Kerry Winfrey
April 10, 2015 6:29 am

Cancel all your obligations and plan on staying up all night: if you start Aisha Saeed’s Written in the Stars, you won’t be able to focus on anything else until you’ve finished it. It’s a totally compelling and horrifying look at a topic that definitely isn’t written about often in YA: forced marriage.

Naila’s parents have always been super strict, but their number one rule? No dating. Ever. Naila’s parents believe that they can choose the best husband for Naila, which presents a problem when she falls for her high school classmate Saif. When Naila sneaks out to go to prom with him, her parents don’t just get mad. They pull her out of school and take her on a trip to visit their extended family in Pakistan. At first, Naila thinks the trip is just an inconveniently-timed vacation. But as the visit stretches on, she realizes that her parents have other plans for her. They’ve found a husband for her in Pakistan, and they’re going to make sure she marries him no matter what. Naila finds herself living in a nightmare that she can’t wake up from.

Written in the Stars in the kind of book you won’t be able to stop thinking about. Aisha Saeed was nice enough to talk to me about the book and We Need Diverse Books, an organization that advocates for diversity in publishing (seriously, if you don’t understand why diversity in children’s lit is so important, check out the video What Authors Are Saying about Why We Need Diverse Books). We talked about her high school experience, writing advice, and what drew her to writing about forced marriage.

Q: Can you tell us what you were like in high school? Were you anything like Naila?

A: Naila and I have a lot in common when it comes to our high school experience. Like Naila, I grew up in a fairly strict Pakistani American household. I was not allowed to go to after-school activities with my school friends and I most definitely was not allowed to have a boyfriend. While Naila’s story veers into a very tragic direction as the novel progresses, her upbringing and the beginning glimpses into her life mirror my own high school experience in many ways.

Q: Forced marriage definitely isn’t a topic I’ve come across in YA…or any book, for that matter. What drew you to writing about this subject?

A: Growing up I had some friends who were pressured and coerced into marriages they did not want to enter into. While none of my friends had a situation as extreme as Naila’s, they grew up believing they had no choice but to accept whomever their parents selected for them. Because many of my friends were just teenagers when they were engaged to people they barely knew (one of my friends was only 14), I wanted to write a novel for a YA audience. I hope that Written in the Stars will open doors to new issues people haven’t considered, and I also hope it will reach someone who may be dealing with or who is at risk for exactly what Naila went through.

Q: Written in the Stars had such an intense plot. Did you know what was going to happen when you started writing, or did you figure it out as you went along?

A:Normally I plot out my novels in advance but the character of Naila truly spoke to me. I sketched out her character and as I did the story began to reveal itself all on its own. I wrote it from chapter one and kept on going letting the story tell me where it would go next. It was a little nerve wracking to write like this, not knowing what was going to happen (would Naila escape her impending nuptials or would she get caught?). It was definitely not something I’m used to doing but it was an interesting and exhilarating experience!

Q: You’re one of the people behind the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign, which blew past its fundraising goals last year. What sort of progress has WNDB made since then? Also, what can the average reader to do support diversity in YA?

A: The support for WNDB has been incredible! I am so grateful to each and every person who has been there for the campaign and helped us to make the initiatives, from funding grants for unpublished writers to bringing diverse authors to Title I schools, possible. You can read more about what WNDB has been up to and our initiatives in our 2014 annual report, which just went live recently.

If you want to support diversity in YA, the most powerful thing you can do is buy the diverse books that are out there in the marketplace. There is a common misconception that diverse books don’t sell, and by purchasing diverse books we defeat that notion. You can also request diverse titles at your library and ask them to buy them for their collections (it’s very easy to do and libraries love getting new recommendations from patrons). And finally, if you read a book and love it, sing it from the rooftops! Write a review, tell your friends, tell your family—word of mouth is so important for books! Every little bit helps!

Q: What advice do you have for HelloGiggles readers who want to be (or are) writers?

A: Don’t worry too much about what is selling and isn’t selling at bookstores, and definitely don’t research trends too much. Write the stories you want to read and what you don’t see out there, because those are the stories the world needs to hear. Also remember that it is an exceedingly rare author [if such an author even exists] who has never been rejected. Rejection is part and parcel of being a writer. Don’t let it scare you off. Keep on going and keep on trying and don’t let self-doubt eat away your creative self.

Q: The most important question I ask everyone: if you could only eat one food for the rest of your life, what would it be?

A: This one is easy! Pho! It’s a Vietnamese dish of noodles, broth, herbs, meat, and a hint of lemon, and easily the best dish I ever had! Warm and nutritious and absolutely delicious. If my family would only let me, this would be dinner every day!

HUGE thanks to Aisha for taking time out of her busy to schedule to talk to HelloGiggles! You can find Written in the Stars on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Indiebound.

Have suggestions for books and authors I should feature in Young Adult Education? I’d love to hear from you! Leave a comment, find me on Twitter @KerryAnn, or send me an email at youngadulteducation@gmail.com.

(Image via Twitter)

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