By Dhanika Pineda
Today we’re pleased to welcome Samira Ahmed to the WNDB blog to discuss Hollow Fires, out today, May 10, 2022!
Safiya Mirza dreams of becoming a journalist. And one thing she’s learned as editor of her school newspaper is that a journalist’s job is to find the facts and not let personal biases affect the story. But all that changes the day she finds the body of a murdered boy.
Jawad Ali was fourteen years old when he built a cosplay jetpack that a teacher mistook for a bomb. A jetpack that got him arrested, labeled a terrorist—and eventually killed. But he’s more than a dead body, and more than “Bomb Boy.” He was a person with a life worth remembering.
Driven by Jawad’s haunting voice guiding her throughout her investigation, Safiya seeks to tell the whole truth about the murdered boy and those who killed him because of their hate-based beliefs.
This gripping and powerful book uses an innovative format and lyrical prose to expose the evil that exists in front of us, and the silent complicity of the privileged who create alternative facts to bend the truth to their liking.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
So first, I was just wondering if you could tell me a little bit about your own personal background in terms of academics, ethnicity, anything you would like to share?
Sure. Well, I share some things with a lot of my protagonists. I’m an Indian-American Muslim, and you know, those are the stories that I focus on telling. I am actually not just a child of immigrants, I’m technically an immigrant myself because I came to the States when I was just a little baby. I was born in India.
Growing up, I didn’t really imagine being a writer. I mean, I loved reading. I kept a journal since I was in middle school and I loved writing poetry and stuff like that, but I never really thought of pursuing writing as a career. It wasn’t even that somebody had told me, you can’t do that, it was just that it was never in my mind or my imagination. There were a lot of other things I wanted to do, of course, I’m Indian, I wanted to be a doctor for a while! But I faint at the sight of blood, so that was out.
But I was a high school teacher for a while which I really loved, I taught high school English and I had really been inspired by my high school English teachers and I really loved literature just talking about literature, you know? And so I was a high school English teacher for a while, and the main thing that I really thought was so amazing about that job was just interacting with my students around, you know, the concepts of literature because those were so applicable just to life in a broader way. I think that’s one of the powers of literature. It connects us with each other to ourselves, and it also connects us with the wider world, to a world beyond the school walls. So I really, really enjoy that part. I didn’t love the bureaucracy and the grading so much.
Then after I left the classroom, I worked for a while in some education nonprofits in New York City, including one that sued the state of New York for inadequately funding the public schools. It was a victory we won, which is pretty cool! It was supposed to bring two billion plus dollars to high needs districts all across the state. But that, of course, is still being not litigated, but argued about in the Legislature because the money has not fully gotten to our schools. I also worked in an education nonprofit that helped create new small public high schools throughout New York City. One of the cool things about both of those jobs is in both of those positions I traveled to so many schools and I got to interact with all kinds of stakeholders, with students, with parents, with teachers, the broader community, and that was something that I really loved. Especially with the organization that was suing the state, it was also a very political job which fit really well with me because I got to go around the state of New York telling everyone how the Republican governor was underfunding schools and how that was terrible. So I really enjoyed being able to do that.
The whole time, though, I sort of wrote on the side, kind of just for fun, and eventually I got this idea for a story. So in college, I was an English major. I did my master’s in education. I never took a creative writing course in college. There was one visiting poet who came and was teaching a course at the University of Chicago, where I went to school, and I applied for that course, you submit poetry for it and they would choose because it was like a small seminar, and I did not get selected. So it is still possible to become a writer, even if you don’t have all those sorts of creative writing creds on your educational resume. Right? So all that time I was writing and then I got this idea for a story, but mostly the stuff I was writing was like poetry and personal narratives. And I placed like a few poems and a few little creative writing pieces and know sort of some online journals and that kind of thing. And I had done some poetry readings, and then I got this idea for a story, and it just would not leave my brain. And I was like, I think this is actually a novel. And that became my first book Love, Hate and Other Filters, which I wrote over a very long period of time because I was also working and all this other stuff.
So from there I was like, ‘You know what? I think I want to be a writer. I might as well try.’ As I always say to students, you know, it’s worth it to take a bet on yourself. The worst thing that could happen is I could write this whole book and it never gets published, I would “fail,” but you know, failure is part of just being a human. It’s part of our lives. Some people think of failure as a terrible risk, but to me, the risk was greater to not even try.
