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The Impossible Is Real: I Have A Book Deal!

Six months ago, I could not have imagined this moment.

Five months ago, I sent a tweet into the world about my book, SWIMMING LESSONS, and my indefatigable agent, Eric Smith, liked it. A few days later, he offered rep.

That was improbable enough.

We went out on sub. Anxiety dreams and much pastry eating commenced.

Then, Eric called me, and told me unicorns were real. There was a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow…

Daniel Ehrenhaft at SoHo Teen (an imprint of SoHo Press) was interested in my book.

The world came to a stop. And the star I wished upon long ago, alighted in my trembling hands.

Seven years back I had an idea for a book. About a girl, like other girls. With dreams and ambitions and fears and a love-hate relationship with makeup. Living in an American town. An idyllic suburb, until it’s rocked by a wave of Islamophobia.

I started writing then stopped, then started, then had a baby. Then wrote again and put the manuscript in a drawer. Had another baby. Wrote some more. Then, the drawer again, because life. After a long, hard stare-down with the manuscript, I decided to give it the ‘ole college try. This is what that looks like (sorry trees):

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SWIMMING LESSONS is going to exist, in the real world, beyond my imagination and my hard drive. One day a brown skinned kid with a funny name will walk into a bookstore, find my book on a shelf, and see a glimpse of themselves and know they are beautiful and wanted. One day a teenager who looks nothing like me will go to a library and pick up this book and find a brown girl, a Muslim girl, with feelings that could be their feelings in a world that they share.

My heart is full. And there are many, many people to thank, but let me begin with these…

This moment would not exist without my phenomenal agent, Eric Smith at P.S. Literary, who has given this book nothing but love and support and tears. #TeamRocks forever.

Huge thanks to Daniel Ehrenhaft, already my favorite editor in the world, and the entire team at SoHo Teen for believing in this story.

My eternal gratitude to my husband, whose brilliant light shines for me, in the darkest places, when all other lights have gone out.

And now, I believe I have work to do.

 

 

 

 

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Crafting Beauty: F. Scott Fitzgerald & Gatsby

 

For my 40th Birthday (dear reader, I won’t even tell you how long ago that was). My husband gifted me a first edition of The Great Gatsby.

I died.

Then I revived myself because, Hello! My husband is amazing and he got me a first edition, first printing of The Great Gatsby. There’s even mistakes that Fitzgerald corrected for the next printing. I feel a tiny spark of joy knowing this, because much of the brilliance of The Great Gatsby is about craft.

For me, The Great Gatsby is one of the most finely crafted novels of the American 20th Century. It has its problems, but it also has lyrical sentences like this one in Chapter 3: “In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.”

Here are those words in the earliest surviving draft of Gatsby (from 1924), in Fitzgerald’s handwriting, housed at the Princeton University Library 

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Virtually flipping through the manuscript is like opening a tiny door into the mind of the writer at work– the words that he changed and changed again, notes to himself, notes on the galley, passages he saved.

There are only 2 pages remaining from what is thought to be the very first draft of Gatsby– pages he sent to Willa Cather and now referred to as the Ur-Gatsby. In the first draft, Daisy Buchanan was called Ada and Nick was called Dudley, Dud for short.

Good revision, Mr. Fitzgerald.

I love these pages so much– a creator in the act of creating, a moment frozen in time.

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He sent these to Willa Cather because he feared the description of Ada was too similar to one of hers. He was asking for her blessing and she gave it.

Two circled passages marked “SAVE” were revised as one for the final version of Gatsby:

“I looked back at my cousin, who began to ask me questions in her low, thrilling voice. It was the kind of voice that the ear follows up and down, as if each speech is an arrangement of notes that will never be played again. Her face was sad and lovely with bright things in it, bright eyes and a bright passionate mouth, but there was an excitement in her voice that men who had cared for her found difficult to forget: a singing compulsion, a whispered ‘Listen,’ a promise that she had done gay, exciting things just a while since and that there were gay, exciting things hovering in the next hour.” (Ch 1)

Fitzgerald agonized over words and his horrible spelling. Fitzgerald heavily revised the galleys in late 1924 and early 1925. He sent revisions to his publisher until the last possible moment, and even later, asking for (yet another) title change after the book had gone to press. Gatsby was published in 1925.

When I first looked at the pages that Fitzgerald sent to Cather, I was astonished to see that the earliest version of Gatsby was written in third person. The final is written from the first person POV of Nick, Fitzgerald’s unreliable and morally confused and besotted narrator. I’d studied Gatsby; I’d taught it. Nowhere else had I read about this sweeping change that Fitzgerald made that gave us Nick’s first person narration, the essence of the novel. And I’m so curious about what prompted Fitzgerald to make such a major change. How did his vision change from those earliest pages to the final? Was it a spark or a deliberation? What I do know, is that it was brilliant, because it’s impossible to imagine the novel written from any other POV.

There is an art to writing, but also craft. Honing that craft to its sharpest point is perhaps the ultimate test for the writer. The soul-crunching work of a career, of a lifetime. The proof that hints at greatness.

