Fatima Farheen Mirza was born in California in 1991 and raised there. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was a Teaching-Writing Fellow. She lives in New York. A Place for Us is her first novel. Find Fatima on her Website or Twitter.
After reading the stunning debut A Place for Us – a novel about family, faith and choices, and the first book from Sarah Jessica Parker’s new imprint, SJP for Hogarth – I was lucky enough to get to speak to the author, Fatima Farheen Mirza, about her book, working with Sarah, and her favourite music.
Hearing this incredible new author speaking about her book with such passion made me love it even more, and made me even more excited for other people to read it!
How would you summarise the story in your own words for those reading this?
To me the novel is about a family that fractures when the youngest son, Amar, runs away, and it begins when he returns home. And the return home is what allows the characters to reckon with the reasons that he left and return to the memories from their childhood and past that illuminate the question to be answered: Why did he go? And what does it mean that he’s come home?
But, more than that plot level, to me what it really is about is the big loves in one’s life. The love between a father and a son, or a love between a mother and her daughter, or between siblings. I really wanted to chart those relationships; the love that exists in a family and how your family is the one that’s observed you throughout your life so they know you the best, but they’re also limited in how they know you, and that limitation is how we fail to communicate with, and hurt, one another. And it’s about how different siblings react to the same environment – how what Hadia chooses to absorb from her family impacts the way Amar moves through the world.
Where did the idea for the book come from?
The first image that came to me was an image of the wedding when the family’s gathered to take the family photograph and they’re waiting to see if the son is going to make it. So the book was written as a way to understand and arrive at that moment. How did the family reach a point where they’d be waiting to see if their son would make it at such a crucial moment in their daughter’s life?
That was the first image that came to be, but I was really interested – even before – in charting how your siblings’ personalities affect how you move through the world. One of the threads I was really interested in was how Amar feels bold and comfortable enough to carve out his own path, even if that causes sadness to his parents. And so I wondered, okay, with a sister like Hadia, how would she – in response to Amar’s personality – feel like now she has to be better to her parents, and feel like she has to be more responsible to make up for that?
Do you relate to any character more than the others?
I don’t think there’s one that I relate to more than the others. To me, it was never a matter of relating to them. When I approached them, it was just a matter of seeing if I could empathize with them and their experiences, and their logic. Even though there are some characters who, on paper, I relate to “more than others” that falls away when you’re trying to inhabit and embody the character.
A Place For Us looks at how one can assert themselves and make their own choices while still being respectful of their culture and faith. What do you feel about the relationship between living in the modern world and respecting our culture/religion?
I think that one thing that the novel arrives at, or each of the characters arrive at, is that all of these relationships, whether it’s the individual and the other people in their family, or the individual and their greater community, or the individual and their society, or the individual and their faith, each person’s relationship to these forces in their life is unique and is personal. What works even within one family, what works for Hadia does not necessarily work for Huda does not work for Amar, even though siblings are in the same family and they’ve been introduced to the same factors at the same moment in time.
So I think that what I understand based off the characters is that no one brushstroke can be applied, that everyone is so particular in these ways. If we are able to understand and acknowledge that each person’s relationship to how they navigate what they owe themselves and what they owe their family, and what they inherit in their faith, is such a unique and particular thing, I think that will lead to us being able to understand and accept one another.
So it’s ultimately about the individual.
Yeah, and the individual knows their own compass. The individual knows what their truest relationship is to all these things. And sometimes it’s so hard to act on that knowledge. Like Hadia kind of swallows it at different moments in her life and we see how her life is a little bit clipped by that; by swallowing what her true compass and desire is.
How was your experience working with Sarah Jessica Parker?
It’s been such an incredible experience working with Sarah Jessica Parker! The way that it happened was just how, you know, a book is sent out into the world through the agent and the editors respond to it, and the editor that Sarah was working with sent it along to her. But working with her this past year has been one of the most meaningful and personal experiences. I have such a deep admiration and respect for her as a person and as a publisher. She’s so genuine and big-hearted and thoughtful, and that is exactly how she embodied the role as a publisher and as a reader. Hearing her response to the book, I felt like this is the ideal reader I could have imagined for the book; somebody who really understands the heart of it and understands what it means for each of the characters. To have that engaged person be the one to bring it to the world, it’s been such a blessing and a gift for me.
That must be incredible to have someone so passionate behind your book.
Yeah, and I’m just so in awe and full of admiration for how she’s approaching fiction in general– her beliefs about the power of fiction as a way to encourage empathy in people, and as a way to open one’s eyes to the world. Because she cares so deeply about fiction, and literary fiction in particular, she’s choosing to use her voice to highlight that importance.
Do you listen to music while writing?
When I’m writing, sometimes there’s nothing better than silence to be able to really hear the music of a sentence, and sometimes there are certain songs that evoke an emotion that was really helpful when writing. But it would always change, so there’s no one set of songs that I can point to. Right now, though, my favorite favorite artist is Chance the Rapper.
And have you read any good books lately?
One book that I love a lot is coming out in August and it’s called Other People’s Love Affairs. It’s really good. It’s a short story collection by D. Wystan Owen. And I just finished reading The Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson, which is amazing. I read The Odd Woman in the City by Vivian Gornick; that was really good. Those are what I’ve been reading recently.
What’s next for you?
Right now I’m working on essays, and through the essays I will be exploring more directly or more personally some of things that I’ve been thinking about that in fiction I was unable to do because the characters really took on their own life and it became about them. So through some personal essays I want to return to different things I’m interested in and try to understand them better.
A huge huge thank you to Fatima for chatting with me and answering all my questions! And to everyone else: if you enjoy carefully-crafted novels about families, ones that explore lives and relationships in intimate detail, you can check out A Place For Us on Goodreads or Amazon.