By Gianna Macchia
Today we’re pleased to welcome Syed Masood to the WNDB blog to discuss his YA novel Sway With Me, out November 9, 2021!
She’s All That goes desi in this hilarious, affecting, and sweetly romantic comedy by the author of More Than Just a Pretty Face.
Arsalan has learned everything he knows from Nana, his 100-year-old great-grandfather. This includes the fact that when Nana dies, Arsalan will be completely alone in the world, except for his estranged and abusive father. So he turns to Beenish, the step-daughter of a prominent matchmaker, to find him a future life partner. Beenish’s request in return? That Arsalan help her ruin her older sister’s wedding with a spectacular dance she’s been forbidden to perform.
Despite knowing as little about dancing as he does about girls, Arsalan wades into Beenish’s chaotic world to discover friends and family he never expected. And though Arsalan’s old-school manners and Beenish’s take-no-prisoners attitude clash every minute, they find themselves getting closer and closer—literally. All that’s left to realize is that the thing they both really want is each other, if only they can get in step.
At turns laugh-out-loud funny, poignant, and sincerely heartfelt, Sway With Me is a coming-of-age story for anyone trying to find their place in the world.
First and foremost, for the publication of this interview, how would you like to be identified? What are your pronouns?
What made you decide to jump into the YA lit world?
I never really intended to, I happened to pick up books by John Green, Angie Thomas, and read Dear Martin by Nic Stone and I was like, OMG this amazing stuff is happening in this space and I want to be a part of it. It’s nice to have contemporaries who are amazing; it inspires you to write well.
I never actually realized the importance of YA literature until having my own kids. Particularly when my youngest burst into my room holding the Yasmin series and excitedly declared, “She looks just like me!” It’s not until you see the effect it has on young readers that you really appreciate it.
Was your approach to crafting Sway With Me different from your last novel? Where did you garner inspiration for your dynamic characters? In general, are you a plotter or a pantser?
I was never able to write a full novel before—well, not a good one anyway—until I read Stephen King’s On Writing. His process works for me. Come up with an idea for a character or a scenario, and you throw characters in and hope it all comes together. Some characters are difficult to write because they are more removed from who I am.
For example, a character like Diamond who speaks about himself in the third person, which I would never ever do, is very difficult to “get the volume right,” as my editor puts it. You can’t have him be too obnoxious, but you also want him to be human, so you try to find the right volume. A character like Nana, who is more grouchy like I am (a little bit), and has some of the tendencies that I do, is easier for me to write. It varies from character to character; it is a refinement process. The characters grow as you write them, if you don’t plan them out. I decided to not mess with the process because I figured if it worked the first two times it would work again.
All of this is to say I’m a pantser, but I envy plotters because this life is chaotic.
The novel centers on characters who identify as Desi Muslims. Their piety varies, but there is a common culture that units them. Why is their story one that needs to be told?
I’m always hesitant to say this because it kind of sounds like complaining, and I don’t mean to complain, but we live in a difficult time to be a Muslim writer, or a writer who happens to be Muslim, whichever you chose to be, because the idea of representation can be misunderstood sometimes. In one of your questions you use the word “visibility.” I like the word visibility a lot more than representation because I don’t claim to represent anything and I don’t claim to represent anyone; I am just trying to tell a fun story. However, whenever I write Muslim characters, I try to make sure that I am capturing the fact that not all Muslims are the same. These characters are complex and dynamic, but only because they are characters. They capture certain things about life and they are faced with extraordinary circumstances—that’s why there’s a novel about them. I think that the lens with which you see the world is invariably tinged with your culture, religion, and where you come from.
Oliver Wendel Holmes said, “We are all tattooed in our cradles with the beliefs of our [people]; the record may seem superficial, but it is indelible.” This really resonates with me because there is no escaping that at the end of the day. All characters are going to be shaped by their beliefs. How much they want to take part in those beliefs may vary, but it’s important to show that their lens is contoured by their experiences.
Arsalan is a well read teenager; he references canonical literature quite often. If you were going to thematically pair Sway with Me with a “classic” piece of high school lit, which one would it be and why?
A sci-fi classic: Ender’s Game. The theme of being broken on the inside, how that manifests in your behavior on the outside, coming to terms with that, healing yourself, and then healing the world through your actions. I think what Ender goes through is similar to what Arsalan goes through. He doesn’t wipe out an entire alien species, but he causes some pain to people around him because of the pain inside him, so I see a similar theme of healing yourself so that you can heal your world.
At one point in the novel Arsalan reflects after a conversation with Beenish and says, “I was about to point out that the more time I spent away from Nana’s house, the less convinced I became that the world worked at all. Humanity often seemed to fall dramatically short of its own basic standards. It wasn’t until I’d spent time around other people that I’d come to realize how rare a person my great-grandfather was.”
What does Nana represent and what can we learn from him in 2021?
Nana is one of my favorite characters; I sort of wish I had that kind of person in my life. That quote, in context, is talking about how everyone should be treated with respect no matter what they do, what their situation in life is, or what they have done. There is a dignity to being human that should be afforded to everyone. I kind of feel like we are losing sight of that more and more in society. There’s a gentility with people who are more experienced or older, like your grandparents or great-grandparents if you are lucky enough to have them. They have a dignity about them, the way they treat you, and the way they expect to be treated. I feel like we are losing more and more as the speed of our communications and world grows. We lose the depth as the veneer of civilization gets ever thinner. The reason I like Nana so much is because he represents a tradition that is open-minded and willing to change once he realizes the need to change. The idea behind him was that tradition is important. So let’s have tradition, but also show that it needs to be a progressive, open-minded tradition that appreciates new things that are worthy.