Fitzgerald died at the age of 44 believing himself a failure and a hack. But to glance into his revisions is to step into a mystery, to witness grace and alchemy, a writer’s obsession for language and story. And it is inspiriting.

The work endures.

 

 

 

#OwnYourOwn Dreams

 

#OwnYourOwn a hashtag to encourage and inspire marginalized voices was started by the ever-amazing @gildedspine who hosted a Twitter dialogue on June 20th. Look for other blog entries this week; here’s my contribution.

 

Writers are a dreamy.

We talk a lot about dreams. Dreams of a creative life. A writing life. Dreams of seeing our books published book in our favorite bookstores. Dreams of cover reveals and book birthdays. Dreams of Hollywood deals and of telling our stories and of changing the world with our words. Even a small corner of it. Even our community.

Dreams are Good. Capital Good.

They spark revolutions.

They light fires.

They burn down demagogues.

Dreams allow us to reach beyond ourselves, break the bonds of gravity. Stretch our minds and spirits to the stars.

But here’s the trouble with dreams, especially for marginalized voices. Sometimes those dreams crash head-on into reality.

Bang, face-first into the real world where the characters in the books on those shelves at your beloved bookstore, more often than not, don’t look like you. Where the face of the princess isn’t your face. Where, of course, the superhero can’t be you—doesn’t have your name, your hair, your orientation, your religion, your disability, your “otherness.” And the love interest? Keep looking.

And this is when you’re faced with a choice. This is where the road splits and you decide if you’re going to walk down a different path, find a surer thing. Or if you’re going to wield your ambition like a machete and strike down the twisted, thorny branches that tangle your path. You may get cut; you may bleed. And the end of the path might not be what you expect or what you want. Time to screw your courage to the sticking place and take the first step.

But here’s the other thing people don’t always tell you: dreams don’t have an expiration date.

Maybe the road less traveled isn’t the one you can take today. Maybe you’re not ready. Maybe you need to do more homework. Maybe you need to take a step back and breathe and listen to the voices all around that are there to lift you up if you turn your ear to them. Maybe you need to take a step back and listen to the voice inside yourself. All of that is okay. Be deliberate. That’s part of your journey.

Perhaps you will write the Great American Novel when you’re 20 and find the dream agent and find the publishing house and be the “overnight “success. Maybe it happens when you’re 30. Maybe when you’re, ahem, older. Your path might be long and winding and other ambitions might prolong the fruition of your Dream. And that is all okay, too.

Sometimes the book of your heart rests on the tip of your tongue and the pads of your fingertips. Sometimes, it lies deeper.

And either way, that dream requires work. And more work. Sometimes it’s work just to keep the dream alive in your imagination when you’re slogging through what life throws at you. And sometimes it’s facing the reality that the writing isn’t good enough, not yet. But you can get it there. That might require blood and sweat and tears. And years. And sometimes the dream seems so close, yet elusive, just beyond your grasp.

Reach further.

Extend yourself.

Be defiant.

Exhaust the possibilities so that you can face the future with no regrets.

In other words, do the work.

Rilke called love the work for which all other work is but preparation.

Writing is Love. Writing may well be one of the great loves of your life. Honor that love. Hold fast to your ambitions. Stare down the odds. Be brave.

#OwnYourOwn Dreams.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That Time I Met Muhammad Ali

I’m not a fan of boxing.

Watching two humans in hand-to-hand combat, faces bloodied, noses broken. It’s just not for me.

But for a kid growing up in the 70s, Muhammad Ali loomed large. For a Muslim kid, for a brown kid living in a small town in the Midwest, he was legend and myth and superhero.

My earliest memories of Ali are amongst my earliest memories. In 1975, I was four-years old and Muhammad Ali converted to Sunni Islam. The most famous human being on the planet was Muslim. I remember the hype and my parents and their friends gathering around the old box television, bunny-eared antennae at the ready for Ali against Frazier, Norton, Spinks, and the final bruising battle against Holmes. They cheered for the victories and flinched with the blows that fell on the fading Champ. I’m not sure how one man could carry so much on his shoulders, but he was The Greatest. He could carry the world.

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Today we talk a lot about representation about the critical importance of mirrors in literature–where children can see themselves. When I was a kid, I eagerly watched Romper Room and waited, oh so patiently, for the end of every episode where the host would hold up the magic mirror and name all the children she could see out there in Televisionland: I can see Tommy and Becky and Johnny and Kathleen and Joe and Bobby and Jennifer.

She never saw me.

Ali was black. He was a man. He was an athlete. I was none of those things. But he was also, almost miraculously, a Muslim, like me. He was a brother to every Muslim on the planet. For that kid, growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, he was the magic mirror. No, he didn’t look like me, but his name was like my name. For me, that was enough. For me, that was everything.

I grew up as Ali battled Parkinson’s, as his brilliant wit and verbal sparring slowed, as he lost the spring in his step, but never the spark in his eye. With the rest of the world, I wept during the torch lighting at the Atlanta Olympics and during half-time at the men’s gold-medal basketball game when Ali received a replacement for the gold medal he’d won at the 1960 Rome Olympics. When a sly smile appeared across his face and he raised the gold medal to his lips with trembling fingers, you wanted to change the world for him. Find a cure, let him speak his poetry again.

