Author Interview: Karuna Riazi

Karuna Riazi is a born and raised New Yorker, with a loving, large extended family and the rather trying experience of being the eldest sibling in her particular clan. Besides pursuing a BA in English literature from Hofstra University, she is an online diversity advocate, blogger, and publishing intern. Karuna is fond of tea, Korean dramas, writing about tough girls forging their own paths toward their destinies, and baking new delectable treats for friends and family to relish. The Gauntlet (S&S/Salaam Reads, March 28, 2017) is her debut.

  1. First of all, assalaam wa alaikum. Second, congratulations on your upcoming debut novel, The Gauntlet, in bookstores everywhere on the 28th of March. Now that we have that out of the way, let’s talk kidlit. I know you have talked about this extensively before but for the sake of a new audience, what does it mean for you to be a Muslim writer writing children’s lit with Muslim protagonists?

It means everything, which I know is a bit of a cop-out answer, but I’m having a great deal trying to encompass all that is. It definitely feels like an important responsibility; after all, you have to consider the fact that our representation at the moment within kidlit can fit comfortably in one bookcase, how a teeming and indescribably diverse faith like Islam is continuously fitted within one ill-cast script thanks to the efforts of the media and external voices, and how delicately even a Muslim author has to tread considering our position in the world.

With all that in mind, it does weigh on you and make you worry whether or not you are doing the right thing, if you are presenting yourself as the only accurate voice without consideration for the intersections with race, for instance, or orientation or disability – I honestly think sometimes community disapproval is more daunting than even reception from the dominant voice, because you’re worried about disappointment and inflicting hurt on wounds you bear yourself, or contributing to further erasure.

So, important responsibility, but also an incredible, almost impertinent joy: I’m here. I’m writing my stories and the stories of my people. Whether you like it or not, I am here and I will play a different key over the insistent monotone of your own attempt to present me. I am here and I will do my best to make sure that readers like me, growing up in this climate of hatred and dismissal as I did, will have a glimpse of themselves in the mirror, if not a well-formed, complete, perfect reflection.

 

  1. What are some of the most disheartening obstacles you have faced in your journey to becoming an author? On the flip side, what are the most positive experiences you have had?

I think I may be my biggest obstacle, in that I am often so desperate to be liked, to be profound, to be deeply understood (and of course, my issues with depression and anxiety so often translating into intense self-deprecation and hatred of my words that continues to persist to this day), and that often led me toward people who did not actually appreciate me or who I was and often actively sabotaged me, without being overly dramatic. In my early days within the community, I did not have good, supportive friends who were willing to assure me that I was not behind or a failure for not being published by nineteen (and oh, on my twentieth birthday, I cried so hard because I felt every inch a failure with several trunked manuscripts and no agent to show for them) and I particularly didn’t have enough people of color around me to point out the obvious: this business is hard for us, this business is often built in ways that we cannot work through without supporting each other, and there are aspects of this business that are entirely unfair and need to be challenged.

The most positive experiences I’ve had really occurred when I realized that there were people around me who I wanted to be my people – and who, wonderfully, thankfully, became my people. I remember one night when my friend and critique partner (who, of course you know), author Axie Oh, was up with me around eleven at night repairing my resume after another former friend had given me inaccurate advice on how to present it, and how when that resume was accepted by my former employer for my literary agency internship, I cried – not just for that success, but because I didn’t realize before what it felt like to have a friend in the community who really put her all into making sure I succeeded and was genuinely happy when I found a position.

Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my “online big sisters,” my friends I had before that did stay with me and urged me on as I switched tracks from online writing and fanfiction to serious YA aspirations, but neither of them were in the YA community the way that the people who became my people were, and are.

In particular, having incredible, powerful marginalized folks as my mentors, my friends and confidantes, really made a difference in my putting my foot forward and stepping through doors, from Elsie Chapman patiently exchanging sweet e-mails with me through high school and telling me not to give up on my words, to Ellen Oh and Aisha Saeed nudging me into joining the initial We Need Diverse Books team, to Sona Charaipotra smiling at me during that first BookCon and telling me that she and Dhonielle thought I would make a wonderful intern and a future Cake Literary writer if I was interested, to my editor Zareen Jaffery’s humbling card a few months before the book I would work on her was announced, telling me my presence as another Muslim woman in publishing encouraged her to continue working for change.

