Aisha Saeed’s fiction has always revolved around social issues and girls who fight for their rights. Her 2015 debut novel “Written in the Stars” was a moving story about an American-born teen who was coerced into marriage during a family trip to Pakistan and her new middle-grade novel follows a young girl who is determined to get an education at all costs.
When we meet Amal, she is inside the place she always feels happiest — the small schoolhouse that serves her village. Amal’s dream in life is to become a teacher, but she worries she’ll never be able to do so because she is constantly required to miss school to take care of her young siblings. Things suddenly get much worse when Amal accidentally insults Jawad Khan, the largest landowner in the village. As punishment, she is forced to leave her family and work as an indentured servant on the Khan estate. It’s there that Amal begins to uncover the extent of the corruption in her village.
We got to chat with Saeed shortly before it was announced her book hit the New York Times Best Seller List. Here are her thoughts on what it is like writing about heavy social issues for a younger audience and how we can celebrate the girls fighting against injustice around the world.
The Teal Mango: I thought the cover of ‘Amal Unbound’ was perfect for this story.
Aisha Saeed: Thank you so much. I had nothing to do with the cover, it was done by a Pakistani artist named Shehzil Malik. I believe they found her through Instagram, that’s my understanding. And that’s so amazing how social media connected her to us. She read the book and did a couple of mock ups and that’s the one we unanimously agreed on.
TTM: How did you get the idea for the concept behind “Amal Unbound”?
AS: I started writing it in 2011 and I knew that I wanted to write a story about this girl. I saw this girl in my mind’s eye, before I knew this plot or before anything else came to me and I knew I wanted to write about her and follow what she goes through.
I knew I wanted to set it in Pakistan because I just feel like there are so many negative perceptions and misconceptions. I wanted to write a story that shed a light. I mean, it couldn’t be a fully rosy story, because there has to be problems for it to be an interesting novel but I also wanted to show other side of this community that people often don’t see.
Then in 2012, I was following what happened to Malala in the more tribal regions of Pakistan. I just started thinking about, yes, she’s so brave and everyone is commenting on that but she’s not an anomaly necessarily. She’s one of the many brave people around the world, and she says that herself. So I said, ‘let me write a story about a girl from Pakistan, she does something brave and she has to be resilient and resist. She’s never going to get her name in a headline, but the work she does is still important.’
TTM: There is this perception it seems that young Muslim girls don’t have a voice. But you’ve been clear in both of your books that girls have always used the power that they do have to fight for their rights.
AS: Exactly. I hope that narrative is changing as more and more Muslim authors make their way into the landscape and we can write our own narrative. So I hope that is changing, but there used to be this whole concept of ‘we need to save them, they can’t help themselves.’ But we can save ourselves and tell our own stories.
TTM: How familiar were you with life in Pakistani villages before writing this? How did you research the scenes in her school and her time as a servant?
AS: The setting for ‘Amal Unbound’ is very personal to me because it is set in a Punjabi village and that is where my ancestral roots are. That’s where my grandparents lived their whole lives and that’s where my parents grew up until they moved to the United States. So our roots go back for centuries in the villages of Pakistan.
My childhood memories were all about summer trips to those villages. That’s why in ‘Written in the Stars’ when Naila goes back to Pakistan that’s also where she goes. Because that’s where I have the most connections to.
Because I live here in the United States, I do have to do a lot of research and I do have a lot of sensitivity readers, who include some of my relatives who still live in Pakistan or recently moved from there. They would read the draft and make sure that everything would match up to what life is like in a contemporary Pakistani village.
TTM: That’s so interesting. What was it like having your relatives read the early versions of this story?
AS: It was really sweet of them to read it and to take the time to talk about it. Luckily I did get it right for the most part. But it is interesting because issues like patriarchy and other issues are things my relatives have had to deal with in a deeper way than I have growing up in the United States. They were very moved by those parts particularly.
TTM: Amal just goes through so much in this book. When her mother has a difficult pregnancy, she basically starts running the household. Your work has always incorporated social issues, why do you think you are drawn to those topics?
AS: I never really set out to tackle social issues per say. I didn’t set out to write a story about indentured servitude, I wanted to tell the story of Amal. As I begin writing, the story kind of tells me what it wants it to be. I am really proud of Amal Unbound because it is also about patriarchy and it is also about hoping when there’s no reason to hope any more. It’s about being the one person to take on something and to be brave.
TTM: What were the challenges about writing about these issues for a young audience?
AS: Writing for a middle-grade audience definitely required a lot of care. Because you want to be honest and tell the truth, but you also don’t want to scare them or make it so dark that they don’t want to read it. You want to be able to tell the story and also make it accessible.
That’s why I wrote in the author’s note that while what Amal goes through could conceivably happen, most people will have it much worse than her. Most people will not have a happy ending. I wanted to make sure that in the author’s note that I kept it real that what Amal goes through is a best case scenario.
TTM: As you are talking to kids during school visits, what are you hearing are their takeaways from Amal’s story?
The book just came out, so a lot of the kids haven’t read it yet. But when I do talk about it, fourth and fifth graders are just so different and so adorable. They just get very moved. During those school visits they were just sensitive to the fact that Amal had to sacrifice and give up so much because she was the eldest. A lot of the kids who were the oldest in their families could relate to that. They’d say things like ‘my mom makes me do this or she won’t take my side because a baby is a baby and you are big.’
TTM: When you were researching indentured servitude, what stood out to you the most?
AS: One thing that I learned is that it is happening universally, even here in the United States. There’s a book called ‘Hidden Girl: The True Story of a Modern-Day Child Slave’ by Shyima Hall and it was about a girl from Egypt who was an indentured servant for a family while she lived her. It is a very wide issue. The other day I did a school visit and I was talking about indentured servitude and a woman who was originally from Haiti was one of the teachers. Afterwards, she said, ‘I’m so glad you are talking about this, because this is a huge problem in Haiti.’ So it’s not specific to Pakistan, this story can be extrapolated to other countries.