zoom!
A question that I’ve never been asked before: Who taught you how to dive? My character Nurah talks about diving into the water. My grandfather Nana Abu taught me how to dive. While he swam laps, I would sit at the edge of the pool and he would show me how to enter the water arms and head first. There’s no feeling better than diving into a pool!
Reem Faruqi is the ALA Notable author of Lailah’s Lunchbox, Amira’s Picture Day, I Can Help, and Unsettled, which is loosely based on Reem’s own story. Of Pakistani descent, Reem immigrated to Peachtree City, Georgia, in the United States from the United Arab Emirates when she was thirteen years old. Reem is also a teacher and photographer who loves to doodle. She lives in Atlanta with her husband and three daughters. Like Nurah, Reem loves the Pakistani beach, crows, her aquamarine silk hijab, and especially her grandmother, Nana. Visit her online at www.reemfaruqi.com.
Alaina (Lavoie) is the communications manager of We Need Diverse Books. She also teaches in the graduate department of Writing, Literature, and Publishing at Emerson College and is a book reviewer for Booklist. She received a 2017 Bookbuilders of Boston scholarship for her work in the publishing industry. Her writing has been published in New York Times, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Refinery29, Allure, Healthline, Glamour, The Oprah Magazine, and more. She currently lives in Boston with her wife and their two literary cats. Follow her @AlainasKeys on Instagram and Twitter.