A month later, I met him.

The Democratic Convention came to Chicago in August 1996 and through some luck, I be-friended an aide to then Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. and wound up in the Jackson family box a the United Center on the night when Bill Clinton was accepting the nomination.

Delegates swarmed the floor, cheers rose to the rafters, people kept referencing the Macarena, Ted Kennedy spoke. Jessye Norman sang with a voice surely heard in the amongst the stars.

Then as if in slow motion, the thousands of delegates crowding the floor, the thousands more in their box seats, turn, like a single body, to the Clinton box and chant, in one tremendous voice: Ali, Ali, Ali.

Muhammad Ali was in the Clinton box.

And because this happened in an age before camera phones and instant documentation, some of the moments blur into the edges of my memory.

But this moment is burned in my brain:

After Clinton accepts the nomination and the balloons fall and the confetti wafts down, the scene swirls around me and I move in a patriotic daze, jubilation thick in the air. As I exit the box and walk toward the escalator, I see a small group of very tall men gathered in a semicircle, at the center is Muhammad Ali. I squirm my way in between the members of the entourage.

Mouth agape, heart thudding in my ears. I am 5 feet away from Muhammad Ali.

His eyes scan the crowd and then he stares at me.

Muhammad Ali looks at me. He raises his right hand to point a shaky finger in my direction. His eyes widen, bursting with surprise and humor. In those eyes, I see the Ali I remember from my childhood.

I am not exactly sure what is happening because it is impossible that The Greatest is looking at me and then one of his entourage says, “He’s calling you out” and an invisible hand nudges me forward.

I stand before Muhammad Ali and manage to squeak out an, “As-salāmu ʿalaykum.” He shakes my hand; envelopes it with both of his– enormous, gentle. I look in his eyes, they are bright and fierce and he bends all the way down to my ear– a giant leaning over, his head leaving the heavens to whisper in my ear, “Waʿalaykumu s-salām. Where are you from?”

As I utter that my family is from India, two men motion him away. He looks at me once more and in an instant is gone.

Floats like a butterfly.

Childhood heroes occupy a diaphanous space in our imaginations where they exist, beyond time, un-flawed, on a pedestal. Sometimes they are best left there–the green light at the end of a dock, untouchable, immortal, unreal.

But Ali was a man who walked amongst his fellow human beings. He wasn’t the greatest because he defied his mortality, he was great because he embraced it.

Ali loved his blackness, revered his Islam, grappled with his mistakes, stood up, spoke his truth, flouted his haters, fell from the heights and rose up, higher. And higher, still.

Black. Muslim. American. Legend.

Rest in Peace.

Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un

 

The Things They Carry: What Muslim YA Needs

High school Junior, Khalil, carries letters from a girl named Ayesha. They aren’t love letters, not exactly. But Khalil hopes, so he carries them, perfectly folded in the bottom of his backpack. Some late afternoons, as he sits on his porch, drinking his mother’s iced tea, he takes them out and reads them in the fading light of the magic hour. Sixteen-year-old Hina carries her hunger, lightly. It’s almost time to break her fast and she imagines her mother’s samosas and tamarind chutney and the perfect pink-milky coolness of Faluda slaking her parched throat. Zainab carries her poems in her head and her wishes that her parents will be happy that she wants to study English at college and not medicine. The sight of blood makes her woozy, but she still holds the burden of her parents’ dreams on her shoulders. Noah carries a smile so charming, it melts all the hearts. And that’s why he is the Homecoming King.

The things they carry are often a function of necessity. Sumaya carries her defenses, all of them, on her sleeve. So that every time she is asked, “Why does Islam hate the West?” She is armed with a smirk and a smart answer. Adam schleps the echoing taunts of the kids on playground, “Rag Head, Rag Head, Rag Head.” On his last trip to the airport, he was stopped by TSA for a “random” search and was asked what country he was from. He’s from America. And his passport says so. Ingrid carries her hijab, tucked behind her ears and knotted at the base of her neck. She rocks a new one, daily, coordinated with her outfit. Kamal carries his brother’s dog tags around his neck. On Memorial Day, he and his family visit his brother’s grave at Arlington. The one with the crescent.

They carry the emotional baggage of being The Other. They carry the burden of America’s fear and hate. They carry the lightness and beauty of youth and hope and dreams and the infinite possibilities of a nation that endeavors to be a more perfect union.

Let them carry books that are mirrors. And doors. And windows.

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Stories of Muslim kids that fall in love and fight with their parents about college. Stories where they discover their identities. Their orientation. Stories where they try out for the basketball team. And represent their country in the Olympics. And fence. In hijab. Stories where they explore planets and lead rebellions in galaxies far, far away. And are kings and queens. And can fly. Stories where they live in the projects or in mansions or in cabins in the woods. Stories where there are Muslim bad guys, who aren’t terrorists, but plain old thieves or charlatans or high school jerks. Stories where they are the love interests. Where they are loved. Where they are known. Where they are represented for all the many, many amazing things that they are.

Stories that tell the truth. Let them carry those.

 

Inspired by: O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. New York: Penguin Books, 1991.