By Khadejah Khan
Today we’re pleased to welcome author Sana Rafi to the WNDB blog to discuss her picture book A Mermaid Girl, illustrated by Olivia Aserr and out June 28, 2022!
Summer is here and Heba is so excited to wear her new, yellow burkini to the community pool for the first time! She can’t wait to look like the other mermaid girls in her family and sparkle like the sun.
But when Heba arrives at the pool and her friends start asking her questions about her new special swimsuit, she feels like she’s standing out too much. Suddenly her burkini seems like a bad idea.
Luckily Mama helps Heba to find strength in the mermaid girls who came before her. Feeling more connected to the women of her family, Heba is ready to show her friends that she can do all the same things that they can do—handstands, summersaults, and dives off the diving board—even while wearing her yellow burkini.
Welcome to the blog! Tell us about yourself. Who is Sana Rafi, where are you from, and what do you do?
I grew up in Pakistan until I was about thirteen years old. Then I moved to Switzerland because my dad got a job at the UN. Having never left Pakistan before, or traveled abroad, to just suddenly move, really shaped me. I spent five years in Switzerland until I moved to the US for college, and I’ve been here since. I majored in Creative Writing for my bachelor’s, and then I got my MFA from Columbia University.
I’ve always wanted to write. I’ve been writing since I was in Pakistan. I was about eight years old when I wrote to the local youth magazine and I got published. I wasn’t pushed by my parents or anyone else. In the eighties, and even now, in Pakistani culture nobody really encourages you to write.
I was just going to ask that! I’m Pakistani, too, and I wonder if you were actively encouraged to pursue writing? Because supporting the arts as a career choice isn’t something that our culture really… you know…
Right! Absolutely not, no. I mean, I think people thought, “Okay, she’s writing on the side.” So, nobody really paid attention to me and I just figured it out on my own. I got published and nobody made a big hoopla, so I cut and pasted magazine clippings into my diary and saved it. That’s how it started, and I haven’t stopped writing since.
That’s amazing to hear–that you chased after writing by yourself and for yourself. I always love seeing Desi people in the arts. So, where did you draw inspiration for A Mermaid Girl?
All my writing comes from my personal experience, and this book is no different. I actually don’t know how to swim. Growing up in a country like Pakistan, you don’t see girls on the street, biking or roller skating or running, let alone swimming. There are all-female pools, but no one taught swimming as a life skill that one needs. I remember very vividly that my dad asked me if I wanted to learn to swim. I said no, because I was scared of water, and he didn’t push. As an adult, I’ve tried to take lessons, twice now, and I’m starting to learn again.
The reason I wrote this story, I think, is that one of the reasons I didn’t swim at such a young age was because I was very conscious of the fact that I would have to wear a swimsuit. And for some reason, I couldn’t even let my dad know that. Although I was just a child, I knew I couldn’t wear a regular two-piece or one-piece swimsuit. And there was no conversation like, “You can go to an all-female pool, or there are other things you can wear to swim, etc, which there wasn’t at the time.” And I didn’t like seeing my mum or aunties swim fully clothed in their everyday wear. I didn’t like that.
So why was it important for you to write a story about the burkini?
My first reaction when the burkini came out was, “What is that?!” I traveled to Malaysia many years ago, and I saw a woman in a red burkini for the first time. It looked like she was on her honeymoon. I couldn’t stop looking at her.
Then, my friends who had daughters wanted them to be exposed to the beach and swim very early in their lives. And those moms didn’t want to put their two-year-olds in a bikini. They wanted their daughters to wear modest swimwear. And now that two-year-old is an eleven-year-old who refuses to swim unless she’s wearing modest swimwear. And they’re cute swimsuits, and she doesn’t feel self-conscious about it. She’s also in competitive swimming. I always think, “Wow, she made it,” and that could’ve been me–that could’ve been someone from my generation. I have met so many women my age who don’t know how to swim, and I think part of the reason is not wanting to wear a regular swimsuit because we wouldn’t feel comfortable in it.
Burkinis are still relatively new. I wore one recently when I was on vacation in Hawaii. A British woman come over to me and said, “Is that a swimsuit? Are those swim tights?” And I said yes, and she said, “I love what you’re wearing!” That is so new, and I loved that! I loved that someone came up to me to give me that compliment.
