On the eve of the recent release of “Amal Unbound,” her second novel for children, Brookhaven author Aisha Saeed, sipping a Coke Zero, seems as cool as a cucumber at La Madeleine French Bakery and Café. Her demeanor belies the chilling and potent narratives she pens about young girls who, against all odds, rally against the sociopolitical forces that disenfranchise them.
Saeed, the daughter of Pakistani immigrants, began writing as soon as she “learned how to put pencil to paper.” Local libraries in South Florida, where she was born and raised, satiated her enormous appetite for books. She and her two younger brothers would fill their arms with as many as they could carry. She devoured “The Baby-Sitter’s Club” and the “Sweet Valley High” series, but the book that made its mark on her was Irene Hunt’s “Up the Road Slowly,” which won the Newbery Award in 1967. It was also the first book she encountered that focused on the main character’s “emotional journey,” instead of the plot. “The character (in ‘Up the Road Slowly’) left an imprint on my heart,” she said.
In her early 20s, while working toward her master’s degree in education at the University of Florida, she came across Suzanne Fisher Staples’ “Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind,” a novel about a Pakistani-Muslim girl. Though the author was white, ‘Shabanu” was the first book Saeed saw with a brown character on the cover. It reminded her of the lack of Pakistani-Muslims in the books of her childhood, and motivated her to write Pakistani-American stories.”
“Written in the Stars,” her debut young adult novel, began taking shape in her imagination.
After a quick stint in Michigan, she and her husband moved to the Atlanta area. Saeed taught second grade and enrolled part time in law school at Georgia State. She graduated in 2006 and served as an Equal Justice Work Fellow at Atlanta Legal Aid for two years.
By then, Saeed knew she was ready to write the novel she’d been dreaming about and start a family. In November 2009, a few months after she left law for good, she completed the first draft of “Written in the Stars.” In May 2010, she gave birth to the first of three sons.
“Written in the Stars,” published in 2015, centers around a 17-year-old high school senior named Naila who has plans to become a doctor until her parents take her to Pakistan to visit relatives and force her into marriage. It’s loosely based on the horrific experiences of young women Saeed knew from her South Florida Pakistani-American community. “Most writers like to say they write to make sense of the world, and that was definitely true for me,” she said.
Saeed was careful to ensure she stayed true to the character and the story but avoided harmful stereotypes. “It’s a tough balance when writing about a difficult subject matter,” she said.
The courage of Malala Yousafzai — who was shot by the Taliban in 2012 for attending school in northwest Pakistan’s Swat Valley — inspired her latest book, “Amal Unbound.” “Malala often talked about being one girl out of many girls fighting for education, and I began thinking about all the other girls that never get their names in the papers who want an education.”
Twelve-year-old Amal, an aspiring school teacher living in a small Pakistani village, was created with this message in mind. Amal’s days are filled with math and poetry lessons until her mother gives birth to the family’s fifth daughter, and Amal’s father decides she must stay home from school to take care of the family. Her spirits are dashed but she never gives up hope that she will return to school someday. During a trip to the market, when Amal unintentionally offends a member of a rich local family who preys off the dire financial straits of the villagers, she’s forced to become a servant in his home.
In her Author’s Note at the end of the book, Saeed reminds readers of a sobering truth — indentured servitude is a global problem that also affects people in the United States.
Local best-selling author Becky Albertalli, most notably of “Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda,” praised her dear friend’s innate ability to empower her characters in the face of cruel circumstances. “Aisha’s characters have this spark and push back against absolutely overwhelming situations and don’t lose hope. The situations are tragic but they don’t feel like tragedies,” she said. Albertalli read “Amal Unbound” in one sitting on a flight. “Amal’s situation has specificity, but there’s something so universal about her story.”
Saeed not only writes about injustice — she speaks out against it in the real world.
In 2014, after realizing how difficult it was for authors from marginalized communities to publish and market their books, she became one of the founders of We Need Diverse Books. What began as a hashtag on Twitter has since morphed into a grass-roots nonprofit organization that addresses the lack of non-majority narratives in the publishing industry. The organization awards grants and internships and honors authors whose work features diverse characters in a meaningful way. We Need Diverse Books has started and continued a vital conversation, she said.
Since the last presidential election, Saeed has become politically active. When President Donald Trump issued an executive order to ban travelers from several majority Muslim countries, she and Albertalli, whom she affectionately calls her “Resistance Wife,” joined the protests at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Saeed also canvassed for Jon Ossoff with Albertalli in the 6th District congressional race. “As a Muslim-American,” said Saeed, “I feel like it’s hard not to be a little bit political.”
What’s next for Saeed? A picture book for her young boys, ages 8, 5 and 2, about one of their family’s favorite foods — daal. “Bilal Cooks Daal” will be published in 2019. It was the hardest book for her to write. “Writing a picture book challenged me to compress everything I wanted to say in such a small place.”
She’ll then complete another novel for middle-grade children. It’s a subgenre that seems to resonate with her most. “I’m really falling in love with it.”
By Aisha Saeed
Nancy Paulsen Books
240 pages, $17.99
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