“The risk is greater to not even try.” That’s so true! So you mentioned that you were interested in writing; you kind of wrote on the side for a little bit. Were you ever interested in writing in a non-creative sense, so journalism, kind of like what the topic of this book is about?
Like my main character in Hollow Fires, I was also editor of my high school newspaper, which was really fun. When I was in high school, I wrote a column for a local paper. It was called “On Campus” and I lived in a small town, so it was a local paper that was actually a free paper, I think it was called the Windmill News. So I had a weekly column called “On Campus.” I can’t remember how much I got paid, like ten or fifteen dollars a column, I think. They were pretty short, it was just reporting on things that were happening in school, at the high school. A lot of it could be arts related, like a play, or interviews with certain things that were going on. But I also had some, as both an editor of my school newspaper and in writing for that column, I did have some sort of what some people would consider controversial topics. I talked about what some of the failures of the administration were. I wrote an op-ed about how I felt like the administration was really out of touch with the students and wasn’t visible and they were like the Wizard of Oz, hiding behind a curtain, trying to control everything. So that was interesting. It was actually pretty cool that the sponsor of the school newspaper, the teacher who kind of oversaw it, let that piece be published because that definitely got attention from the school administration because it was calling them out.
So, you know, like I said, I was always a political person. Even in high school, when our teachers were negotiating a new contract and were picketing, I organized the students in the school to wear like black armbands in support of our teachers and their union negotiations with the school board. I always enjoyed that and I really think that journalists have an incredible responsibility to report the truth and report facts. But you know, the more I learned about journalism, I could see ways in which biases seeped into this profession and into journalism. Over the course of my life, especially during the Trump administration, I really saw many ways that many journalists were shirking their responsibilities and so many professional news outlets were essentially being used by the administration to spread misinformation, and they would quote the president or other politicians without fact-checking them. And, you know, even as someone who was only trained as my high school newspaper editor, I knew how wrong that was and what a failure of journalistic ethics that was.
So all of those things, really: my experience as a teen who was writing both for the community and for my high school, and seeing how adults reacted to any time I wrote about things that were political—which is to say they often did not like it—plus seeing how misinformation is spread, it really made me want to address this. Because journalism is really, really important, right? It’s how the public can learn the truth of what’s happening. But at the same time, it can be used and manipulated as propaganda, and that’s incredibly, incredibly dangerous. So I wanted to sort of address some of those things because journalism also exists within our culture. Within structural white supremacy, within patriarchy, within all of those things. So journalists have a very important obligation to address those things and speak to it, and I think when we see Fox News say they’re fair and balanced, that’s just literally a lie. And sometimes I think we see this compulsion of some outlets to say, “Well, we have to cover both sides.” But the problem is, what are you going to do when you have, let’s say, a Nazi, versus someone who was saying, you know, “this is completely wrong”? Giving those sides equal time is wrong.
So a lot of that discussion was incorporated into my work in Hollow Fires. I mean, when I was a high school teacher, one of the things that I did in my classes was bring in newspapers or even advertisements, and I always wanted the kids to look at those and ask questions like, “What are they trying to convince you of? How are they trying to persuade you? And what of this is fact based? What of this is appealing to your emotions?” I do think it’s so important to apply those critical thinking skills to journalism, as the reader or the viewer we can’t just take it all as truth. And, you know, I was teaching it at the rise of the internet. It hadn’t quite become what it is now, but we need that even more now because young people and older people are just bombarded with all sorts of information, and it’s really, really important to know and to verify the truth.
But unfortunately, you know, especially under the Trump administration, we saw this rise in this concept of alternative facts. There is no such thing as an alternative fact, right? There’s the facts, and then there’s your opinion, and if you choose not to believe the facts that’s because you either want to spread misinformation or are willing to think that somehow your ignorance or your desire to spread ignorance is more important than actual facts and truth. Each of my chapters is in qualifiers for Safiyah’s voice and the whole book starts with this glossary on truth, fact, alternative facts, and lies. And right now, so much in our culture, those things are really getting twisted and mixed up, and that’s where a lot of gaslighting comes in, too, like when we know truth and facts, when we literally see it with our eyes. And then you have a president of the United States saying, “That’s not what happened.”