Arsalan is incredibly endearing. As a reader, you can’t help but love his old soul. In a YA novel, why was he an important character to write? What does his character suggest about the universal teenage struggle to both fit in and be true to yourself?
Arsalan came to me primarily because my first protagonist in YA was very different from Arsalan, the exact opposite—very convinced that he was loved, very sure of his own place in the world, trying to find permission to live that life, but not worried about his social circle. He had friends; he always had friends. Arsalan is very different. He doesn’t fit in, but what’s cool about Arsalan is that for someone who doesn’t fit in, he’s still pretty sure of himself. He still hangs on to the idea that there is something fundamentally right about the way he is, and he finds ways to connect with other people at the same time. I think the message is ultimately, You will find your place in the world. It’s difficult because sometimes your circumstances change, like you move from one country to another or you’ve been raised by your 100-year-old grandfather, but whatever happens, you will find people with whom you will make a family—and I think that’s the heart of the book.
I emigrated from Pakistan to Canada in 9th grade and also struggled with fitting in. What was cool where I was from, like having good grades, wasn’t cool there. For this reason, I feel connected to Arsalan’s story.
Can you expand upon the ideas of shame and disgrace as they pertain to female characters in this novel? Why is this something that needs to be discussed?
There are restrictions that women face in the culture that I’m from, and the religion that I’m from, that men don’t. So as a result, Beenish faces different challenges than Arsalan faces, and her mother has lived a very different life because she chose to break the mold and be an actress and take part in activities that at the time were taboo. It’s important to address because it’s an issue that is changing, which people have different ideas about as they are growing up.
But the thing is, these things take time to change. My mother’s generation still views professional dancers a certain way, whereas nowadays maybe we don’t care. How much of that baggage are we going to carry around? I think that is a question that can only be answered if you recognize that the baggage is there. I think it’s an important discussion to have, so it’s definitely part of the book and is actually a theme in all of my books to some extent. There are cultures which value community more than the individual and cultures that value the individual more than the community; it’s a spectrum that can go both ways. That tension is central, so when you take a culture that is more community-driven and bring it to a country which is more individualistic, there’s a necessary tension there that is important to explore.
Beenish is a loud, free spirit who speaks her mind and I love her! When she is not dancing, tell me what you think she’s listening to on her phone.
I am always hesitant to speculate about things characters haven’t told me, but I will say this: in the text there is a hint. She mentions Blackpink randomly. I think K-Pop would really appeal to Beenish. Specifically the song “Signal by Twice.”
Visibility can be powerful for students who are struggling with the intersections of identity. What is one thing you hope students discover about themselves, each other, and the world after reading this novel?
I think the most interesting character to talk about here is Diamond. He meets Arsalan and says, “We are both Muslims so we should get along fine.” It turns out they are different kinds of Muslims and they don’t have the same idea of religion at all, but they do become friends. There are times when they try to understand each other and their perspective, but they don’t ever disapprove of or dismiss the other perspective. They have respect for each other. I think an important thing within visibility and diversity is to realize that just because you share an identity with someone doesn’t mean that their experiences and your experiences are always going to be the same. There can be valid experiences within the same identity that are very divergent, but as long as we have respect for the divergence and we can understand each other and not judge each other, which is what despite all odds these two manage to do, I think you can get a friendship out of that.
Is there any question I did not ask, but you’d love to answer?
The idea of representation is fascinating. I think we need to think about representation in terms of visibility because capturing a human being’s essence or a human being’s experience is not going to happen. No author is going to be able to represent “Islam” when you may have a 90-year-old guy in Pakistan and a teenager in San Diego who are going to have very different points of view and experiences of the religion.
I think we need to give authors a little bit of a break. I don’t read my own book reviews, but I do read the book reviews of others and sometimes I look at these reviews and I think readers expected them to give something that they can’t give, which is the idea that we are supposed to somehow validate our experiences or prove that we are different than what the media portrays and that we are valid and good. All of my work assumes that we are valid and it’s not designed to do anything but tell a story and entertain.
I think this is something that’s important when it comes to representation, that people need to relax or change their expectations a little bit. The diversity within diversity is important and we should have some respect for that. Representation is different from modeling. Sometimes what people expect is for us to model our culture and religion for the outside gaze, and I’m not interested in the external gaze. I’m interested in inviting people in and having them be a part of the experience that my characters are having. The truth is, the reason art works is because human beings have common experiences and shared desires that run through us no matter where we come from.
What’s next? The young adult world always needs more Syed Masood!
I am currently writing an adult thriller. I am trying different things. I try not to write in the same genre because I feel like it’s a little bit like a relationship, you’re still in love with your ex and then you’re trying to rebound and go date this other book, but it’s not going to happen because you’re always comparing the two. I found that if you switch genres your brain doesn’t do that. So I switched back and haven’t planned my next YA move.
Syed M. Masood is the author of More Than Just a Pretty Face and The Bad Muslim Discount. He grew up in Karachi, Pakistan, and now lives with his wife and children in Sacramento, California, where he is a practicing attorney. He invites you to visit him online at syed-masood.com and @syedmmasood.
Gianna Macchia is a Milwaukee-based educator and high school literacy coach. She believes reading cultivates empathy, and the more educators can encourage students to read, write, think, and discuss outside of their own perspective, the more they can contribute to building a more accepting, socially aware world. She thinks we should never doubt the power of representation and visibility, especially for adolescent youth. When Gianna isn’t engrossed in YA books, she and her wife enjoy traveling, live music, hiking, cooking, and snuggling their pets Gatsby, Atticus, and Huckleberry, the literary brothers from different mothers.