I love that, too! I love that the burkini is becoming more accepted in certain parts of the world. So, what made you decide on a mermaid to tell the story of a girl and her burkini? How did that come to you as a storytelling device?
I think the mermaid was a way for me to make this heavy topic of modest swimwear, being covered up in a pool, more childlike. I tend to be a serious writer, so I wanted to add some flair that resonated with younger kids. Kids who could see a mermaid and say, “I’m also a mermaid! I’m dressed like a mermaid!” I thought back to my own experience and wondered, “How would I have liked to have been approached about swimming as a child?” And it would have been so cool if my mom or dad said, “You know what? If you wear this [burkini], you’ll feel like a mermaid,” and I would have said yes! I would’ve worn anything to feel like a mermaid! That’s where the idea came from.
Let’s switch gears and talk about your creative process. How has your formal education helped you in your writing?
It introduced me to the literary world and a community of writers. If it weren’t for grad school, I would’ve never found my way to such amazing mentors and professors, and I built on that after I left school. Even today, I rely heavily on my critique group to give me notes. My education also taught me about resilience and perseverance and exposed me to amazing teachers, and they were definitely a source of inspiration. I don’t know where I would be without those people in my life.
What exciting projects do you have coming up next?
I have two picture books coming out. One is about sweets; it’s more cultural. It’s a little different from my usual writing style–it’s more joyful and uplifting and adventurous, but I’m glad a publisher liked it and acquired it. The other book is about Eid, which I’m really excited about. It’s one of my favorite manuscripts, but that’ll come out in 2025.
Oh, I’ll be waiting for that one! It’s so hard trying to find books about Eid. My nephew’s first Eid is coming up so I wanted to buy him an Eid book, but it’s really difficult finding one–especially a board book, because I don’t want him to tear through pages!
Yeah, it’s impossible! My friend also asked me about Ramadan books–there is just a handful out there, right?! We have a dearth of these types of books. There aren’t that many, we still need a bunch more.
What is one question you wished you were asked more often (and the answer!)?
I wish I got asked more about what it was like to grow up in a Muslim country like Pakistan, or what it was like growing up as a Muslim child. I have such fond memories of my childhood, and my answer to the question would be: It was so easy to be a Muslim in a Muslim country and grow up there. And that’s not an experience everybody has, that’s not everyone’s reality. But I was lucky enough to grow up in that bubble–it was really wonderful. Celebrating Eid was so joyful, and I embraced all those traditions as a child because that was the norm there.
Once I left that bubble, and I wasn’t living in a Muslim country anymore, I really missed it. I missed how easy a community makes celebrations for you and how difficult it is to get that in a foreign place or a very small community. And on top of that, my family’s not here. My parents don’t live here, nor do my siblings, so it’s just me with my nuclear family. So, it’s hard. It’s much harder living abroad for me.
Do you hope that one day more countries will accept the burkini?
I would love to see the burkini adopted in more non-Muslim countries. I think that’s where the burkini belongs. So that someone like my daughter can swim, or join a high-school swim team, and participate without feeling like an outsider. There is already movement happening around that, like in the Olympics and gymnastics. Women are questioning, “Well, why do I have to wear this? I want to feel comfortable in what I’m wearing.” And I love that. I think it’s natural to feel that, and I’m glad women are speaking out about it. So, we’re headed towards an exciting change.
I absolutely agree. That’s a nice note to end on. Thank you so much, Sana, for speaking with me for the blog. I’m excited for people to read A Mermaid Girl!
Khadejah Khan is a blog volunteer for We Need Diverse Books. Like Grandpa Joe, she lives in pajama co-ords and never leaves her bed, where she is wrapped burrito-style in her blankets. She has an insatiable sweet tooth, as well as a voracious appetite for fiction, children’s stories, and historical non-fiction. In her free time, she’s quoting SpongeBob, rewatching classic whodunits and reruns of The Dick Van Dyke Show, roller-skating, or tanning like a rotisserie chicken poolside in Florida. She is currently an Editorial Assistant at Luxe Interiors + Design. You can find her on Twitter @khadejah_k.