Yeah, definitely. There’s a lot of debate on whether objectivity even exists in journalism right now, right? Everyone is going to come at something with a subjective lens.
Of course! I mean, I say this all the time. There is no neutral. There is that neutrality is a myth. Objectivity is a myth. There’s no way to be 100 percent objective. But what you can do is be cognizant of that. Recognize that and be transparent about it.
Yeah, definitely. I agree. And I think you bring that into your book in really interesting ways by including the different clips from these new sources, like the alt right news sources that are kind of painting this terrible white supremacist view of all the events that unfold, and then the other news clips that are kind of like reporting, “Oh, this is what happened to this boy,” and then we have, of course, Safiyah’s columns and her own reporting on Medium and her “Be The Change” column. I thought that the structure of that was really interesting, and I wanted to know how you came up with that and how you put all those clips together.
So the novel has essentially three parts. It’s a dual POV. So we have Safiyah’s voice and we also have Jawad’s voice. Jawad—I mean, I don’t think it’s going to be a surprise and it’s not a spoiler because it’s literally on the book cover—Jawad is a ghost. And then we have the found document pieces: there’s newspaper articles, there’s blog posts, there’s things from social media, there’s transcripts from podcasts and from TV news. And I wanted to incorporate all of that because I wanted to really show how so much of what we consume, that media we consume, can just influence our worldview and how it can twist our worldview. And Safiyah is, as a young journalist and as an aspiring journalist, really learning how to grapple with all of those things.
And I wanted to show Safiyah’s story and Jawad’s story as they meet, and I wanted Jawad to have a voice too, because in listening to so many murder podcasts, one of the things that I find disturbing about a lot of murder podcasts is that it’s so solely focused on the perpetrator of the crime and the voice of the victim of the person who’s been murdered is lost. It’s necessarily lost because they know their life has been ripped away by the murderer, but there’s so much focus on the murderer, and the life of the person who was murdered, the victim, is completely almost erased, taken away. That person’s life was important. They were loved and they had dreams and hopes. And especially when we see media reporting about crimes, we know that they report crimes very differently when the perpetrator is Black or brown and the victim is white, versus when it’s the opposite.
I reference the Stanford rapist in the book, and I refer to him as a Stanford rapist because so much of our press referred to him constantly as the Stanford swimmer, the swimmer from Stanford. The photos that are often used when the person who’s committed a crime are white are not just their mugshot. They’re not just their perp walk shot. It’s, “Hey, this is them in their graduation cap! And this is them in their athletic shot for their varsity team! And they were an honor student.” And, you know, all the neighbors are interviewed and can’t believe that this kid would do this. “He was such a great kid.” But meanwhile, when the victim of a crime is Black or brown, so much of the press puts out their mugshot; their backgrounds are dug into as if somebody smoking pot 15 years ago made it okay that the police shot them now. It’s just such an unfair representation.
And this is not just my opinion. To write this book I did a lot of research. There’s a lot of people who investigate how crimes are reported in the press, and the terminology that is used for white criminals is totally different than what is used for what happens when the perpetrator is Black or brown, and the same thing for victims. When the victim is white, especially a white woman who goes missing—we recently had a case like this that was all over the press—they are going to get a lot more attention than when a brown kid goes missing or a Black child goes missing. And we see this time and time again.
This book was really inspired by real life events, things that have actually happened. I’m not going to say what all of them are because it ends up being spoilers. But a lot of my books are inspired by things that have happened in real life, in our history because history repeats itself and it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. So I wanted to try to address these issues of white supremacy and Islamophobia and racism and how those things are often perpetuated by media. Even though a journalist might say, “Well, I’m not perpetuating that. I’m not supporting this. I’m not a white supremacist. I’m not a Nazi.” And yet in their reporting style and in what they’re choosing to report—because everything the media reports is a choice, right? It’s not as if only one child has gone missing today—but, if one child is going to be reported about, what we’ve seen historically in the press is that it is a white child and most often a young white woman.
There has been, in both the United States and Canada but especially in Canada, a huge number of indigenous women who have gone missing. Where’s the reporting on this? Where is the attempt to solve these crimes? What’s happened to these women? You know, Tiffany Jackson has written books that kind of address this issue too. A young Black girl goes missing—why isn’t everyone looking for her? And in the case of this book, Jawad is a young Iraqi American, his family are refugees, and especially recently with what’s happening with the horrible situation in the Ukraine, we are seeing how refugees are treated very differently. In this country, in the United States, we want to reject refugees who are brown and Muslim, but we are more welcoming of refugees who are white. And I believe we should be welcoming all refugees. No one chooses to be a refugee.