I would not be where I am, who I am, without these people in front of me lighting the way, or nudging me forward and saying, “Go and do this. Don’t self-reject. Take the chance.” Because of them, I submitted a sample to Cake Literary and didn’t think much would come of it, but I did it. Because of them, I tossed out a hashtag I was fairly sure wouldn’t make it outside the online kidlit circles. Because of them, I’ve attended events like Kweli and made it multiple times to Book Expo and now I’m going to be published. Even the names I’ve mentioned are just the tip of the iceberg, but…really, finding your people. It makes such a difference.

  1. How does your drive as a social activist translate into your writing?

I think my work as an activist mainly has helped me open up my voice, if that makes sense. It definitely does give me more anxiety about the reception of my voice, and painfully aware of eyes on me as I try to parse out my thoughts, but it has made me less likely to bite my tongue when, say, figuring out the right way to approach an issue I feel is crucial and must be expressed honestly for the sake of representation and readers being able to feel understood and seen.

Of course, I also feel very strongly about representation across the board – not merely for Muslims, and of course, a great deal of Muslims inhabit many intersections of marginalization and that should never been ignored – and I would hope that reflects in my writing now and in the future. I am always trying to figure out how to accurately portray the world around me, and I think that will be a lifelong process.

I’ve had to do a lot of unpacking to dismiss the automatic, taught instinct of “white is the default.” Logically, that is not true, and has never been true, but it is hard to tell yourself that after years of literally dissolving in tears when urged to write a Muslim character (as I was by my mother many years before either of us could have considered The Gauntlet or its reception) because I didn’t feel that our stories, ourselves as we truly were, were important, or that our voices could be heard over the overarching narrative the dominant wove around us, confined us within.

Nowadays, for me, dreaming up a future idea with a brown character, a biracial character, a Muslim character, at the forefront, is a gift I never could have imagined before. But it took a lot of work and that is why I am always hoping my writing will encourage others to perceive the beauty and truth of their experiences and reject the idea that they are not preferable or important or believable.

I’m more likely now, as compared to when I was a teen and first starting out and considering my career, to really question an idea and the results and consequences from presenting it, whether or not it will consider eyes from a certain background or culture in order to be accurate – and I always, always worry about inflicting harm on others, and do my best to remain aware of the right steps to avoid doing that.

 

  1. It is widely accepted that kids learn to assimilate culture through the literature they consume in their formative years. Keeping this in mind, what kind of books did you consume as a child? Do you think they had any effect on the way you view the world as an adult?

I read a lot of fantasy that, now that I look back, was not 100% perfect in regards to representation or understanding of every experience, but had deep roots in terms of owning your strengths, trusting your friends and being ready to bite a man’s head off if he questioned your worth. I always particularly point back to Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted, which so moved me when I read it in fourth grade that I found my mother and narrated the entire story back to her, complete with elaborate hand movements and vocal changes. (I was still being homeschooled at that point so I received an A for a performed book report, which was icing on top of the cake.)

Of course, later on, there was also Howl’s Moving Castle, which I read twice in the same day and later followed up with whatever of Diana Wynne Jones’ unapologetically witchy, witty voice could offer. There was also Narnia and plenty of Lloyd Alexander’s works and plenty of book fair paperbacks and tradable series, but the works that always, always come back to mind are the ones that really come back up as flavor in my ideas and my voice: the ones that say, “Hey, my power may be hidden and I may be unsure how to wield it now, but beware, because it is there.”

And, obviously, I think the fact that I so loved heroines whose worth wasn’t always acknowledged right away or seen by the people around them also speaks to the experience of growing up in post-9/11 as a biracial Muslim girl, constantly feeling held back and tangled up in misconceptions and stereotypes from a very young age. It’s definitely helped me now as I try to unpack my experiences and how they’ve affected me and translate them on paper.

  1. What kind of characteristics do you make sure to imbue your protagonists with? I realize that this is a rather ambiguous question so let’s focus on The Gauntlet, what kind of characteristics did you consciously choose for your protagonists?

I will just, really, focus on Farah, because at first the idea of writing a middle school-aged Muslim girl was rather daunting for me as someone who has more recent memories of high school. What grounded me, to begin with, was looking at my two beautiful young cousins who are Farah’s age and are very brave, opinionated and intelligent in their own ways. (One of them is actually reading The Gauntlet for the first time, right now, which is quite daunting and frightening and I’m trying not to think about it too deeply.)