So I did incorporate all those things that I just really wanted people to see; I didn’t try to exaggerate in those found documents. I did a lot of research, reading, unfortunately, a lot of right-wing blogs and listening to that, which was pretty painful to do, but I wanted to make sure that I was using the voice of those far-right blogs and “journalists,” because I didn’t want to present it in a way that made it seem fantastical or completely absurdist.
Yeah, it was very realistic. Scarily realistic. It must have been hard for you to write.
You know, honestly, I tell people this often: this book was really the most emotionally challenging book for me to write. We’re dealing with the murder of a young person, and I did have to research and go down these rabbit holes of how white supremacists prey on young people, how far right media casts aspersions. It was really so hard to look at that and think of how so many Americans believe that. It’s really painful, especially for our kids and how many of our kids are subject to that. And I especially think of how many of our kids are just lost that we never know about.
Right. Yeah, it was definitely a very heavy topic. But you did put it into this context of high school and the main person who is actually looking for Jawad is also in high school. Like you said, you do have so many similarities. Do you feel yourself relating to Safiyah at all or a lot?
Well, I’m an adult and Safiyah is not, but I definitely think that as a young person, when I was Safiyah’s age, I definitely could relate to her in a lot of ways. I mean, she’s very different. I try to create all my characters to be individual and not really based them on real people. But as authors, part of us exists in the book, whether we can recognize those pieces of ourselves in there or not. Safiyah really believes in what she’s doing. She has a strong bent toward social justice, and she really wants to make the world a better place and she also has a little bit of a naivete. She is just trying to figure out what her place is in the world and trying to understand her voice. That type of character is so inspired by so many young people that I taught.
I just feel like it was such a privilege to teach high school and to see so many young people. And even now when I’m not teaching anymore but I get to visit schools a lot, I’m so inspired by young people who are in school right now. How social justice is just part of their vocabulary in ways that it wasn’t in the ’80s and how there’s so many young people in the world who just want to do good, who want to be good, to try to make the world a better place, who are much more inclusive and welcoming of our diverse world than when I was a kid. When I was a kid, there were not diverse books, there was no We Need Diverse Books, and there were very few books from authors of color on our bookshelves in school. There were very few, if any, books by queer authors. There were no books by Muslims. That just wasn’t on our high school shelves. It was just classics.
And so do I relate to Safiyah? Yes, I relate to her in a way. But I also relate to the parents in the book because they’re my age. Their impulse is to protect their child, just like Jawad’s parents’ impulse to protect their child. And maybe that’s part of why it was so hard for me to write this book as someone who has interacted with so many children. When I was just in my first year of teaching, one of my students died in a terrible accident from a drunk driver and I think so much about that young person’s life. They were just this amazing, wonderful kid, and they meant so much to the community and it was devastating for their parents. I put a lot of that into the book. It was tough in a lot of ways because I just think as an adult, it is really my job and the job of all adults to create a world where all of our children, all young people, can thrive, where they can be themselves, where they understand that they’re loved and their voices matter, and that their identity is important, that we believe they are who they say they are. That’s so important to me and adults, time and time again, have failed.
In Hollow Fires, you see Safiyah being put in this position where she’s forced to find her courage. In a lot of my books, young people are placed in these difficult situations because of terrible choices adults have made or because of the willingness of adults to just, you know, turn away from a horrific situation. And then there’s Safiyah, she’s left with this tragedy that no one seems to want to address, and she’s like, “Well, no one else is going to do it. So I have to.” And I just really wish that adults weren’t putting kids in that position. I’ve met so many smart, brave, courageous young people and they end up having to be that way because of the world that adults have created and because of choices that adults have made.
So I do really like to address those things in my novels too, because, you know, right now we’re living in this world where books are being banned, where adults are constantly acting like they have to protect kids from stories by queer authors, from Black authors or Muslim authors. They’re banning books; they’re trying to erase us. They’re doing this under the guise of kids being uncomfortable or whatever. You know, it’s never kids who are uncomfortable with that. It’s always adults who are. I just think adults don’t give young people enough credit and they don’t understand how truly observant and smart they are. It doesn’t mean that young people don’t have to grow and mature and their brains are growing, and there’s a lot of things for them to learn, but I think adults give young people too short a stick, way too much.
So is that why you decide to write in a genre meant for a younger audience? Like young adult, realistic fiction?
Yeah, definitely. I write young adult, I have some middle grade fantasy, and I’m also writing Miss Marvel. So all three of those things seem really different, but I like to say that I always have this throughline of what I call revolutionary girls. Those are young women who are really finding their voices, who are standing up so often in difficult situations and saying, “This is wrong and this is the way we should be.” And sometimes, you know, those acts of revolution that I write about are very loud. Like Internment, it’s a young woman, Layla, trying to literally fight for her life and her family and to have her faith. And in other books, like my first book, Love, Hate and Other Filters, it was really about Maya fighting for her voice and for the life that she envisions for herself. And as her aunt says in that book, sometimes just being yourself is an act of revolution.
In Hollow Fires, in some ways, it’s really both. Safiyah is trying to find her voice, trying to grapple with expectations of everyone in the world around her, and unfair expectations, in a lot of cases, or unfair rules that are being placed on her. And she’s trying to emerge from that morass with herself intact, she’s finding her politics, and she’s developing her voice in this chaos. At the same time, she’s saying, “A young boy has gone missing and his life mattered and I’m going to make sure that all of you care about this person, that we try to find some justice for this young man because his life was important, and I don’t want to let that go.” In that way, she’s also fighting against the system. So she kind of encompasses both parts of this revolutionary girl thing that I like to write about. She’s trying to stand up against the system that is very broken, and she’s also trying to have her voice rise out of that chaos.
Safiyah definitely doesn’t get that happy fairy tale ending and, of course, neither did Jawad. I was wondering, why you think it’s important to have that type of representation—that not everything ends in the best way. So why did you decide to put her through all of that emotional conflict?
Saifyah faces incredible hardships. Obviously, Jawad is murdered, and she’s going through a deeply traumatizing experience, right? And I write about these experiences because they exist in reality. So many of our young people have to deal with trauma. They’re so often traumatized by what’s happening in the world around them, what’s happening to them, and not because of anything that they have done, but just by the mere fact that they exist. I do try to still put hope in every page because I don’t want my stories to be bleak, even when young people are dealing with difficult situations, and I do think that Safiyah at the end of the story knows that she has almost a mission in life, right?
Also, I really feel as an author for young adults that I have a responsibility and ethical obligation to write the truth and I want to bear witness to what happens to young people. Whether it’s in my own family or my community or into all the schools I visited, the students that I’ve taught, I just think that’s so important as a writer for young adults. I feel like I have an incredible privilege to be able to write for young people and to be a part of their lives. I remember books that were important to me that I read when I was in middle school and high school and how they really shaped who I am and my worldview. That’s an incredible privilege, but I also have this responsibility—which is to trust my reader, to write for an intelligent reader because my readers are intelligent. Young people are smart and savvy. I often say that I write the world as it is to imagine the world as it could be. Because young people are creating that world, as it could be.
And so even when my characters are faced with bleak situations, difficult situations, they still emerge. They’re able to emerge from those situations, not as totally broken, but I still hope I’m instilling in them a sense of hope, you know? Maybe they’ve fallen down, but they get back up. Even in writing Miss Marvel, it’s part of it. She is a superhero, right? So she has powers that other people don’t, but what is most amazing about her is that she’s also just a regular girl. She’s a girl like all the other girls, and she’s imperfect, she falls down just like all of my characters that I create, but they learn to get back up, they learn to persist and endure and fight back.
I’m so inspired by young people that I see around me. We have examples of young people who are doing incredible things like Malala, or Greta Thunberg, or the Parkland students or Little Miss Flint. Those are people who are in the press, but here in Chicago, high school students have been on the forefront of trying to ensure that they receive a higher quality education, that they have the same educational opportunities as other people do. They are advocating and marching out for school safety, against gun violence, and you don’t always see this in the press, but I see it because it’s in my community. During COVID, there was a young person in my community who was very young, like middle school young, and he knew that the nursing homes in the area didn’t have masks. Remember, there was a shortage of masks in the beginning of the pandemic? And he learned to sew, to make masks, to deliver to nursing homes. He got some of his friends to learn to sew, and they created masks together to go and deliver to nursing homes because nursing homes were so horribly affected by the pandemic. That to me is amazing, that this young person did that. He was a middle school kid and he learned to do this. To me, that was a revolutionary act. My characters are inspired by all these incredible acts of kindness and revolution that I see in young people from my community to our broader world.