I learned an exercise where you find values that you appreciate and try to figure out how that translates into real life circumstances and experience. Well, Farah is a follow-the-rules, color in the lines sort of girl. She’s smart, she’s sincere, and she’s also a bit exasperated with the fact that even though she follows said rules, she often has to give over and buy into whatever her brother Ahmad wants. So you have this girl who feels like there are lines you don’t cross but is already used to crossing them for the sake of her family – and from there, I just started exploring the ways in which this would make Farah tick. A lot of her does come from my cousins in certain ways (she appreciates pretty shalawar kameez sets, she’s actually pretty proud of her brother, and of course, she’s fond of board games) but I think her prickly moments and big sister anxiety can probably be blamed on me.

Moving from The Gauntlet, I think my YA projects have a certain groove by now where the characteristics of the heroines in particular fall: they are girls who are unsure of the abilities they have, often don’t feel like they fit in with their family or their peers or even their world and want to find ways to settle in appropriately and stop feeling like a shoe on the wrong foot, they are curious and often clever when even they least expect it and they carve out their own happily-ever-afters without depending on others to tell them what parameters those happily-ever-afters must involve.

(They also tend to like tea, which is why I’m particularly trying to be conscious that they don’t come out of the same mold every single time and have spirit of their own – which I actually feel, at least this moment, they do.)

  1. Tell us about your writing processes.

My writing process is literally a work in progress. I feel like it is beachcombing on a hot summer day: sun-scorched and scalded, sand between your toes and inching its way into the fine-set fence of your teeth, sometimes stumbling upon a shell that you have to keep turning between your fingers because it’s just so unexpectedly perfect, and more often than not tripping over someone else’s immaculate sand castle and wishing you had that much talent and didn’t have to slough about in damp pants being pinched by grouchy crabs.

What works for one manuscript does not seem to be reliable for the next. All that seems to be grounded is this: if you type words, eventually you will get a full manuscript and have the pleasure of typing THE END. Outlining helped immensely for The Gauntlet, and I thought it was at first for the current WiP, but…maybe not as much as I’d hoped. I continue to hold out with that futile, shared desire for one magical formula that I’ll be able to peck into my computer, with given variables (and of course, some mysterious clause that makes me write as beautifully as Laini Taylor or Nova Ren Suma) and blissfully follow along with its instructions to create an immaculate draft.

For now, I weep tears of blood and write sudden revelations in the margins of my notebooks at school when I should be deciphering Chaucer.

(Since I sound entirely too maudlin here and should offer some semblance of craft: I do need a playlist, particularly a theme, to write to, and I am a Pinterest fiend. Those definitely ground me when I’m groping my way toward a proper, full-formed draft. I think what especially helped with The Gauntlet was the sense of constant, never sleeping accountability: I had eyes on every step of the process, hands reaching out to take things from me before I could go Gollum over them and obsess over every little flaw and misstep and flat love interest, which you can never inflate as easily as a tire.

Everything else, though, is in the air. And so, I continue to weep.)

  1. What do you hope readers will walk away with after reading The Gauntlet?

I want them to walk away with a sense of hope and grounding. The world is so sharp-edged and vicious and wrathful right now. I feel like there are so many children who are being continuously taught that there is no home to welcome them, no hand that will readily form a comforting shield around the flickering flame of their faith or identity, no means for them to claim the very earth under their feet. If anything, I want The Gauntlet to prove those lies wrong. They matter. They matter in real life and they matter in fiction. They are beautiful and wondrous and brave and smart and talented. They love their families fiercely and they bring so much good to this world and that matters. That always matters. I want The Gauntlet to be a home for them, to remind them of exactly who they are and how they are seen.

And for those who might not necessarily live with these fears and apprehensions, I want them to be able to feel love and appreciation and admiration for those around them. I want them to grow up and be part of a generation that continues to build welcoming, inclusive houses in this world and in the realm of fiction, with lights in the windows to guide others there and greet them, who do not take differences and Otherness as a reason to dismiss or degrade or hate.

  1. And finally, what other works are you busy with and that we should anticipate from you?

I am working on a few anthology stories! Two are not announced yet, but I can say one is for the upcoming “Toil and Trouble” collection headed by the marvelous duo of Tess Sharpe and Jessica Spotswood and it’s hopefully going to be fun, very feminist and with a very happy ending!

I have no updates on my work with Cake right now beyond The Gauntlet’s release but on my own front, I’m working intensely (read: weeping more of those previously mentioned tears of blood and researching intensely romantic poetry) on a YA magical realism that I’ve been mentioning on Twitter as #GreenWickMagic and which has a Muslim heroine and a Muslim love interest so that I can hopefully seek representation and continue to build homes in fiction and sell great stories!