Earlier, you were also mentioning that when you were in middle school and high school, there weren’t really these characters that you could see yourself in. There weren’t really diverse books. What do you hope that characters like Safiyah and Jawad will do for the young readers of today?
I think that every child deserves to see themselves as a hero on the page and I also believe that our shelves should reflect our world. Literature and stories are ways that we connect to each other, right? Humans have been telling stories since the advent of language. We tell stories as a way to show a piece of ourselves to connect to another person. And for so many young people, definitely in my generation and through generations, they haven’t been able to see themselves as the hero on the page—as the astronaut, as the superhero, as the brave one. When you see it, you can be it. Imagination is so, so, so important.
I remember when I was in fourth or fifth grade, the teacher had this poster in her classroom with a picture of Einstein with this quote that says, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” And I was a total bookish kid, and I was like, “What does that mean?” It wasn’t until I was older that I realized that when you could imagine yourself in a place, that is how you can build a scaffold to get yourself there. I want young people who read my books, young brown kids and Muslim kids, to find a piece of themselves in the story. But I also think that more broadly, if you don’t share any of the intersections of the main characters in my books, then that’s okay. You should read it too, because that’s a way to expand your world. It’s a window into someone else’s life. When you can see that, you can also realize that there is no other, it’s only us.
I once had a librarian say to me, “Well, you know, there’s no Muslim kids in my town or Muslim families, so how do I convince the library director to buy your book and have it on our shelves?” And I was like, “You don’t need to be from the exact same background as the author or the characters. You don’t need to be the same as the characters to read a book.” I read Lord of the Rings and I’m not a hobbit! And I still enjoyed some parts of the books. Not the racist part, but I enjoyed a lot of those books, and I never saw a character that looked like me, and I just imagine how empowering it would have been to see that. To have a Safiyah when I was a high school journalist and to see her doing what she was doing. Sometimes those stories can make you feel a little bit less alone. Sometimes those stories can empower you. Sometimes those stories can make you think, “Wow, I don’t really share much in common with any of these characters, but, I also feel burdened by the expectations that others have put on me. I also feel like I need to help my family in certain ways, I also butt heads with my parents just like this character who doesn’t share a single intersection with me.”
I met this one teacher who was teaching in southern Illinois, a rural community. Everybody was white in that community, white and Christian. It was a small, small rural community, and she was teaching Internment and I was like, wow, it’s a pretty brave choice to teach this. And she said that most of the kids, they had never met a Muslim. They never met a Muslim and there were no Indians who lived in their town, and she said that it was a pretty amazing experience to teach it because it was really the first time the kids had come across seeing a Muslim character that wasn’t a terrorist. So much of media portrays Muslims as the bad guy, the terrorist, the person to be scared of. It was just so profound of a moment when she was telling me this, to think that this was the first chance these kids had to see a Muslim character who was a teenager in a terrible, terrible circumstance was but was still a teenager and who was fighting really for her country to be a better place. And she said that she was really surprised at how much the kids could relate to that character.
When districts and adults try to ban diverse books or books from authors with diverse backgrounds, they are causing so much harm and damage. Deeply, to the kids whose identities are essentially being banned, when they’re being told, “Well, you’re erased. You don’t have a right to exist.” But they’re also damaging the lives of every single kid in that school because all kids should have a right to access those stories. I’ve seen in my own experience and in talking to so many teachers how powerful it is for people who aren’t from your exact background to read those stories too. I just find it absolutely infuriating when I hear, especially politicians, talking about, “Well, these stories don’t reflect our values” or “These stories don’t reflect our community.” What you’re saying is, oh, so human values don’t reflect your community. The existence of human beings on this earth is something that you reject.
I mean, the fact is the global majority is not white. In our public schools now, we’ve essentially reached the majority minority or we have equal numbers of white students and non-white students. Are you actually going to deny the world in which we exist? In my point of view, our shelves should reflect our world and they don’t yet. Organizations like We Need Diverse Books have been pushing since its entire existence for this and we have made some inroads, but we still have a long way to go. Part of the issue is that stakeholders in so many of these school districts and libraries and even in bookstores have to step out beyond themselves to really understand that our shelves should reflect our world, that every child should see themselves as a hero on the page and the stage. I just think that’s so important. I’ve met a ton of people who are doing incredible work and trying to really move the needle on this.
And at the same time, I’ve been in districts where there were flurries of complaints after I spoke because I’m too brown, too Muslim, too political. And a lot of parents in a couple of districts in particular were really enraged that I had been invited to speak there. But, I won’t be erased and I won’t let them censor me. All of these stories deserve to be told.
They definitely deserve to be told. Do you have a feeling that this book might be censored, just given what’s going on with book censorship right now?
Well, all of my books have been challenged! All my young adult books have been challenged, or I call it silently banned. I know because teachers are emailing me or DM’ing me and telling me, “Well, I tried to get your book, but they won’t allow us to teach your book.” And different things like that. So I know that my books have been challenged in districts, and I know that they have been soft banned or silently, quietly banned. I’m sure this book will be no different, and this book very specifically addresses white supremacy. That is the reality of the world in which we live. I am not afraid of it.
But I will fight it, because like I said, I will not allow malicious powers and bigots to erase me or to erase the voices of people who are writing from marginalized backgrounds in this country. No. There’s more of us than there are of them. There are more people who believe this story should exist, and we just need our voices to get louder and we need to work locally to raise our voices, to run for school board, to flood school board meetings and say this is wrong. I mean, Nazis banned books, Nazis burn books. That’s literally history, first books are banned and then they’re burned, and we cannot allow that to happen.
Well, thank you! I think that was a really good note to end on. I did want to ask about any future projects you might have, or if you maybe wanted to tell me what you can about Miss Marvel?
Sure! I’m not doing the Miss Marvel TV show, I’m doing the Miss Marvel comic and I’m doing a mini series, and the final one is coming out at the end of April. And then the collection, where they’re all put together into a single graphic novel, is going to be coming out in June around the same time as the TV show, which I’m excited about, but I’m not working on.
So Hollow Fires comes out in May. In September my next middle grade fantasy, the second book in my middle grade duology, comes out, Amir & Hamza: The Quest for the Ring of Power. In 2023, I’m working on this very exciting project co-editing an anthology of South Asian voices who are writing science fiction fantasy, and that anthology is called Magic Has No Borders. So I’m very excited about that too! We’re editing those stories right now and they’re so good! I can’t wait to share all those. So those are just some of my current projects.
Well, I’m excited to see them. I saw your tweet about the anthology and I was like, wow, I can’t wait to read this!
I know, I’m excited about it, too. The stories are just so good and we actually got to do an open call. To find a couple of new voices, because I think it’s so important that once you’re in the industry, you help open the door for others. This is one way that we can do that. We had this open call for unpublished writers to submit short stories for the anthology, and we got almost 100 submissions. It was amazing; there are a lot of good ones. It’s been taking us a while to read through all of them—I mean, a hundred submissions? It was pretty cool and it was just amazing because I can’t imagine when I was a kid in high school, if I saw an anthology of YA stories written by other South Asians around, South Asian stories and mythology and folklore and epics, I would have been wowed. And then to think that there’s 100 people who submitted and took the time to send us these stories, it’s blown me away. It’s so amazing.
Samira Ahmed is the New York Times bestselling author of Amira & Hamza: The War to Save the Worlds Love, Hate & Other Filters, Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know, Internment, and Hollow Fires. She was born in Bombay, India, and has lived in New York, Chicago, and Kauai, where she spent a year searching for the perfect mango. She invites you to visit her online at samiraahmed.com and on Twitter and Instagram @sam_aye_ahm.
Dhanika Pineda is a Literary Journalism and English student at the University of California, Irvine. She is an aspiring journalist who is passionate about storytelling in a way that is more helpful than harmful, more accurate than trend-worthy, and more honest than persuasive. When she’s not reading and writing for classes, she’s usually still reading and writing for fun. She especially enjoys cultural narratives, poetry, and fantasy. To give her eyes a break from words, she likes to cook, bake, and nap. You can find her on Twitter @DhanikaPineda.